Friday, February 6, 2015

Are You Legalistic?

Joh 9:1 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. Joh 9:2 And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Joh 9:3 Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

We might define legalism as the attempt to do something to earn God’s favor.  It has many forms and some have rightly said that we are all born legalists.  I think the very nature of sin demands that we are born legalists because sin causes us to think that we don’t need God and are capable of pleasing God on our own and that we actually deserve good things.

We tend to think of a legalist as someone who thinks they can do enough good in order to attain unto salvation or someone who thinks the Christian life is basically following rules that speak to the outward man while ignoring the inward heart.  And these are certainly examples of legalism.

My contention is that legalism remains part of who we are even after God converts us and makes us new creations.  It is very hard for us to start thinking and living by grace; instead we still want to live in a world in which we can earn God’s blessings.  To be clear, there are blessings to be had in honoring the Lord.  A home that honors the Lord as they love one another and do all for the glory of the Lord will generally have a better family life than a family that doesn’t.  (At the same time though, that home might suffer any number of afflictions.)  But that is not what I am referring to in this article.

The above text shows us an example of the legalism that the disciples lived by at that time in their lives.  Their assumption was that when bad things happened to someone it was because they had done something wrong.  Jesus’ answer very clearly exposes their mistake in thinking but unfortunately we have a very difficult time accepting this.  How often is our first thought when catastrophe comes to ask why me or why did that happen to him; he is such a “good” Christian?  Behind this is a legalistic mindset that everything that happens to us is directly connected to how well we behave.  It is the health and wealth, Joel Osteen gospel that says if we live right God will treat us better.  But it is not the gospel of grace found in the Bible it is just another destructive form of legalism.
At the heart of the problem with the disciples’ question and with us when we ask this same question when we see someone going through difficult times is that it assumes that we have not done whatever it is that they did.  It assumes we are in a better position than those that are suffering trials.  The disciples thought this poor blind man had done something they had not.  And this type of arrogance can destroy the Lord’s work and Christian love. 

We cannot look at possessions and circumstances as a spiritual score cards that indicate to everyone how spiritual you are or how much you are pleasing the Lord compared to others.  None of us please the Lord apart from his power and when we do anything that honors him we have merely done our duty.  A friend of mine recently pointed out that only Jesus ever did anything beyond what was required of him.  He alone earned the Father’s favor in and of himself.  And in his work he earned whatever favor we will have from God.  This is why grace is sometimes defined as “unmerited favor”!

To be sure sometimes the Lord chastens us for our sins and we suffer and are blessed according to how we live but it is the grossest arrogance and legalism to think that God is merely keeping a score card and doing to us as we deserve.  That would be justice and the last thing we want is justice.  What we want is mercy and grace because we would all wander away from the Lord and into gross sin unless he restrains us by his Spirit.  Are we to assume that those suffering for being a Christian or who have been martyred for the Lord have not lived as holy as those of us who are not suffering?

Hopefully what will happen to us when we stop asking why this or that happened to us or them is to be compassionate to those in need because we know that we deserve no better and that all of us experienced the grace of God while we were sinners; while we were in rebellion.  God came to us and gave us what we did not deserve when he saved us.  I am thankful that I am not receiving what I deserve because I deserve God’s wrath and it is only removed because Christ has endured it for me.  Living in a legalistic world will soon bring one to despair and cause us to elevate ourselves above our brothers and sisters instead of seeing ourselves as merely sinners saved by grace. 

I serve the Lord not in the hope of gaining something but because I already have all things in Christ!  And yet I am always fighting the tendency to think God owes me something.


  1. Amen! Such a good check list for us. Thanks, Nathan.

  2. I'm with you about 99% as to John 9.

    For me, John 9:1-4 and Luke 13:1-5 work in tandem to say that Jesus believed & taught that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason, other than the fact that we live in a fallen world. In other words, our specific sins don't necessarily cause God to punish us HERE ON EARTH. And our specific good deeds don't necessarily cause God to bless us HERE ON EARTH.

    Now the remaining 1%. The seemingly "contradicting" passage seems to be John 5:14 where, subject to differing interpretations, Jesus seems to be saying that this man's sin DID cause his earthly suffering and if the man sins some more, that more suffering may befall him HERE ON EARTH, again if you interpret it that way which I do. It seems to be the most straightforward interpretation.

    So maybe there is a general rule that people's suffering comes from living in a fallen world, but that on some occasions God may allow a person's sin to be the proximate cause of their own suffering. Hence, in some cases, BUT NOT ALL, sin may be the cause of suffering.

    And the 1% defense of Joel Osteen.

    There are enough scriptures out there that imply God's blessings, even blessings HERE ON EARTH, upon those who love Him and do His bidding, for again some occasional connections between good deeds and earthly blessings.

    So I stick with the 99% rule, but allow for both sides of the1% addendum.

    Kenny B

  3. I think I agree with that! I think John 5:14 is way too vague to get too much from it. I never say that bad things happen to good people because there are no good people in God's sight, Rom. 3. As I said in my article, to ask the question "Why do bad things happen to good people" assumes that some deserve a better life than others. It is better to ask why do good things happen to any of us. The first question, which is the way the world generally asks it, makes us judges of God's actions. The second way properly assumes our position before him. I see Luke 13 as confirming my blog in that to assume someone's tragedy is a result of them having done something worse than me is dangerous.

    I also would never say that anything happens for "no apparent reason" because it would mean that God is only involved in some things and not all things. From our standpoint they might seem that way but the Bible is clear that all things happen for God's purposes.

    Yes, a lot of our suffering comes from living in a fallen world but there is a purpose for it all and I agree that sometimes it is a result of our actions and God either chastening us or blessing us, etc.

    Thanks Kenny

    1. I've just gotta share a funny story with you from last week.

      I was several weeks into a Wednesday night Bible study at a church of another denomination down the street from mine. My church's Wednesday night offerings were a little lame. Well, these guys aren't nearly as Biblically "educated" as the guys I normally truck with.

      Towards the end, the leader (perhaps the least educated of all) said maybe some other guys could teach a lesson or two--we are blitzing thru Gal, Eph, Phil, Col in 8 weeks. Someone said that Ross had taught one Sunday School lesson one time.

      So over to Ross. Ross says yeah, but hem-haws around forever because he is trying to remember what that one lesson was. This goes on and on. Ross says he remembers it starts with an "e", and then that it was from Romans, and then something about being born. At this point, I profer "election?" Ross explodes "Yeah, that was it!"

      Afterwards, I laughed and laughted about Ross teaching election in one lesson, but can't even recall the word election. Ross said that he said about two sentences and then everybody kinda took over and said a zillion things.

      Kenny B

  4. That is funny, you have your work cut out for you there!