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.