Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Conventional Legalism

Legalism is a word that is hard to pin down and is used in different ways. It is not simply adding extra rules that God does not command, though this is wrong (Deuteronomy 4:2; Matthew 15:1-14; Colossians 2:20-23). The core of legalism is believing I can be acceptable to God based on my good works rather than on trusting Christ's sacrifice (Galatians 2:21; Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 3:19-31). Now this trust results in a changed life (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14; Galatians 5:13,14), but a changed life is our response to God's love for us (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Romans 12:1,2). This change is imperfect in the present time (Philippians 3:12-16; Romans 7:14-25; Galatians 5:16,17) and we are just before God based on what He has done for us  (Philippians 3:9; Romans 8:33,34; Colossians 2:9-15).

There are various forms of legalism. There is an emphasis on self-control and the strict adherence to the rules.There is a legalism than is more interested in being nice to people rather than following precise rules. This is closer to Scripture, which makes love the basic commandment (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-7). But if the emphasis is on what I do rather than on what Christ has done, it is still legalism. There can also be an emphasis on experiences or rituals. All of these can be legitimate in their place. But if they are seen as the thing that reconciles us to God, they are wrong.

But these forms of legalism tend to end up in conventional legalism. Conventional legalism is the idea that if I am a good moral person and avoid any obvious sins, I am all right. The Christian version adds basic Christian duties. But it is focused on what society considers respectable. And it is hard to maintain when society does not endorse it. One example of conventional legalism was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He believed in and practiced conventional legalism in an Empire riddled by decadence. He was conscientious and tried to turn the tide. In doing so he tried to suppress all strange foreign beliefs. Based on this he condemned a little slave girl who followed a Galilean Carpenter who did not stand for conventional legalism, but offered forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And she maintained this belief in the face of all the tortures the Empire could inflict on her. Marcus Aurelius, for all his position of power, failed. He could not prevent his own son from embracing the decadence nor did he slow the general tide of corruption. And the faith of the little slave girl went out and conquered the world. But often today, we who are her heirs have seated ourselves in the seat of Marcus Aurelius. And have no more ability then he did to halt the decadence of our culture. And I am convinced it is only by reaffirming our original message, that God by free grace forgives sinners, that we can hope to make an impact on our culture.

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