Legalism is a bad thing because it is of the flesh which leads to death. It’s based on the assumption that not only can you earn your way into heaven, but that you must. Combine this with the fact that man has an affinity and a love for all things of the flesh, and legalism becomes the basis for religion in general. As I’ve said before, man is by his very nature religious. Indeed God has made us as spiritual beings. But like all good gifts that God has woven into our hearts, the gift of spirituality becomes corrupted by, as John pointed out, “…the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life“. Every person knows deep down inside that this life is not all there is. We all long for purpose beyond our flesh. Even militant evolutionist atheists long for more. That longing generally leads to a works based religion of some kind.
Christianity however is not based on the flesh, which is to say that it’s not based on works. This fact is what makes Christianity unique in Religions. It is not based on man’s own ability to be good enough. Religion, on the other hand, attempts to give man a way to show his fellow man that he is up to par with a set of man-made rules. It is therefore based on pride. Not so in Christianity. To be sure, Christianity does not escape the corruption of the flesh. Christians can be just as plagued with the pride of their own works as those in the next religion. We know this because Jesus found it worthy of addressing in the sermon on the mount. He admonished us to not “practice our acts of righteousness before other people“. But the more real that God becomes in the mind of the believer, the more he realizes that the only affirmation that counts is that which comes from God. Every man knows in his own heart that he is not good, and while we think, on the one hand, that we can fool our fellow man, if God is real to us we also know that we haven’t fooled Him. The more real God becomes to us then, the more humble we become, both before God and before our fellow man.
A research poll was recently published which indicated that many people were abandoning Christianity. While this poll would seem to indicate that “Christianity” is in trouble, we can know that this isn’t the case. Sure, many people are walking away from an old religion tagged with the name of “christianity”, but no true Christian is abandoning his faith. I can say this with certainty because it would be quite impossible for a Christian to abandon his faith. What we are witnessing is a cultural shift. Christianity has become unpopular in culture, and those who have been beholden to culture all along are simply following their true love. Works based religion is a heavy load, so if it isn’t a necessary part of our righteousness before our fellow man, why in the world would anyone bother?
Yet there are those who still want to retain the name of Christianity while at the same time following this world. Such people are easy to spot because they will hate true Christianity just like the culture does and will even go so far as to call it un-Christian. Pay no attention to their antics. We must trust in the Word.
In living this out we must realize a few things. First, that we have in us a propensity to justify our sin because of grace. That is a lie. We should fight such inclination with all diligence, and seek to live righteous lives according to what God calls righteous.
Second, we must at the same time work at our on sanctification while disconnecting that work from our salvation. The salvation is a given. Any “works” we perform, whether they be to help our fellow man or in mortifying our own flesh are a result of that salvation, not the cause of it. There is nothing we can do, but there is much that we ought to do. And with the spirit of Jesus living in us, there is much we’ll want to do.
Third, don’t forget that man–and that includes you–loves the praise of his fellow man. And being a good Christian in the Christian community will gain you some of that praise. Accept it with humility, but also guard yourself from working for it, for to work for it is a sin. Check your motivations. Are you wanting to tell others about what you are doing… in other words, are you wanting to display your works? This is difficult, but you must mortify, and continue to mortify, that desire. There are entire cults built on works who have convinced themselves that their works based religion is what sets them apart from true Christianity. Pay no attention to anyone who tries to tell you that they have found the right way because they are “doing” the work. It is vanity. And speak of your works with humility when you must.
Finally, Jesus said that it was better that He leave, and for the Holy Spirit to come. Learn to discern. Jesus has given you the lighter yoke. If you are burdened with a heavy works-based burden, you have taken on the wrong yoke. He will give you rest. His burden is light. Doing His “work” is not toil, but pleasant, with grace in failure.
I pray for you dear children that God would work “in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” And I pray that you would take on and feel the lightness of his yoke as you rest in His salvation. It really is an amazing thing, and He is worthy of all praise, honor and glory for that salvation which he worked on the cross and in His resurrection.