I want to begin with a little self-evaluation quiz this morning. Consider how you would answer the following questions:
Do you believe that following Jesus is about a list of rules – do this and don’t do that?
When you have a good day spiritually, do you inwardly feel that God loves you more?
When you have a bad day spiritually, and mess up – a lot – do you feel that God loves you any less?
Do you ever feel that you deserve an answer from God because of all your hard work and sacrifice?
Do you struggle sometimes with believing that God really loves you?
How did you do? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you struggle – at least a little – with something called legalism. What is legalism? Legalism is trying to earn God’s approval through rules. Put another way, it’s spiritual perfectionism. It’s the belief that we need to try to prove ourselves to God by being perfect. In my mind, this is number one hang-up of mature believers. We tend to begin relating to God on the basis of rules.
A few weeks ago we talked about saving grace. If you were here that day, you realize how great a deal salvation is. You don’t make it to heaven based on anything you’ve done. You don’t earn your way into heaven, you don’t work your way into heaven, you don’t pay your way into heaven, you don’t barter your way into heaven. It’s just a free gift.
But pretty soon, you and I begin to think, “This is too good a deal.” Soon we begin to think that we need to help God out a little bit. We think, “Surely God expects something of me before he gives me his approval. I can’t believe that I’m not only saved by grace, but I live by grace.”
Before long, we’ve fallen into the trap of legalism. We begin to think that God relates to us on the basis of how well we’re doing in our lives. To be sure, God wants us to be obedient to him, but he wants us to be motivated by love – not by trying to earn his approval by keeping a set of rules.
There’s a whole book in the Bible about this problem. It’s the book of Galatians. The fact that there’s an entire book dedicated to this problem should tell you something: this is a serious matter. God says in Galatians that if we try to earn God’s approval, we’re completely off base.
Today I want to look at liberating grace. Saving grace is what God gives us when we receive eternal life. Liberating grace is how to follow Jesus daily without falling back into the performance trap. It’s how to be both saved by grace and how to live by grace.
Before we look at the antidote to legalism, I want to look at how it destroys us. Relating to God according to rules is very detrimental to our lives.
- It defeats my initiative. Jesus said of the teachers of the religious law and the Pharisees, “They crush you with impossible religious demands and never lift a finger to help ease the burden” (Matthew 23:4). Do you ever feel crushed by demands? How does it feel? When we’re pressured and nagged, it’s counterproductive. It makes us less willing to do what’s accomplished. When we try to earn God’s approval by rules, we soon become overwhelmed and discouraged.
- It damages my relationships. Jesus continued, “Everything they do is for show” (Matthew 23:5). Everything these people did was to impress other people, not God. When we live to impress other people, we’re not really relating to them. The worst part is that it also destroys my relationship with God. When I try to earn God’s approval by following rules, it’s an insult to God. We stop focusing on Christ when we start to focus on rules.
- It distorts God’s priorities. “You are careful to tithe even the tiniest part of your income, but you ignore the important things of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but you should not leave undone the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat; then you swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24). Legalism majors in the minors. It makes big deals about small deals. It focuses on externals, but neglects God’s real priorities – justice, mercy, and faith.
- It destroys my happiness. Ecclesiastes 7:16 says, “So don’t be too good or too wise! Why destroy yourself?” I’ll bet you didn’t know that verse was in the Bible! It’s not talking about genuine righteousness. He’s talking about deluding ourselves and patting ourselves on the back for keeping a whole bunch of rules. He says, “Why destroy yourself?” I love God’s Word translation, “Why make yourself miserable?”
Somebody once commented that legalism turns love into a mental clipboard with a long list. He was right. The thing that we don’t realize is that legalism is a huge insult to God. It says to him that we don’t want to accept God’s grace as enough. It says that Christ’s death for us wasn’t enough. It says that somehow we need to add something of our own to what Jesus has given us. It’s so serious that Galatians says:
8Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including myself, who preaches any other message than the one we told you about. Even if an angel comes from heaven and preaches any other message, let him be forever cursed. 9I will say it again: If anyone preaches any other gospel than the one you welcomed, let God’s curse fall upon that person.
What’s the antidote to legalism? It’s liberating grace. It’s relaxing in God’s grace. I’ve made it in the form of an acrostic for you that spells R.E.L.A.X.:
R – REMEMBER TO LIVE EVERY DAY BY GRACE
Listen to Galatians 3:3:
3Have you lost your senses? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?
In March 1998 I bought a new car. I love buying a new car! When we went to pick it up, we are all excited. The salesman took us out for our first drive, and one of the things he did was to fill our gas tank full of gas. I thought, “This is great. Not only do we have a new car, but it’s automatically filled with gas.”
What would you say to me if I took that car home, and to save money I started filling it with a garden hose? You’d say I was nuts. You can’t get a brand new car, get it filled with gas for free the first time, and then fill it up with something else. You’d wreck the car.
That’s what we try to do when we follow Jesus. When we’re saved, we’re saved by grace. And yet we try to live after that as if it all depends on us instead of God. God saved us, and now we think we do the rest. When we think this way, Paul says we’ve lost our senses. We’re out of our mind.
5I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law of Moses? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ.
Do you know what Paul is saying? We’re given the Holy Spirit not because we follow a set of rules. We’re given the Holy Spirit because of God’s amazing grace. And once we have the Holy Spirit, it’s no use going back to a set of rules. Those rules never did much for us anyway. The Holy Spirit, not the rules, will bring us closer to Jesus.
Now, look up here. We have nothing to offer God anyway. We would be out of our minds to think that we could live every day without grace. You and I fail every day. There’s not a perfect person here, except for Pastor Ed. We’ve got a perfect person – we don’t need any more! The rest of us would be absolutely lost without the grace of God carrying us every single day.
That means that we don’t have to follow a set of rules in order to live the Christian life. It’s an insult to God if we try. Remember that I’m saved by faith, and that I live every single day by faith. That’s the first key to avoiding legalism.
E – ENJOY GOD’S LOVE
What do you think God thinks about you? For a long time, I thought that God was angry with me. I knew that God saved me because he loved me, but I couldn’t get it into my head that God loved me every day. He didn’t just love me when he saved me; he loves me today.
When I was a child I was taught using a catechism, which is a series of questions followed by the right answers. Question number one was, “What is the chief end of man?’ The answer given was, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” I could never get over the last part of that. I knew I existed to glorify God, but to enjoy him?
That’s the problem with relating to God on the basis of rules. When you do this, you stop enjoying God’s love. One of the ways that you can avoid legalism is to begin to celebrate God’s love. 1 John does:
1See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for he allows us to be called his children, and we really are!
We are God’s children. God delights in us! In one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Zephaniah 3:17:
17For the LORD your God has arrived to live among you. He is a mighty savior. He will rejoice over you with great gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will exult over you by singing a happy song.”
When we delight in God, God delights in us. God rejoices over us with great gladness. He exults over us with a happy song. That’s how God feels about you!
John Piper writes, “Delighting in God is the work of our lives.” He says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Psalm 37:4 says, “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desires.” It’s amazing what begins to happen in our hearts when we begin to revel and delight in God’s love. When we enjoy God’s grace, it’s impossible to relate to God on the basis of rules.
We serve God, but we’re much more than servants to him. We’re his children. A servant starts the day anxious and worried that his work will please his master. A child rests in the secure love of his family. A servant is accepted because of his workmanship. But a child is accepted because of his relationship. A servant is accepted because of his productivity and his performance. But a child is accepted because of his position in the family. At the end of the day a servant has peace of mind only if he’s proven his worth by his work but the next morning the anxiety begins again. A child can be secure all day knowing that tomorrow won’t change his status. When a servant fails his whole position is at stake. In fact, he might lose his job. But when a child fails, he is grieved because he’s hurt his parents and he’ll be corrected and disciplined but he’s not afraid of being thrown out of the family and his confidence in belonging and in being loved is based not on his performance but on the stability of his position as a child of God.
God says, I want you to enjoy the unconditional love of God once you become a part of His family.
Those of you who are parents, are your kids perfect? Of course not. Do you still love them? Yes. You love them in spite of their imperfections. When your two or three year old brings you a picture and it’s all messy and they say, “This is a picture of a cow”, you say, “That’s perfect!” What you’re saying is, “That’s perfect for that stage of your maturity.” You’re not saying it’s Picasso. It’s perfect for where you’re at.
That’s an antidote to legalism: enjoying God’s love.
L – LOVE GOD
Don’t just enjoy God’s love. Love God back! Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you must, obey my commandments.” No, he didn’t say that. “Out of obligation, obey my commandments.” That’s not either. Listen to what he said: “If you love me, obey my commandments.”
That’s the key to pleasing God. Our obedience to God comes out of our love for him. Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” If you want to please God by keeping rules, there’s really only one commandment that will please him. It’s to love him. When you do this, everything else falls into place. You no longer need any other rules.
Hundreds of years ago, an important man in church history named Augustine made a surprising statement. He said, “Love God and do as you please.” Augustine understood the secret. He knew that if we truly loved God, we wouldn’t need to try to please him with a whole set of rules. Our obedience would flow out of love and not out of obligation.
Somebody has said, “Christ can do without your works; what he wants is you. Yet if he has you, he will have all your works.” God doesn’t want you to impress him by keeping rules. He wants your heart. He wants you.
It’s entirely possible to keep all the rules without any love for God. That’s what the Pharisees and religious leaders were doing. They kept all the rules, and yet they missed the point.
Let me illustrate for you this way. If you bring home a gift for your spouse and say, “I bought this for you out of obligation,” what kind of response would you get? Quite a different response from bringing home a gift and saying, “I bought this for you because I was thinking of you today, and I just wanted you to know how much I love you.”
Legalism does the first. It offers something out to God out of a dry heart that is offensive to him. But when we live to love God, everything that we offer him – our obedience and our praise – is pleasing to him. Love God. Keep the greatest commandment – to love God – and forget about impressing him by keeping any other commandments.
A – APPRECIATE WHAT JESUS DID FOR ME
Trying to impress God by keeping rules brings up another problem. It becomes very easy to brag. Pretty soon we stop trying to impress God, and we begin to try to impress other people.
Can you imagine what heaven would be like if we earned our own way there? People would say, “You got here by doing what? I did far more than that. I can’t believe they let you in on such a flimsy pretense.” And then there would be a bragging station. People would try to outdo themselves with stories of how they made their way to heaven. That’s not a place I’d like to be – the bragging corner of heaven!
But that’s our natural tendency. Jesus said of the legalists of his day in Matthew 23:5:
“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear extra long tassels on their robes. And how they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the most prominent seats in the synagogue! They enjoy the attention they get on the streets, and they enjoy being called ‘rabbi.’
And then he gave the problem with this mindset:
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The problem with legalism is that it exalts us. Grace does the opposite. Grace focuses on what Jesus has done for us. You can choose one or the other – exalt God or exalt you. You can’t do both.
The Bible says:
Let them boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the LORD who is just and righteous, whose love is unfailing, and that I delight in these things. I, the LORD, have spoken! (Jeremiah 9:24)
There’s no room to boast about what we’ve done. There’s only room to boast about what God has done for us. What has God done? According to Colossians 2:14, he’s cancelled the record that contained the charges against us. He’s torn up the certificate of indebtedness that we owed him. There’s nothing we can brag about, except for the cross of Jesus Christ.
When we appreciate what Jesus has done for us, the bragging stops. We stop trying to add our own effort. We begin to realize that there’s nothing that we can add. Jesus did it all. All we can do is appreciate what Jesus did for us.
X – EXCHANGE MY LEGALISM FOR GOD’S PEACE
Legalism destroys peace. You’re going to live with one or the other – legalism or peace. Here’s the offer. This is the offer Jesus Christ makes and it’s still valid today. It’s an offer you really can’t afford to refuse. In Matthew 11 Jesus says, “Are you tired, worn out, burnt out on religion? Come to Me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.” That’s real recovery – recover your life. “And I will show you how to take a real rest. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” What a deal!
Jesus knew that there were a lot of people being worn down by legalistic religion. Keeping a set of rules is tough work. Other religious leaders were crushing them with unrealistic religious demands, and never lifting a finger to help (Matthew 23:4). Jesus’ disciple Peter said, “Why are you now questioning God’s way by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?” In other words, why are you trying to impress God by keeping rules? Why not be liberated by his grace?
Are you worn out this morning? Have you been trying to impress God with your rule keeping? Have you felt that when you mess up, God loves you less, or that if you do well, God loves you more? God doesn’t relate to you that way. You weren’t saved that way, and he definitely doesn’t expect you to live that way. God wants to love you through his grace.
God doesn’t want his relationship with you to be based on rules. He desires your obedience, but most of all he desires your heart. He wants you to relax in his grace. He wants you to live every single day by his grace. He wants you to experience it every day of your life.
I’m going to invite you to receive God’s grace right now.
If you’ve never received God’s grace, and would like to receive that grace today, pray a prayer like this in your mind: “Father, thank you that I don’t have to wear myself out trying to earn your approval. Thank you that everything that needed to be done was done for me by Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. He died on the cross to wipe out my sins completely. Today I accept Jesus’ invitation. I come to him, because I’m tired and worn down. I can’t meet the excessive religious demands others expect of me. I receive your free gift of salvation and promise to love you from this point on. In Jesus’ name.”
If you have received God’s grace but haven’t been living it lately, pray this, “Father, thank you again for your grace. Forgive me for forgetting about it in my daily life. Thank you that you relate to me as a loved child. You want not only my obedience but you want my heart. Father, this morning I revel in your grace and refuse to try to add anything to what Jesus did on the cross for me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”