The Attraction to Legalism

Why is legalism so attractive? It is attractive because it feeds the sinful flesh. It may not feed the flesh in the same way that sexual perversions, alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity do, but it does feed the flesh. And, I will argue that it does so in a more dangerous way, because it deceives a person into thinking he is doing the right thing while in fact he is destroying his life and the lives of those around him. Legalism feeds our fleshly bent toward self-righteousness.

The problem is that we can’t see it. We see it in others but not in ourselves. Who has ever said, “I am legalistic” or “I am a Pharisee”? No one. But we sure are good at pointing out people who are—proving the point that self-righteousness is like bad breath (everyone notices it but you).

Legalism preys on orthodox, well-meaning, passionate, committed, fired-up young people who want to live for God with all their hearts. They get attracted to legalism because:

  1. It is something they can do. Quick and easy.
  2. It is an image they can adopt and manage. It is a “look” they can quickly establish.
  3. It allows them to write more rules that protect from sin and make them even “better Christians.”
  4. It provides a checklist that helps them feel good about themselves when they check it off.
  5. It provides a checklist for them to measure how other people are doing.
  6. It brings clarity with new rules that show how to separate from others when they are “disobedient.”

I have heard the argument, “I am not a legalist, because I believe that salvation is by grace through faith and not of works.” Wrong. Legalism is more than just a false doctrine of justification; it is also false doctrine of sanctification. Paul made this very clear in Galatians. They had begun “by means of the Spirit” and were now attempting to live their lives “by means of the flesh.” It is possible to be an orthodox Christian and still be a legalist. The same error that plagued the Jews, and early church, is alive today—in all of our churches.

Paul said in Galatians 3:1-5;

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

What makes our own legalism hard to see is that on the surface we can be doing a lot of things right. Remember that the Pharisees were also highly regarded in their day. They were very committed to orthodoxy, teaching, fellowship, evangelism, tithing, charitable deeds, separation from the world, etc. But underneath they were motivated by the law and not by grace. That is all the difference. Keeping the law cannot please God, but “believing” does. Only grace can produce real fruit. Everything else is plastic.

How do I know this? I have seen it it in my own life! Sadly, as a young man, I was attracted by legalism because it played into my zeal for God and my desire to be used of Him. I didn’t see it until I started teaching new believers about the Christian life. Being in the business of training young people has forced me to dig deep and to be honest with what Jesus is saying in the Gospels. I began to see that many of my rules, regulations, and guidelines could not be supported by Scripture and that was why new believer’s weren’t “getting it.” However, the things that were there and the things that really mattered they did get! Then I began to see with real clarity that only grace through faith produces what is holy.

Have you considered that what you have been doing just might be self worship coming through the back door? You just didn’t see it? It does happen to good orthodox, and well-intended people. I think the seeds of it are in all of our hearts.

For further reading on this subject I would like to recommend a book that has really helped open my eyes to my own condition: Extreme Righteousness: Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees by Tom Hovestol. It is out of print right now, however, there are used copies available through many used book stores.

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

People and Pain

This past week I had the opportunity to speak at a family camp in Forest Glen, Nova Scotia, Canada. While I really do enjoy ministering the Word of God through preaching I probably feel I make a greater contribution afterward in the “one on one” settings with people. It gets personal. We go deeper. People open up and tell their stories. And almost without exception their story is filled with pain, struggle, and the working of the grace of God.

As I think back on my own life, I cannot remember a time that I enjoyed any measure of growth without a significant amount of accompanying pain. It seems that pain is what really gets my attention. I think it is true for all of us. Pain sends us on a search for answers. Our first response is to escape. If that doesn’t work we try to “suck it up” and “endure to the end.” When it comes to be more than we can bear we are broken enough to take the first step in real spiritual growth. The only place things get resolved are in Christ and His super-abounding grace.

Honestly, I wish there was another way. It’s hard to hear stories that are told through tears. And yet this is the way that God has chosen to grow us and to communicate His grace to the world. You can hear it in Paul’s voice when he says, “… I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7b, 8) I love Paul’s writings because so often I find myself right in the same place – then he helps me work through it. He doesn’t leave me hanging. “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in pesecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10)

I do hate pain. But it has become the stimulus that drives me to Christ and His grace and it is what sets the stage for Him to write “another story” that tells the world about HImself. So, I thank Him for the pain. And, I lift my eyes in hope.

I Feel Distant From God

Even though I cannot put my finger on the reason why, I find myself crying out with the Psalmist, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” I know, I know, it is not true and it is not reality. I know that as a child of God He is always “right there.” He is the omnipresent God and I have His Spirit in me—but still, at times, I’ve felt this way. How about you? And no matter what you say, when you feel distant from God it is much harder to live your life with joy and confidence. Charles Spurgeon said, “The presence of God is the joy of His people.”

So what do we do when we find ourselves in this condition? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Pour out your heart to God. He already knows everything about you and your situation, so you don’t need to pretend with Him. Cry out to Him. Pour out your heart. He is there. He will hear and and He will answer. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)
  2. Dive into the Word of God and let His Words wash over you and renew your mind to a thinking that is true and right. You are struggling with believing and “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” (Romans 10:17)  You cannot get enough of His Word.
  3. Obey what you know. There are a lot of things you don’t know, but you do know enough to take the next step of obedience—take it.  Believe and act on what you know to do. “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” My dad, often challenged by the writings of Oswald Chambers, used to say to me; “When you can’t see your way clear, obey your way clear.” (John 13:17)
  4. Give thanks to God. When you begin to praise Him for who He is and what He is doing you’ll soon find yourself in His presence and full of joy. “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16:11)

The longer I live the more I treasure the Psalms. They find me where I am and take me to where I need to be. I hope these words encourage you when you “feel distant from God.”

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

Around the Web (July 1-6)

Sally Lloyd-Jones | Teach Children the Bible is Not About Them

Here are some good thoughts about teaching children the Bible.

Christianity Today | Should Churches Display the American Flag in Their Sanctuaries?

This is an interesting opinion piece with three contributors. It has also generated some other discussion on some other websites.

Kevin DeYoung | Where and How Do We Draw the Line

This is an article I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. It is now available in full text from Ligonier’s website.

Ron Edmondson | 8 Most Dangerous Leadership Traits

“There are no perfect leaders…except for Jesus. For the rest of us, we each have room for improvement. Most of us live with flaws in our leadership. Good leaders learn to surround themselves with people who can supplement their weaknesses.”

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

Confidence in the Next Generation

I have great confidence in this next generation. They get what matters most. This was evidenced in my visit Sunday to Grace Bible Church in Philadelphia, where Ian McConnell serves as the pastor for preaching and vision. It was great to connect with some Northland alumni at Grace as well. Danny Adams (and his wife Becky [Dillabaugh]) serves as the the pastor for children’s ministries. Jesse Trach is currently an elder in training and being evaluated for pastoral ministry and Nathan Branine is attending Grace while making much of Jesus in the Philadelphia school systems. Come the beginning of September Greg Dietrich and his wife will be relocating to Philadelphia to attend Grace and work remotely for us at Northland.

My soul was refreshed and encouraged as I saw a variety of things taking place at Grace. At Grace they focus on Christ in all that they do. This was evidenced by their worship, expository preaching, and deliberateness of their service. This is a church that is multi-ethnic, has a heart for the city, thriving with young people, and getting ready to launch a church plant in the next 9-12 months into another part of the city. They get what matters most.

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

You’re Not Special

On a trip this past week I picked up Time Magazine and read an article about David McCullough, Jr. and the high school commencement address he gave, “You’re Not Special.” While probably writing and speaking from a secular point of view, this teacher has identified the condition of this generation. You can read the address at the MyFoxBoston website and view some commentary on it at the Time site.

If this address resonates with you, you might also enjoy Tim Elmore’s book, Generation iY, which is from a Christian point of view. While pointing out a number of positive qualities, he describes the “iY Generation” as; overwhelmed, over-connected, over-protected, and over-served.

If we want to help the next generation to grow up to love Christ and serve Him through the church is is becoming increasingly important that we understand them.

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

The Christian & Politics

This past Wednesday I was able to meet Wayne Grudem for the first time. He was speaking at Immanuel Bible Church in Scottsdale, AZ, where our son-in-law serves as an associate pastor. It was a rare treat! I have always been a huge fan of Grudem and have recommended his Systematic Theology over all others. We also use many of his published works at Northland in our Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood classes.

On this particular occasion Grudem was speaking on politics from a biblical perspective—a very relevant topic for today. His lecture was outstanding and he certainly gave me a thirst for more. You may be familiar with his recently published book  Politics – According to the Bible:  A Comprehensive Guide for Understanding modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture.

I really did enjoy my conversation with him after the service and left with gratitude to God for this gift to the church. As this is an election year, I would recommend you pick up his book, read it, and then pass it on to someone else.

Around the Web (June 17-22)

Joe Thorn | Rebuilding a Healthy Schedule

Our schedules are normally all out of whack. Joe Thorn serves us well with this piece on rebuilding a healthy schedule from The Resurgence.

Paul Tautges | One Pastor Confesses to Plagiarism

It is awesome to see the gospel at work and how the gospel wins! Read this post by Paul Tautges, one of the pastors that teaches in our Graduate program at Northland.

Christianity Today | Why We Should Reexamine the Faith of Barack Obama

I don’t normally get too political on this site, however, Owen Strachan wrote this excellent article for Christianity Today that talks about the faith, or lack thereof, of our president. It is a good read.

The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference

The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference starts today. It would serve the women that are there if you would stop and pray for them for a moment. Pray that God would refresh their souls while they are away and also pray for the many Dad’s that are home with the kids so that Mom could go to the conference. We will surely have some Northland alumni there.

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

A Father Looks Back

For some reason I have always had mixed emotions on Fathers Day. On the one hand I have been incredibly thankful and grafeful for the father God has given to me and full of joy over the children given to Diane and me, but on the other hand I’ve felt a growing sense of my own inadequacy as a father. This tension has increased through the years as I have become more aware of God’s goodness contrasted with my weakness.

Let me share just a few things that I have come to realize:

  1. The truth is, I tend to be a determinist. I would probably never have admitted this and it would certainly have conflicted with my Theology—but practically it has been true. Since I work so hard at being the perfect father, I end up having expectations that God should respond with perfect kids (if I do my part, He should do His). When struggles come I tend to get frustrated with God. In time, what I find is that my view of God is full of dross and that it isn’t really going to get purged and forged in my heart until it comes under the fire of testing. God is still at work in ways that I cannot see or understand, and is more sovereign than I can possibly comprehend. The struggle brings me back to a right view of God and into concert with his working.
  2. I may be talented and have read a lot of books, but STILL, I am not equal to the task of fatherhood and I never will be. After a right view of God, brokenness is where I find myself.  Humility is the soil in which all the other graces grow. Grace is the means. Faith is the exercise. Prayer is the access to His working. That is how I have come to the conclusion that, when it comes to fatherhood, the greatest work I will ever do will be on my knees.
  3. Now my kids are teaching me more than I am teaching them. We have had a lot of discussions in our home about how we live the Christian life. There have been a number of things that I once believed and taught my children that have been challenged over time.  Theology and principles have remained the same, but many of my rigid applications were found wanting. This discovery was really uncomfortable.  When they ask honest questions what are you going to do? Be honest. Go to the Word.  I have changed a lot over the past ten years—in good ways! I thank my children and many of the young people I serve for that. God has used them to teach me.
  4. Grandkids are more joy and multiplied weight. We go through the processes all over again but in a different role. We speak and attest to the goodness, greatness, and faithfulness of God. Future generations are coming. It’s not over.

This Father’s Day may we joy in the fullness of the Father as he is expressed in His Son.

Around the Web (June 10-15)

Westminster Book Store | “Dispatches From the Front”

Through the end of today WTS Books has the entire “Dispatches From the Front” DVD set for only $30. That is 60% off. These videos are incredibly well done and will move your heart to worship Christ.

Nathan Finn | My Hope for Unity in the SBC

The SBC is meeting in New Orleans for the annual meeting. Here is one Southern Baptist’s hope for his denomination in the midst of disunity. I think his points should resonate with us all and give us all something to pray towards.

Justin Buzzard | 20 Ideas for Dating Your Wife

Justin has a new book coming out called Date Your Wife. In this post he gives 20 practical ways us men can continue to date your wife well into marriage.

Dave Crabb | The Idolatry of Serving Jesus

Here are some good words and reflections from Dave Crabb, a pastor in Lapeer, MI.

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.