The VERY Real Temptation of Legalism

Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.

Proverbs 11: 28 (NIV)

I became a follower of Jesus in December 1993.  As I approach my tri-decade milestone, I recognize that there is a place of tension that exists in me.  Over the years, I have identified the things that I need to inculcate as disciplines in my life that trend me towards another day of obedience to Christ.  Daily, I spend time quietly with God.  I journal and pray.  I practice gratitude.  I marshal my boundaries and (as much as possible) I practice “unconditional positive regard” for all whom I come across.  I meditate on God’s word and expend my best efforts to commit some of it to memory.  I do all these things, which are good.  Yet I know that there is a place where I can turn these acts into my religion.  I can be reduced to a legalism of routine.  (See Luke 11:37-54)

If I persist in these disciplines, then there is a high likelihood that I will continue to remain outwardly holy and pure.  Inwardly, however, I run the risk of not experiencing the freedom and spiritual renewal that comes by trusting in Christ (Matthew 7:13-14).

We must challenge ourselves to grow continually in our ability to connect our routines to the ultimate goal of spiritual maturity.  As much as we yearn for continued Christian virtue, we must desire growth even more.  All that we do must result in growth, increased self-discovery and a closer relationship with God and others.  This then drives the natural outcomes of sanity, transparency, congruence, and authenticity.  Any other progression is legalism – a life bounded by rules that regulate outward behavior.

Legalism is temptingly seductive because it presents a short cut to worldly recognition of behavioral perfection – a process that is well facilitated by the enemy (John 8:44).  It circumvents the hard effort that is required for spiritual growth through curiosity, discomfort, and vulnerability.

Legalism says, “it is ok to repeat the same routine to achieve an outward pattern that reflects all that is virtuous and morally good”.  Maturity says, “risk vulnerability through the application of spiritual disciplines to grow in Christ every day”.  Choose maturity.

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