Have you found that regulations seem to be synonymous with the idea most of us have of godliness? If we find someone who follows the rules very well we immediately think, “Oh, they must be godly.” Often, we find it easy to believe this because we ourselves find it so hard to keep the rules. We think if someone can keep them so well, they must be of a different spiritual caliber than us; they must have some secret that we don’t. They must be touched by God or the recipient of some measure of divine favor that we lack.
But, despite our staunch convictions concerning this matter, we should not forget to ask ourselves: Does God agree with our judgment? Does God regard our delight in the evidence of such high moral standards as a thing to praise? Is He ultimately pleased when we have the whole Christian life covered by our execution of perfect actions that touch every sphere of justified behavior and astound every neighbor we have?
Or would God witness that we have lost the heart of worship in all our closely guarded behaviors and “spiritually” modified existences? This is a concern we should not take lightly; I don’t believe God does. He wants our hearts far more than He wants any show of “faithfulness” or “piety” that strips the heart of tenderness toward God in order to elevate flesh in the manner of recognized godliness. Such a pattern of living has a name in the church: it is legalism.
Legalism is a strain of pride and spiritually-oriented conceit that sidles up to people who forget the reason why they stand before God or never discovered how they can know God’s pleasure freely. It’s a shame. It’s a curse, really. It is something we should desire to see Christ defeat in all it’s subtlety and scam.
I love how Galatians chapter five handles the matter of legalism. It first thrills us at the prospects inherent to our grace-delivered relationship with God through Christ and then enjoins us to not let anti-Christ tensions of legalism twist what God has provided into something that kills the soul:
22-23But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
23-24Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.
25-26Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original. (The Message)
As I hope you see clearly from what you’ve read above, God is into personally performing our heart work, while legalism seeks to get ahead of God in the transformation department and make Him unnecessary in our pursuit of appearing holy. Therefore, the heart of legalism misses the heart of God. And, if we miss the heart of God, we have truly missed everything. Our hearts cannot be engaged in anything meaningful where God is intentionally or unintentionally excluded. In this way, we diminish our hearts and make religion our results-god rather than reverencing the God who has already accomplished the results that really matter. He is ready and eager to apply them to us, if only we are ready to have Him do so. Are we?