An All To Familiar Story

In relating the story of my religious upbringing I trust it will relate to at least some of my readers. One is never too sure if my opining is really making a difference.

From the age of four until I graduated from college and left for my army career I belonged to a church that was deeply steeped in legalism. I will not mention the group because it is irrelevant to the real issue. As is typical of most children and young people I assumed that what I was hearing and believing was the truth and therefore my belief system was correct - probably right is the more accurate description.

If you are at all familiar with legalistic doctrine and practices you would know that it was all about do’s and don’ts. Nobody said so but looking back I am inclined to think that the Pharisees must have been our primary role models. As with legalists the Pharisees’ primary concern was the exacting details of personal behavior.

If you think about the comparisons the Pharisees were the keepers of the law. In modern times those who practice legalism are really no different. They may preach about grace (some), and sing "Grace grace marvelous grace" but remain committed to keeping the flock under law.

Law of course was the standard for the Jews under the old covenant. But under the new covenant, ushered in by Jesus’ resurrection, was the banner of grace, and oh how different it was. The old was encased in law. The new was bathed in grace and love.

Romans 5:20 tells us, "The law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more."

In other words the law showed us we could not live up to God’s standard thus God introduced his plan for grace to overcome the law. Think about this. Have you ever been caught up in a try and fail, try and fail, regimen? You could not, on your own, keep the "law" no matter how hard you tried. Grace acknowledges your failure and says that God is greater than your sin.

Now here we are 2000 plus years later and even those of us who are living by grace are quite capable of putting ourselves back under the law at any given moment when the "law" appears more comfortable.

One of the reasons that legalism has a significant following is that it offers the feeling of comfort that all you have to do is follow the rules. The hitch is no one can follow the rules.

Grace on the other hand asks us to follow Christ rather than a rule book. This is of course only possible because we are indwelt by the very life of Christ.

Let’s stop and consider for a moment what our response is to be if we have been subjected severely to legalism. Is it profitable for us to constantly be blaming our earlier mentors for our remaining struggles toward freedom in Christ?

We are told in John 8:36 "So if the Son makes you free, you”will be free indeed."

We are not told that a list of do’s and don’ts will make you free. It is life in Christ that gives freedom.

My closing thought on this matter comes from an interesting conversation between Jesus and his disciples. John reported that they had found a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They told him to stop "because he wasn’t one of our group." Jesus response was, "Don’t stop him. If he’s not an enemy he’s an ally."

When I was growing up in legalism I heard enough about how everybody else in the world was wrong, and now I am faced with the truth that those well meaning folks who taught me some wrong things were not the enemy. They also taught me to love God and that makes them an ally.

Jack Purcell is a retired Army LTC and had a second career at two different Universities as Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs. In between he twice served in leadership roles in two different Exchanged Life Offices. He now lives with his wife Mary in Boerne TX where he writes a weekly column in the Boerne Star, called On The Journey.