Beware of Sneaky Legalism

Friday, January 27, 2006

While the Christian may know for certain that he or she cannot earn God's favor and grace through good works, we may often act that way with respect to how we deal with the guilt incurred by our sin.

Ask yourself this: how often do I live as if a perpetual reflection on my sinful acts and deeds, and constant meditation on self-condemnation may somehow make me feel better about my relationship with God? In other words, do I act as if the longer and more frequently I dwell on how sinful I acted, the better I will feel about my walk with Christ?

Monks are noted for self-flagellation (not to be confused with flatulation, though Martin Luther, while a monk, suffered with both!). They felt that if they whipped themselves, they would feel better about their sinfulness and ease the guilt.

Christians do this today, but inwardly. We whip ourselves over and again mentally, emotionally and spiritually, reminding ourselves of how sinful we are. I know this well because it is my weekly struggle. The discipline of reminding myself of Christ's propitiation is sometimes as excruciating as the mental flagellation itself. At this point in my life, I am still learning to fight for joy in this area.

For all the good that I have gained in my walk with Christ through reading the Puritans, I formerly gravitated towards those who often wrote in a seemingly flagellating manner. Rehearsing either acts of sin or the depths of depravity itself seemed to them to be a stark reminder of who they really are before God. One publisher today, who republishes and distributes Puritan material, proclaims this motto: Abasing Self and Glorifying God. I used to gravitate towards that, as most Puritan-loving Reformed folk do. But I've since changed my mind. I know I'm a wretch. I'm the one Newton was referring to in "Amazing Grace."

But spending time abasing myself has only led to mental self-flagellation. The lesson hit me hard a couple of years ago that this kind of thinking actually steals the glory of God from the cross of Christ. It takes the attention and points it first toward my sinfulness instead of first toward the propitiation Christ provided on behalf of my sinfulness. In this way of thinking, I take center stage instead of King Jesus. Yet this is just the opposite of what is intended by such well-meaning folk...including some Puritans. I thank God for His grace in showing me the deceitfulness of sin in how it continued to make itself the center of attention despite the fact that I believe and preached that it's power is destroyed. It is truly amazing to consider just how sneaky, subtle, and deceitful this tactic is, and how the devil has, does, and will continue to use it to his advantage to keep Christians bound to legalism.

Not all Puritans and Puritan-loving Reformed folk are like this, mind you. And to be sure, many, if not most of them are Christ-centered. Yet at least for the Puritans, they did write about the sinfulness of sin. I spent much time dwelling on these chapters, getting bogged down in the application to my own life, such that I hardly ever made it to the beauties of Christ! So now I have picked them back up again to let them guide me out of my guilt and into grace.

Most notable at the present is Richard Sibbes (wouldn't you hate to be seen preaching in that get-up?) in The Works of Richard Sibbes. In Volume One I read of "A Description of Christ", available online. In Volume Two there is, "The Spouse's Earnest Desire After Christ" and "The Glorious Feast of the Gospel." In Volume Four he wrote, "The Excellency of the Gospel." In Volume Five I found, "Christ's Exaltation" and "Salvation Applied." And in Volume Six there is, "The Saint's Comforts." (The entire seven volume set is available in PDF format at RichardSibbes.Com.)

Sibbes and many of the other Puritans were masters of grace and doctors of the soul to help guide poor souls like mine to drink deeply of the grace of God. They were also masters at detecting this sneaky legalism, also called "gutsy guilt" by John Piper in his book When I Don't Desire God.

Let us lay aside this weight, and this sin of self-absorption which so easily besets us. As C.J. Mahaney has written, for every one look we take at our sin, let us take ten looks at Christ! Beware of sneaky legalism and quickly surrender all your guilty feelings to the Lord who has already been punished for it. Remember, He suffered for our sin so we would not have to!

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