Check Out Those Golden Calves

One of the best things about the Bible is that the lessons it teaches grow with you. When I was a teenager, I set out to understand Christianity as it is rather than the spiritually ambiguous thing that I had grown up with. The best way I knew how was to read the Bible since that was the holy text of the religion. What I found was not a list of do’s and don’ts but rather the story of the people of Israel. One of my favorite sections outlines the rule of Kings or Israel and what went wrong in their lives.

The one judgement that is repeated most often in the books of the Kings was a line, “but King _____ continued in the sins of his father and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” When I was younger, I did not understand what that meant but merely thought, “this king is a bad dude, I wonder what else he did.” The text would often tell of one or two terrible infractions and then move on to the next king. What I had failed to notice in those statements about the sins of their fathers was that they were all following in the sins of this man called Jeroboam, son of Nebat.

So… what did Jeroboam do that set up generation after generation of Israelites to sin a sin so bad that it led to the ultimate downfall of Israel?

King Jeroboam  was the first king of Samaria, the Northern Tribes of Israel. While king, he did many things that would cause Samaria to fall out of favor with the Lord, including building temples to worship Baal and Asherah. This would probably have been enough to justify God’s punishment of his people, however the Lord often showed a great deal of mercy when dealing with this kind of sin. For example, Judah, the southern two tribes of Israel, was not destroyed until much later even though they too had alters devoted to the pagan gods of the Canaanites.

The sin that led Jeroboam’s people into destruction had to do with something he did at the start of his reign. In order to prevent Israel from worshiping the Lord YHWH in Jerusalem, he made a pair of golden calves and set them up on two mountains for the people to worship instead. This particular idolatry was more significant than the others because of something that had happened in Israel’s past.

In the days of Moses, the people of Israel were brought to the Lord at Mount Sinai and He appeared to them as a great and terrible fire, consuming the whole mountain. YHWH called Moses up from among the people to establish a covenant between YHWH and this nation but the covenant took a long time to prepare. When the people saw that Moses had left them there in the desert at the base of this burning mountain, they crafted a calf  from gold and proclaimed it as their rescuer from Egypt… right there in front of the Lord and his burning mountain. They even set up a feast in the name of YHWH to worship this golden calf as if it was the Lord.

This was so outrageous that the Lord desired to destroy the people right there in front of His mountain. Moses interceded for them and turned back the Lord’s anger. However, as a punishment, Moses ground up the golden calf and made the people drink it causing many to fall ill and others to die.

So, why was God so angry? Why did He get so mad that He desired to destroy them? It’s not because they were worshiping another god, which is a problem in itself… what they were doing was worshiping something other than YHWH and calling it YHWH. They worshiped the calf as though it were YHWH. They attributed all of the actions of the Lord, the ten plagues against Egypt, the cloud and pillar of fire, the parting of the Red Sea, all of it to a mere metal image they had made from their own jewelry. It’s not surprising that the Lord would think to destroy them.

Fast forward again to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. Not only had he set up the calves to worship, but the worship of these calves was to be a substitute for the worship of YHWH, stumbling the people for generations to come. They completely misidentified who their God was and turned from Him. 2 Kings 17 gives a full account of their sin and declares that they “went after worthless things and became worthless themselves…”

So what does this have to do with us? We don’t offer sacrifices anymore, but we are not immune to this kind of substitutionary idolatry either. It’s easy to look at ourselves and say that we have done no such thing, yet Christian history is marred time and again with religious copies of the golden calves. By reading our own desires and wills into the words of the Bible, Christians have found ways to justify slavery, sexual abuse, gluttony, debauchery and all forms of hedonism.

One example could be pressuring someone to do something you want because you had a dream “from the Lord” about it. Another, might be divorcing someone because “the Lord wants you to pursue someone else.” On more than one occasion, I’ve declined  helping someone in need because I “needed to focus on the Lord right now”.

Some of my friends have left the faith in pursuit of authentic worship of God. I’ve seen whole cults develop under the guise or “truly worshiping God” when in reality the Lord has been substituted with another.

When we do things like this we set stumbling blocks in front of ourselves and our children, keeping us from worshiping the Lord. When we worship other things and call them God, we are in danger of inciting the Lord against us, generation after generation.

The Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,  is our Mountain. When we turn to Him, His fire reveals to us the darkness hidden in our ways. We must examine our hearts and break down the altars we have set up in the wrong places and turn our worship from ourselves and put it back on the Lord lest we find ourselves overcome by our enemies.

Reform takes time and our actions do have costs. Let our cost be what it takes to worship the Lord, not the ruin of our children and our children’s children.

How to Have Hairy Faith

In my last few posts we discussed what the spiritual disciplines were and how they can put some strength into your spiritual life through practice. There is a problem though… The list of disciplines is long and challenging and doesn’t seem like a basket full of fun. It’s worth it to gain some level of competency in each discipline for your own spiritual growth and longevity in the Christian faith, but what happens when you forget to do what you set out to do? What do you do when you try to do what is good and right and fail?

Enormous volumes have been written in the business and fitness sectors under the topics of goal setting and personal growth. They tell us that we can be motivated and that it takes a special sort of motivation to get good at any sort of skill… but they only cover the mental and physical aspects of the problem. You can do great things under the tutelage of mentors like Jon Acuff, Tim Ferris, Amy Cuddy, Angela Duckworth, Anders Ericsson and others. I highly recommend their work. However, these writers often come from a strictly nonspiritual perspective and can only address behavior from the physical or psychological standpoint.

To gain wisdom in all areas of spiritual, physical, and even psychological truth the Bible provides us with many examples and a whole body of advice for life. More often than not, Biblical examples are narrative and descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning that they don’t tell you what you should or should not do but rather what someone else was doing or thinking and then let you figure out how you can apply the story to your situation. Reading these stories is the first of the spiritual disciplines. The second is meditating on them, which gives us a gateway into understanding and application.

For example, in the New Testament, Paul spends a long time explaining that he just can’t make himself do the things that he knows he should. Also, he does those things that he knows he should not, things he hates doing. This is the scenario I find myself in constantly. When I get mad at my dog and throw away her treats in frustration or when I refuse to do something my wife asks “because I don’t wanna,” I know that I am acting as a child. When I sit and stare blankly at my Bible or look at my phone during what should be my prayer time, I know that I’m not doing what I ought. My knowledge of sin does not prevent me from sinning.

According to Paul, there is no amount of time or effort that can keep me from failing to do as God asks. I, like the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, am too stubborn and thick necked, unyielding in my commitment to self-devotion. My desire to be better cannot not simply bear for me the fruits of the Spirit.

Keeping this in mind, there is still hope for us. The Bible offers us an example for how we can move forward in faith when we have failed: Samson.

Most of us know Samson for having strangely long hair and performing unusual acts of strength. What we often miss is the terrible lifestyle he led and the fact that, in spite of this lifestyle, he goes down in history as a great Hero of the Faith.

Samson began his life as a Nazarite. His mother dedicated him before he was born to live as a Nazarite, serving under the high priest for his whole life. Now, we know from the book of Hebrews that Samson had great faith. However, when we read his story it’s easy to wonder if he had any faith at all. Samson was known for partying hard, drinking a lot of wine, and most notably, killing a lot of people and several animals. He was also selfish, ignored many of the commands God laid on his people, and acted out of anger at perceived wrongs against him.

Samson married a Philistine woman named Delilah who made it her goal to find out his greatest weakness in order to sell him out to the Philistines. When Samson finally gave in to Delilah and told her the secret of his strength, he told her that he was a Nazarite and it was his hair that gave him his strength. His mother had made a promise to the Lord that no razor would ever touch his head and so far, none had. When Delilah cut off his hair Samson became weak as any man and a group of philistines seized him to mock him and God.

After capturing Samson, they gouged out his eyes and chained him in the temple of their own god, putting him on display as if to show that the hero of Israel and the God that he represents were weaker than Dagon, the god of the Philistines. Now stripped of his sight, and his hair, the symbol of his faith and the God he worships, Samson is in a dire situation.

So how can a raucous law breaker, taken captive in a foreign land find himself among the famous faithful?

The text indicates that Samson’s hair began to grow back, foreshadowing a future return of his strength. But Samson went down in history as a hero of the faith, not as a champion of hair growth. In his final day of need he remembered that his strength came not from the hair on his head but from the Lord, the God of Israel.

The same is true for us. Losing in our struggle to be faithful to God is part of our journey. We are going to suffer embarrassing defeats, wreck the good things that God has given us, accidentally (or intentionally) encounter unclean things, and so much more. However, like with Samson, the true strength in our relationship with God is God, Himself. The secret to a strong, heroic faith is believing that God, having started a good work in us, is going to complete it. He is faithful to us in that so that we can be faithful to him.

Any can grow hair, only God can provide strength.


A Fighting Faith: The Disciplines

In my last post, I talked about the importance of spiritual discipline. I gave an example of a woman in my church who excelled in her spiritual life so much that others would seek her out for prayer and counsel. If I had to describe a list of qualities she had, I would probably put together a list that looks one this:

  1. Love
  2. Joy
  3. Peace
  4. Patience
  5. Kindness
  6. Goodness
  7. Faithfulness
  8. Gentleness
  9. Self-Control

You might recognize this list as the “fruit of the spirit”. When I came to faith in Jesus, I used to think that just because I am a Christian I have those things along with improved wisdom and street smarts.

Boy was I wrong.

I think it’s fair to say that a measure of that fruit is implanted into us automatically when we are saved. However, it’s more accurate to say that we begin to desire those things as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. The list of the fruits of the spirit is a list of the rewards of spiritual discipline. To get those rewards we have to do as Paul says and work out our salvation through the disciplines of godliness. Donald S. Whitney said that “the Spiritual Disciplines are scriptural paths where we might expect to encounter the transforming grace of God.” If that is true, then it is fair to say that the good things of the Spirit are attainable through the diligence of practice and perseverance in disciplining ourselves.

So, what are the disciplines? What are the the ways for us to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness? How do we pursue the fruits of the spirit?

There are many, many ways to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness and to achieve even greater faith. The major disciplines are as follows:

  1. Bible consumption (reading, listening, study, and discussion)
  2. Prayer
  3. Worship
  4. Meeting in Community
  5. Serving
  6. Stewardship (of time, wealth, or other resources)
  7. Fasting
  8. Evangelism
  9. Learning
  10. Journaling

These disciplines can stand alone but are often better done in some combination with each other. Journaling your prayers, thoughtful worship, or insights about what you’re reading in scripture is an example of combining multiple disciplines.

Now, if you’re like me, these don’t all sound equally enjoyable and I certainly don’t want to do them every day. Some things are scary to me, like Evangelism. Others are really inconvenient, like serving others. However, just because I don’t feel like doing these things doesn’t mean that I should avoid them. The reason we discipline ourselves is because they help us move closer in godliness to our savior, Jesus.

As you start flexing your spiritual muscles, you’ll find that you are particularly gifted in certain areas. Pursue these areas the most, without neglecting the others. The Lord equips us with talents and gifts so that we can experience deeper meaning in some areas. By exploring these strengths within the spiritual disciplines, we can discover how God has called each of us individually to live in his kingdom. However, we must not forget to exercise in the disciplines that we are not particularly gifted or strong in or else we will miss out in entire aspects of God.

I have only recently begun practicing many of these disciplines and cannot elaborate on the full practices for these. For a fuller understanding of how and what spiritual disciplines to practice, I recommend Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. This book came to me highly recommended by my wife and it has proven incredibly useful and interesting.

In my next post, I will discuss what to do when we miss our mark and fail to discipline ourselves the way we want to.

Having a Fighting Faith

When I was growing up, there were a few people in my church that everyone knew had something special in their spiritual life. I remember specifically Miss Juanita. I don’t really remember much about her other than that at the time that I knew her she was who you went to if you wanted someone to pray for you. Everyone knew that if someone was going to actually intercede for you, she was the one who would do it without fail. You also knew that her prayers got answered.

I remember that Miss Juanita didn’t have a whole lot and that if she had had a husband he was no longer in her life. She had few local family members and a small, older home. But, we all knew that she had a faith in the Lord that was unshakable.

So how does someone get a reputation like Miss Juanita? How does anyone achieve a faith so strong that others are drawn to it? How does anyone look so much like Christ that people actively ask for intercession with God? How can you have a faith that is unshakable, a faith that holds you together in the face of tragedy, a faith that fights?


When I think of discipline, I often think of punishment before I think of anything else. Fortunately, this is a limited view of what discipline really is. Punishment is a form of discipline, but it is the form that comes from without. This form can help steer someone towards a right path, but true and lasting changes come from within.

Lasting changes are ones created by taking hold of external truths and pursuing them with fervor and tenacity from your inner self. This is what’s known as self discipline. This means that discipline, or self discipline, is not something you have, but rather something that you do. Also, it’s not something done for the sake of itself but for the realization of the goal or purpose for which you grasp. In other words, discipline is the process or tool that you use to bring about the change that you seek.

Once, I thought this meant drudgery. I used to think that self discipline meant that I had to stop having fun so I could go and do the work that Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthian church: “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians‬ ‭9:27‬ ‭NIV‬‬)

Paul is correct in his assessment of self discipline, but I was incorrect in my interpretation. Terry Crews once said, “why do you hate discipline? It’s just training!” If discipline is just training, then that means that I can take part and exercise in spiritual training.

Thinking of the spiritual disciplines this way lets me move on from the thoughts of punishment and into a healthy understanding of Paul’s message. It also puts perspective on what Paul means when he says “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” ‭‭(1 Timothy‬ ‭4:7-10‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Training myself in spiritual discipline let’s me become more godly. If I must put off my sinful nature, then to do so can only come by putting on a nature of righteousness. However, since I am surrounded in what Paul describes as a body of death, I can do no such thing. So what then can I do?

Amy Cuddy puts it this way, “Fake it till you become it.” Jeff Haden says that you should change your language from “I can’t” to “I don’t” so that you no longer have a choice to make but an identity to fulfill. Paul’s advice is, instead of being a slave to your sinful nature, become a slave to Christ. That is, assume the identity of one who is righteous and do what they do. Before long, you will be more like one who is righteous. Before long, you will become like Miss Juanita, so strong in faithfulness that others come to you for prayer and guidance, not for your own virtue but by the virtue of the One who is inside you.

In my next post, I will begin describing the disciplines of the spiritual life. These exercises will help to train your faith so that it can stand up and fight when the world is doing it’s best to defeat you.

Why is Judaism important to Christians??

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past 20 years, it’s that I am assuredly not Jewish. I am neither Jewish by nationality, nor am I Jewish by religion. These seem like obvious facts, and they are. However, Judaism and the Hebrew nation are extraordinarily important to Christians. The two, more than any other religions, share a deep and common foundation. The only problem is that many (if not most) Jews disagree with this claim.

This disagreement comes to a point primarily with the identity of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. Evidence of this disagreement is apparent in the gospels long before Jesus was crucified. While Jesus was performing his ministry throughout Judea and Galilee, he rarely had a moment without some heat from the local religious authorities. The vehemence and vitriol surrounding the controversy was exacerbated when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time and his body mysteriously disappeared from his tomb. Since then the divisions have grown and solidified, becoming a wall with a narrow gate that only a few go between.

A Troubling Message

Christian scripture includes two testaments, conveniently known as the Old and the New.  The Christian Old Testament includes the entirety of Jewish scripture which was concluded approximately four hundred years before Jesus walked the earth.

This tells us one very important thing about Christians: we believe that our religion is a continuation of the Jewish religion.

That’s right, our Gospel is the Jewish Gospel. Everything that Christians believe is based off of everything that the Hebrew people wrote as scripture. Without God selecting Abraham and establishing the covenant to make him the father of a great nation, Christians would not be here.

If Christians believe that they practice Judaism 2.0 then they have to be getting this notion from somewhere. This idea of Christianity being the continuation is taught in several forms throughout the new testament but one specific occasion really heats things up for us and points to why people like me are concerned with Judaism.

In the book of Matthew, right before Jesus was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death, he told a story to the chief priest and elders about some tenants and a wealthy landowner. The landowner had a large and fertile plot. This plot was an investment for him but he needed to take care of other matters. In the mean time, the land needed to produce income for him so he hired some tenants to produce a crop. In their contract, the tenants would get a place to live and money and food to live on so long as they sent the agreed upon portion of the profits back to the landowner.

Unfortunately for the landowner, the tenants did not keep their end of the bargain. At the appointed time the landowner sent some of his men to collect his portion, but the tenants abused them, murdering one, beating another, and attempting to kill the third. The landowner had cause to seize his land at this point, but being merciful he sent another round of servants, more this time than the last. Again, the tenants abused the landowner’s men and killed a few, totally disregarding the contract and disrespecting their benefactor’s wishes.

Finally, the landowner, still filled with mercy, sent his own son as representative for him. The son would go and collect the debt owed to the landowner as his family member and personal envoy. Surely, the tenants would realize how serious the landowner was this time since he sent his son. Again, the tenants were filled with disdain for their benefactor and jealousy over his possessions. They took his son and murdered him.

Jesus pauses here and asks his listeners what they think happens next. The elders respond:

 “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus then says a peculiar thing. He brings up a piece of the Psalms in response the the chief priests.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’”?

Seeing the looks of confusion in their eyes and the question on their lips, Jesus explains what his means.

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

So this is where Jesus identifies two things:

  1. The elders and the chief priest are the builders. They were the tenants sent to prepare a harvest for their generous landowner.
  2. People like me will inherit the landowner’s property instead.

As you can tell, this is highly inflammatory. If Jesus is the Son of God as he identifies himself elsewhere, then he is the stone that the builders rejected and he is the one who will crush them. Jesus became that for Christians and we are broken at his feet. For Christians, Jesus is the cornerstone of the religion. Without him, the whole thing crumbles and we are all fools. However, this means that the kingdom of heaven was taken from the Hebrew patriarchs.

This is really unfortunate for someone whose identity is based on God selecting their forefathers to make a nation that will last forever.

Hope For the Future

Fortunately, this is not where the story ends.

In my last post, we talked about the primary differentiator between covenants and contracts which is that covenants, once established, never pass away. Before the New Covenant (which forms the premise of the New Testament), there were several covenants God made with his people. The good news for Hebrew people is that all of these covenants are still in effect. That means that all of God’s promises, including the fact that there will always be a remnant, will come to pass. It also means that through the Hebrew people, all of the nations are blessed.

If Jesus is who he says he is, then Christianity provides answers to the covenants that many Jews are still waiting to be fulfilled. Through Him, the nation of Israel gets to lay claim to the best of all claims. They are, in fact, the people of the promise, and I am only grafted in to that blessing.

The book of Acts and later the book of Hebrews demonstrate and explain this truth in depth. One of the most important messages of Acts is that that the Gospel is first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. The pattern of Acts demonstrates this truth. The first portion of the book is dedicated to the spread of the Gospel throughout Israel. Then the Gospel is spread to the Jews outside of Judea and then to the Gentiles. Hebrews then goes on to explain to the Jewish people the meaning of the Gospel according to the history of the Hebrew nation.

If anything is clear, the Gospel came first to the Jewish nation and then through them. This is good news, both in that it restores the identity of the chosen people and that Gentiles like me can share a heritage with them.

Are you a Legalist? (Part 2)

In my last post, I discussed two ends of a spectrum for how people relate to the Law: Legalism vs. Antinomianism. The two positions pose the question “What do we do with the Law?” and then go about answering it through one of two methods: either total and zealous obedience which risks missing the point of the Law entirely or lack of regard to the importance of the Law exhibited through total disobedience. That Law, which is the set of holy ordinances handed down to Moses and then to the Hebrew people, has been a highly debated issue amongst Christian thinkers for almost two thousand years.

To avoid the traps of legalism and antinomianism we need to understand the concept of biblical covenants.  Effectively, a covenant works like a contract. However, unlike a contract, once a covenant exists it never passes away. Regardless of whether either of the parties holds up their end of the agreement both parties continue to be responsible to their obligations should a violation occur. Since God is always faithful and true, this means only one side of the covenant is likely to fail (Hint: it’s ours).

Throughout history, there have been a series of these covenants between man and God, forming the backbone of the religions of Judaism and Christianity as well as the cultural identity of Israel and the Jewish nationality. For this post, I will focus on just two covenants, though the rest are intricately linked to them.

First in order is the Mosaic Covenant. This is the covenant that resulted in both the formation of the Hebrew nation as well as the establishment of the Law. With this covenant, God performed a decisive move in upholding his previous covenant with Abram to make him into a great nation. He also delivered to His people a strong and lasting revelation of who He is through the Law and the covenant rituals. Finally, God established once and for all that there is good and there is evil. Failure to keep the terms of the covenant was proof of the evil living within the hearts men.

Second in order is what we call the New Covenant. This covenant is the one ushered in by Jesus’ work on Earth and reveals to us the grace of God. The Mosaic Covenant had quite a bit of language about what would happen to those who failed to uphold its words. This is what led entire sects of Jewish zealots (the Legalists) to seek perfection in keeping the commands of God. The New Covenant showed us that it is not by works, but by grace that we are saved. This then led to the people (the Antinomians) totally ignoring the Law and living as they pleased since salvation has been accomplished for us. We know that neither approach is correct, so we still have to figure out how to relate to the Law.

Remember the rules of a covenant? The covenant remains in tact regardless of whether one of the parties keeps their end of the deal. The New Covenant acts as a wraparound covenant, where in the owner pays the debt for the former and now owns a new debt from the debtor. In Jesus, the debt for the Mosaic covenant was paid. God, in his goodness, knew that man had no hope of upholding their end of the agreement. He clothed Himself in flesh and became a man in order to fulfill man’s side of the agreement for him leaving us a spectators as He works out our salvation for us.

Today the Mosaic covenant remains as a testimony against us, showing us just how far short of acceptable we are. However, the good news of the Gospel is that all God really wants from us is our love and worship. He is willing to go to great lengths to demonstrate His love for us and asks only that we turn from our sins and worship Him alone. Jesus even instructs us on how we can show God that we love him:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. -John 14:15 (ESV)

The Bible is full of God’s commands, so what is Jesus saying here if man cannot save himself through Law? Jesus goes on in John 14 to describe how God the Father will send a helper, The Holy Spirit, to remind us of his commands and all the things that Jesus has done. The Holy Spirit will help us to relate to theLaw properly and rely on God to do the impossible, which is to save man through the fulfillment of His covenants. In order to cure ourselves from legalism, we have to accept the good news that Jesus did the work for us. If we glorify God through repentance and worship, then we will do what he says, not out of requirement but out of love for him and an outpouring of our faith in him. Finally, through the steady and faithful work of the Holy Spirit, we will show our love for the Father through the evidence of keeping His commands, first through loving God and second through loving our neighbor as our self.

When we trust God and leave the work of salvation to him, the Law is no longer a testimony against us. It then becomes a revelation of who God is. Through the Law, we can know Him. We can know how He thinks, what He likes, and the things that He values. Through the Law, we can revel in His glory, in awe that He has accomplished what we cannot. This is the cure for Legalism, loving God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength. All else will be added to you.

How can a young person stay pure?

By obeying your word.

I have tried hard to find you—

don’t let me wander from your commands.

I have hidden your word in my heart,

that I might not sin against you.

I praise you, O LORD

teach me your decrees.

I have recited aloud

all the regulations you have given us.

I have rejoiced in your laws

as much as in riches.

I will study your commandments

and reflect on your ways.

I will delight in your decrees

and not forget your word.

~Psalm 119:9-16 (NLT)

Are you a Legalist? (Part 1)

Have you ever heard of someone saying that someone else was being “legalistic”? Have you ever said it yourself about a friend or acquaintance? This word, legalism, is probably one of Christianity’s favorite insults or judgments to bandy about. For many, it’s an easy way to put a name to behaviors they don’t agree with, particularly when someone seems to be overly committed to piety. Or, to avoid the trap of legalism, we might say, “Well, I guess I could do [blank] because I wouldn’t want to be legalistic.”

But what is legalism?

I recently heard a definition for it on the radio that sort of makes sense, though it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. The speaker said that “legalism” is the separation of the Law from the God who gave the Law. In my own words, this would be a form of idolatry, where the Law becomes the object of worship and means of salvation rather than God. This is a very natural thing to do. It’s easy too!

We don’t have to try very hard to head down this road, especially when we’re trying to do our best to please the God who loves us. When the almighty, good and loving father tells us to do or not to do something, it makes sense for us to then take that rule and place safeguards around it. If God says, “I don’t want you to have any cookies after dinner.” You might then say, “If God doesn’t want me to have any cookies after dinner, then I will just not touch the cookie jar after 4pm.” This is logical. Since dinner usually happens somewhere between 5 and 9pm, you can’t possibly have any cookies after dinner with your new rule.

But where God gave you one rule, now you have two. Soon, you might ask, “what did God mean when he said no cookies after dinner? Was he saying no dessert? Or was he saying nothing sweet?” To be safe, you decide that he really meant you can’t have dessert. Also, just to be safe, you decide that the cranberry walnut vinaigrette that you were looking forward to on your salad might also be considered dessert if you were to include all things sweet. You might then decide that cookies are a form of bread so baked goods are also entirely stricken from the table. Eventually, you might think that since the cookie jar is in the kitchen, you have to stay away from the kitchen altogether because, in your preparation for dinner and cleaning up after, you might accidentally bump into it and break our second rule, which is to not touch the cookie jar after 4pm.

What have we ended up with in order to avoid having cookies after dinner is a complete ban on dinner and reduced access to one of your favorite rooms in the house. This is legalism, and it’s not at all what God was asking for.

When God set forth the Law, he made a good start with the Ten Commandments. In fact, as Jesus explains in the New Testament, God’s first two commandments should have been enough since all of the rest of the Law and the Prophets are wrapped up in them. It was man who asked, “But… how??” and was subsequently terrified by the answer. The remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, after God hands down the 10 commandments to the Hebrew people, is full of the explanation and expansion of the Law. This portion of the Bible is part of the Torah and spells out the terms of the Mosaic covenant between God and His people, the Jews. Failure to meet these requirements meant death, not only to the body but to the soul.

The story of the Old Testament Jews is like that “no cookies after dinner” problem. Once the Law was given, the people gave themselves over to legalism in the extreme. When they came upon a lost or wounded animal that needed to be rescued on the Sabbath, they had to leave it and hope that it didn’t die before the next day. If it was time to give the tithe to the Lord, they had to then go and divide out the first tenth of not only the flocks, but also the produce, herbs, cash, and children, giving them over to God as an offering.

Today, we are no different.

Today, we still take the Law, the thing God intended for our benefit and His glory and worship it instead of Him.

Today, we enslave ourselves to the obedience of every last parenting/dieting/nonviolence/exercise rule we see.

But the story doesn’t end here. Some of us have evolved and moved on from such archaic requirements. Some of us have read scripture and know that we have something the Jews living under the Old Covenant never did; for us, the Law has been fulfilled. For us, there is a New Covenant between God and Man where Jesus, having fulfilled the Law through his crucifixion and resurrection, has removed from us consequence of breaking the Law.

If the consequence for breaking the law has been removed, are we now free to do as we please?

One of the biggest criticisms of Christianity is that Christians are hypocrites. We claim to hold to a higher way and yet often show that we are no different from our neighbor, neither in act or deed. This is a fair criticism, which we have earned.

Many (probably all) Christians have at some point or another wrestled with the question of what to do with the Law. Since the Gospel is that Christ has fulfilled the Law on our behalf, we now get to experience freedom from the burden that it represents. So, to exercise our freedom, we run headlong in the opposite direction of the Law. Believing that the Law no longer holds any significant weight, we scrap it and divorce ourselves from its code. This is what the scholars call “Antinomianism.”

antinomian. 1 : one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.

In other words, someone who thinks that they can do whatever they want because they’ve been saved by faith and grace covers all sins is an antinomian. Unfortunately for the believer, this too is a wrong response to the Gospel. Scholars in the past have reasoned that both the Legalist and the Antinomian both suffer from a wrong relationship with the Law. Indeed, both are still a slave to it. Jesus explains this to us in his Sermon on the Mount:

17 “Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20 CSB

Jesus’ statement about the Law paints a hard picture. You see, the Pharisees and the scribes knew the Law. They knew every letter and pen scratch making up the Law and could run circles around the rest of their Jewish brothers when it came to living it out. If the Pharisees were the epitome of legalism and Jesus tells them off multiple times for it, then we don’t want to be like them! But we don’t want to be antinomians either! What is a Christian to do? Are we supposed to keep the Law or not??

In my next post, I will discuss a right relationship with the Law and how Christians today should relate to it.