Think about a walk you have taken (or could take) with people who criticize everything you do because you don’t do it right according to them. Your pace is too slow or too fast. You are not wearing the right kind of shoes or clothes. Such a walk would likely be miserable. You might feel stuck on that walk and captive to your companions until you could get free from them. That can happen to you in your spiritual life as well if you get trapped in a performance-based way of approaching God. Pathway #5 is “Claim Your Freedom in Christ.” This is post #6 in our “Joyful Walk” series.
Listen to this post as a podcast from our Pathways to a Joyful Walk Bible Study:
Many Christians start out accepting the gift of salvation by grace. Then, others impose on them things they must “do” or “not do.” It is communicated as “follow our rules” in order to maintain your acceptance before a holy God. This may have been your experience. This issue is called “law and grace.” The false teaching is called legalism. The way out of legalism is to claim your freedom in Christ. You do that by pursuing godliness to avoid legalism.
What is godliness? Here is the definition:
Godliness is devotion to God expressed in a life that is pleasing to Him.
Devotion to God begins with loving Him so much that you want to please Him with your life. The New Testament is filled with reasons why you should devote yourself to God and love Him wholeheartedly. That devotion should be expressed in a response of obedience to Him—a response motivated by love and gratitude. Sadly, you can be taught instead that you must do certain works to keep your salvation and avoid certain activities in order not to lose it. You can recognize it as “faith plus” good works or “faith plus” following church rules.
Legalism is a performance-based way of approaching the Christian life. It is taking your faith in Christ and adding other things you must do or not do to maintain acceptance from God and keep your salvation.
Legalism is NOT what is clearly taught in the New Testament about what sin is and what living a life that pleases God looks like. Legalism is someone trying to motivate you to live the Christian life based on your own efforts and fear of what God will do to you every time you fail. That is the end result of legalism. It is very wrong and destructive!
Through the years, I have met several women who had been freed from the brainwashing associated with cults claiming to be Christian. A cult is a religious group that denies one or more of the fundamentals of biblical truth. When you read through history, it seems that women are more drawn to religious cults than men are. Cult leaders are usually charismatic and persuasive, inviting women to follow them. A cult may promise to satisfy a woman’s heart needs through community and a sense of controlled boundaries. Women like community and a controlled environment. But cult leaders then control an individual’s associations, deliberately withhold or distort information, discourage critical thinking, and manipulate their followers through fear, guilt, and indoctrination.
The two most common false teachings of cults claiming to be Christian are that Jesus was not fully God and that salvation is not by faith alone. Therefore, Jesus’ death was not sufficient to pay for all your sins, and salvation is achieved by your own good works. So you can never get rid of the guilt of your sin or the guilt of not doing enough good works to achieve salvation. This “Manipulation by Guilt” motivation is destructive to Christians who have never been taught the truth about what they have in Christ. And it, like all legalism, denies Christ’s finished work on the cross.
Legalism denies Christ’s finished work on the cross.
To claim your freedom, you need to know that legalism denies Christ’s finished work on the cross on your behalf.
The gospel is an announcement to the world of an accomplished fact. What God set out to do for humans, He accomplished. The apostles declared this from the time of Pentecost (Acts 2) and beyond.
Remember that salvation is available on the basis of a single condition: faith. God acted. We are to respond to His action. Those who respond with faith in Jesus Christ, who is God’s Son, receive a firm assurance of eternal security, a secure new identity in Christ, and a true knowledge of God as seen through all that He has done through Christ’s finished work on the cross. You learned a lot of that in Pathway #3: Grasp Who You Are.
Because of Christ’s finished work, you are justified. That means you are declared righteous and no longer guilty of your sin. You are saved from the wrath of God. That means that His anger against sin was satisfied by Jesus’ death on the cross. He is no longer angry at your sin. You are reconciled. That means your relationship with God is restored and is no longer broken. You have direct and instantaneous access to Him. You are redeemed. That means you are released from wickedness and no longer in bondage to sin. You are completely forgiven and no longer burdened by your sin and guilt. You are sanctified. That means you are perfected in God’s eyes—holy, without blemish and free from accusation. The book of Hebrews says this,
For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)
You are no longer flawed because of your sin. And God continues to work in your life so that your behavior matches how He sees you.
Legalism denies all the work that God has already accomplished on your behalf and makes rules that God does not command. Legalism demands you make yourself look good or earn merit with God by what you sacrifice. And if you cannot measure up to its expectations, legalism makes you feel guilt and shame, not gratitude and joy.
Do not let anyone take from you the truths of who you are in Christ. They are FACTS for every Christian, made yours the moment you put your faith in Christ. Claim Christ’s finished work on the cross for you.
Legalism is not a substitute for godliness.
To claim your freedom, you also need to know that legalism is not a substitute for godliness. Often, when you examine the lives of those who push legalism on you, you will find that those people are some of the most ungodly in their private lives. Why is that? It is because…
Legalism feeds hypocrisy.
In Mark chapter 7, Jesus pointed out legalism in the Pharisees who kept their bodies squeaky clean while treating fellow Jews like dirt. Cleanliness is not next to godliness. What they did was hypocrisy. Hypocrisy comes from the word for “actor.” It is playing a role.
Christians who make mistakes and repent of them before God are not hypocrites. No Christian is perfect in life—no matter how old or established in their faith.
Hypocrites are those who are outwardly conforming to what looks good, but their hearts are not tender toward God or trusting in Him more than themselves. Here is how they are described in Titus chapter 1:
They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. (Titus 1:16)
They claim to know God, but by their actions deny Him. They are unfit for doing anything good.
God is not interested in outward conformity. He wants your heart to be right with Him, and right behavior that He asks you to do should follow that. But legalism feeds hypocrisy.
Legalism also feeds hopelessness.
Many Christians start out accepting the gospel of God’s grace by their faith alone. Then, someone comes along and says, “That is not enough. You have to follow these rules if you want to be spiritual and if you want to stay saved.” But those rules are constantly changing so you never know if you are saved or not!
Maybe you started out accepting the gift of salvation by faith in Jesus as a free gift, but then you were thrown into a works-related way of living this Christian life in order to maintain your acceptance before God. The result is that you stray away from enjoying a love-based relationship with Jesus to practicing a works-based religion.
Outward performance is not godliness. But the emphasis on “getting it right” with God can lead to hopelessness because no one can ever please God enough through their own efforts. So you might just stop trying altogether and give up.
Why would someone think it necessary to create additional laws for Christians to follow? Often, it is the tendency to think that you can control sin through lots of rules. We all know how that does not work! Legalism is used to motivate people to obedience by fear of punishment. It becomes a substitute for devotion to Christ and true godliness that flows from that devotion.
God’s plan is for you to live by grace.
Claim your freedom from legalism as you live by God’s grace and in God’s grace to you every day. You can bask in the grace of God. Ephesians chapter 2 declares this to you:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Grace means “undeserved favor.” God gives His favor to someone not because they are good enough to deserve it but because His love chooses to do so. We all receive this grace when we trust in Jesus.
God wants you to relate to Him now on the basis of His grace. Jesus paid the complete price for you to be set free from your sinful past. You can do nothing more to make yourself acceptable to God.
Paul understood those who had been relating to God through outward performance. This is what he wrote about himself:
Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 1:13-14)
God’s overflowing grace set him free from what held him in bondage. God’s overflowing grace sets you free from whatever has you in bondage—sin, guilt, religious expectations, whatever.
Grace should be what motivates you to obedience. Knowing what Christ has done for you should fill your heart with love and gratitude to Him so that you want to live the kind of life that pleases Him. You can make the same commitment that Paul made in 2 Corinthians chapter 5,
We make it our goal to please him. (2 Corinthians 5:9)
Say that aloud right now: “2 Corinthians 5:9, We make it our goal to please Him.”
You can make it your goal and actively pursue godliness—godlikeness—because you love Him and are thankful for what He has done for you. Remember your identity in Christ makes you perfectly and continually acceptable to God as His dearly loved child. Don’t let anyone try to take that away from you!
That is Pathway #5: Claim your freedom in Christ.
To have a joyful walk, you need to know Christ, to bask in God’s wonderful grace, and to grasp who you are as a Christian. You must choose whom you will serve every day. And you also must claim your freedom in Christ from any kind of bondage. We have one more pathway to consider. Pathway #6 is “Keep Moving Forward.” That is the next article in the “Joyful Walk” series.
Let Jesus satisfy your heart with joy so that your daily walk with Him will be a joyful one.
Learn more about having a rewarding spiritual life through our Pathways to a Joyful Walk Bible Study (6 lessons).
- Pathways to a Joyful Walk Bible Study (6 lessons)
- Satisfied Series 15 Podcasts (Joyful Walk series)
- The Promise of a Joyful Walk: 6 pathways to joy
- Pathway #1: Start with Knowing Jesus Christ
- Pathway #2: Bask in the Grace of God
- Pathway #3: Grasp Who You Are
- Pathway #4: Choose Whom You Will Serve
- Pathway #5: Claim Your Freedom in Christ
- Pathway #6: Keep Moving Forward
- Graceful Living Today Daily Devotional
- Graceful Living Bible Study on Amazon
- Adorn Yourself with Godliness Bible Study
- Luke 8: Mary Magdalene-Jesus satisfies your heart with FREEDOM
Image credit: photo by John Newton, accessed at flickr.com (8162179887_0c6797557b_o.jpg).