Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Already, Not Yet and Legalism

Sat in on a Bible study discussing the first section of Romans chapter 2 tonight.  The discussion was pretty good, and I think they made a very helpful contextualization/contemporizing of the passage by talking about on the one hand the flagrant sinner who wants everything their way and thus rejects God (the very Jewish critique of Gentile paganism that precedes this passage in Romans chapter 1) and on the other, the superficial morality that so dominates particularly Southern culture- the Baptist who always votes Republican and never drinks, for instance, which hides the fact that this person is still every bit as guilty of sin and in need of redemption (the hypocritical judge at the beginning of Romans 2).  Essentially, the point of the discussion was to say that every person has a "god" who has captured their loyalty and as sinful people, this is not the true God regardless of whether we live in flagrant sin and open denial of God or hide behind a mask of legalism.

So in discussing this legalistic individual, it was said that such a person's "god"- their source of joy- was in their moral behavior, their legalism.  The alternative, the worship of the true God, it was said, is to find our joy in God, in Christ alone, and not in what we do.  I discussed this some with the speaker afterwards, but in reflecting on it more it inspired me to write a little.  I started off by wondering if this is not too simplistic of a distinction.  So to use an analogy- it seems like when we find joy in a person, part of that joy is in the person themselves, but likewise a significant part of that joy comes from doing things for that person.  To use the perhaps overused but still helpful analogy of a romantic pursuit- if I am pursuing a girl, that is motivated by my appreciation for who she is (and for some reason describing that appreciation as "joy" seems like an odd fit, though certainly the feeling would be akin to joy), but in large part the joy I receive from that relationship is going to found in doing things for her, if for no other reason than that this secures affection towards me from her.  Likewise, I think, we certainly as Christians are motivated by an appreciation for who God is.  But I think, likewise, that a good portion of our joy in God comes not just from reflecting on his character (if I just sat around day-dreaming about this girl you would just call me silly) but from actually doing things for him, doing morally good deeds, etc.

So what this accomplishes is establishing that legalism is a bit of a sticky issue because in fact doing good/living well are expressions of our appreciation for God, and in fact are a necessary part of expressing that and rightfully should bring us joy.  At what point, then, do they become legalistic and dangerous?  At what point do they become an idol that has replaced the God they were meant to serve?

Well in reflecting more on this since talking about this with the speaker tonight, I have thought that the New Testament motif of "already, not yet" may be of help here.  The idea of this tension is that we are living in between the completion of one age and the full arrival of another, the transition period from the reign of sin and death on this earth to the full reign of Christ.  So already, Christ has come, he has died, he has been raised from the dead.  Already, the death blow has been dealt to the enemy.  But the enemy is not yet dead.  The kingdom is not yet fully here.  Sin is not yet fully removed from this world, death has not yet ceased.  And so we live celebrating what has already occurred and looking forward to the final fulfillment of what will yet come to be.  Now, typically this scheme is used to explain the eschatological tension of the New Testament.  But I think it can also help us understand our own sanctification, our own growth as Christians, and the boundaries of legalism.  Already, we have been purchased by Christ and set apart as his people.  But we are not yet fully there.  All of us still wrestle with sin.  We still live in a world that is crippled by sin.  So we live as those who are growing, but are not yet grown, who are advancing, but have not yet arrived.  My alternative understanding of when our striving to live morally upright lives becomes legalism is when we no longer feel the need to grow.  When we arrive and think that we are "good" and have no need to improve.  When we no longer look for our flaws, we are not willing to subject ourselves to self-criticism or listen to the criticism of others. That is when we have made our own morality our idol because we have declared it the perfect standard.


  1. I enjoyed reading this. I think you made some really good points especially at the end when you described your alternative understanding of legalism. None of us have arrived and when we think that we have, we develop a sense of pride that is probably the worst demonstration that sin is still alive and has a grip on us. Look forward to seeing you this weekend... Bye for now, Dad

  2. Alex,

    Your writing/discussion brings to mind a conversation I had with my son not too long ago. I am often humbled by what my children teach me even as I try to "train them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord". Again, it is that tension you speak of!

    To the point, I came in to kiss my son goodnight one evening and found him sobbing. When questioned why, he responded "Because I want to be good, but I just can't". I did my best to reassure him that we all feel that way (or at least we should). By our brokenness and confessing (our sins) to Christ, we can move on, free from that sin and undergoing the sanctification process little by little.

    It pains me to see Christians who do not understand this tension. If God's ultimate plan is under tension (even though the end has been decided) between a holy and just Creator and a fallen world, then why would/should we expect our simple lives to be lived out with any less tension?

    Another analogy is that of a guitar or piano string...under the proper amount of tension, it creates a beautiful note. Too slack, and it makes a disturbing noise. Too tight and it breaks. I think God hears beautiful music from his people as we sort out this tension (sanctification) in our own lives, (a sanctifying melody of sorts) and it is also played out in our witness for Him. The legalistic tension pushes people away, while the lackadaisical tension gives them no hope.

    I pray that we all rest in that place he has laid before us, "attune" to the tension, and living out his sanctification process in our lives.

    My 2 cents - Ben


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