A dangerous side effect of legalism – reducing the Christian life to a set of rules – is pride. Paul says as much in Colossians 2:18 calling the rule-promoters “inflated without cause by their fleshly mind.” An inflated ego is a hallmark of legalism. And it is driven by the flesh, not by the Spirit.
When we set up a rule-following system as the picture of Christianity, we almost always fall into a comparison mode that has no spiritual value. How am I doing today compared to yesterday? How am I doing at keeping the rules compared to person A, B, or C? Are my community’s rules more godly than the church down the street? Do you ever feel these comparisons?
These comparisons are fueled by pride. They are motivated by a need to find my identity and worth in my performance. When I am doing well in meeting the standard that I have set up for myself and others, I feel a sense of pride in my accomplishment. When I feel like I am “measuring up”, I tend to become critical and judgmental of others who are missing the mark in my view. Far from being a positive, this pride is a red flag that I am operating in the flesh, as Paul refers to it, rather than in the Spirit. In my flesh-driven pride I am effectively saying, “My worth and righteousness are found in Christ plus my rules.”
The flip side is also true. When I do not perform well, I am overcome by a sense of shame. “How could I have performed so poorly? How could I be such a terrible person?” When we put both sides together, we find that legalism puts us in a never ending cycle of pride and shame based on our performance and comparison with others. We always can find someone who is “doing better” or “doing worse” than us, leading us invariably into feelings of pride or shame. We will address the shame side of the pride/shame cycle next time, but for now let’s come back to the pride.
We destroy pride by understanding how unworthy our human efforts were in our receiving the gift of the gospel and how worthless they now are in living out the gospel. When we embrace the gospel message [the good news of a life set free], not just in our once-for-all salvation decision, but also as a way of life, we learn that our worth and acceptance by God has nothing to do with our performance.
When we seek to “prove ourselves” or “justify ourselves” by showing God (and others) that we are good enough, we are not living into the grace of the gospel message. We have been justified by faith in what Christ has already done. And God accepts us on the basis of Christ’s work, not our own. There is nothing you can do to make yourself more acceptable to God. Hear me on this, never more acceptable to God than the first moment of your new birth.
I think a useful term here is “functional trust”. We have the appropriate Bible knowledge to say our trust is fully in Christ. But on a functional level of how we live our lives, are we trusting the work of Christ or in our performance to earn God’s daily grace? Living the gospel is transferring our trust – intellectually and functionally – away from ourselves and resting it in Christ.
So throw off the chain of pride by living into all of Christ’s promise of a life set free. If you see a performance-based prideful effort in your walk with the Lord, confess it to Him, and see His life breathe a sweet joy into His instructions. One of the greatest freedoms Christ is offering is the freedom from pride; the freedom from always having to protect our image. A life set free is not about our accomplishment. It is about Jesus’ accomplishment on our behalf. This is living the gospel.