Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Legalism

While most believers recognize that we are set free from the Old Testament Law, there is still the danger of a New Testament version of the law that creeps into our thinking, our churches, and our approach to living the Christian life.  Our attempts to keep things as black and white as possible, as well as looking for a holiness that we can measure, often lead to a new set of rules to follow.  This rule-following approach to living the Christian life is known as legalism.

In Colossians chapter 1, the apostle Paul summarizes the mystery of the gospel, “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the Word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:25-27).  The mystery of the gospel is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Paul then goes on in Colossians chapter 2 to expand on what “Christ in you” looks like.  And his focus is clearly on Christ and our connection to Him.  Observe how many times Paul refers to you as “in Christ”.

  • “Your faith in Christ” (vs 5)
  • “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (vs 6)
  • “Being built up in Him” (vs 7)
  • “According to Christ” (vs 8)
  • “For in Christ all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (vs 9)
  • In Him, you have been made complete” (vs 10)
  • In Him, you were also circumcised in the removal of the body of flesh” (vs 11)
  • “You were buried with Him in baptism” (vs 12)
  • “You were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God” (vs 12)
  • “He made you alive together with Him” (vs 13)
  • “Having triumphed over the rulers and authorities of the world through Him” (vs 15)

In this chapter, describing so many aspects of “Christ in you”, the emphasis is clearly on Christ.  When we fall into legalism, the focus is on us.  Are we following the rules?  Are we measuring up to earn God’s acceptance?  The Christian life is uncovering, exploring, and experiencing who we are in Christ and living into that identity; understanding what it means and looks like to have Christ literally living His life through us.  When we reduce the Christian life to a set of rules, we are missing the power and mystery of who we are in Christ.  We are missing the God-sized faith growing times of responding to His Spirit’s message to us moment by moment.  Our focus should always be on Christ.

We know the apostle is comparing who we are in Christ to rule-keeping because of how he closes out chapter 2 in verses 16 through 23.  Paul writes, “Let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or a festival or a new moon or in keeping the Sabbath – things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.  Let no one defraud you of your prize by delighting in and promoting self-abasement, which appears pious but is actually fueled by pride.  When you died with Christ, you died to these elementary arguments – which are really just teachings of men – over what to handle, taste, and touch” (Col 2:16-22).  These rules are really just the teachings of men.

Paul then finishes the chapter in verse 23 with a fascinating conclusion that not only is legalism the wrong approach to living the Christian life, but at its core it does not even work in moving us toward the holiness we desire.  “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col 2:23).

Ouch!  The very thing that we think will stop sin in its tracks – a severe adherence to rules – is of no value in the big picture of our relationship with sin!  Look at Paul’s words.  “The appearance of wisdom … self-made religion … no value against fleshly indulgence.”  Legalism is a self-made religion with nothing to fuel the Christian life.  Can I encourage you?  Throw off the chain of legalism.  Pray for God’s Spirit to move your focus onto Christ and His life in you.

Looking ahead, legalism not only enslaves us, but also has a deadly side effect.  Do you know what it is?  We will talk about it next time.

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of the Law

One of the first chains we are to throw off in our quest to live free is the chain of the Law.  Many of the earliest believers in Jesus were of Jewish background and they needed clear direction regarding their new relationship with the Old Testament Law.  The apostle Paul explains on several occasions that the short answer to the question of the Law is that we have literally died to it.  It is no longer in effect.  It is no longer influential or applicable to those who have embraced the gospel.

At the beginning of Romans chapter 7, Paul illustrates our death to the Law by comparing it to the death of a spouse.  “Just as a woman is free to be joined to another man after the death of her husband…you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God.  For while we were in the flesh (i.e. prior to our conversion and still under the Law), the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.  But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom 7:3-6).

Our break with the Law is as severe and final as death itself.  The Law died as a part of our life and we were married to a new groom, Christ Himself.  And the consummation of our new marriage is the Spirit of Christ coming to live inside us.  Rather than the “oldness of the Law”, we move, serve, and love in the “newness of the Spirit”.

Paul expounds further on this topic in his letter to the church at Galatia.  The book of Galatians is essentially a treatise on our death to the Law and our new freedom in Christ.  Here are just a few highlights of the book:

“But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the Law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.  Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.  For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:23-26).

You became a son of God by faith in Christ, not by keeping the Law.  The Law was preparatory in nature and having finished its job of pointing us to Christ, it is no longer needed.  Or to quote from the passage, “We are no longer under a tutor [the Law].”

Another highlight:  “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?  This is the only thing I want to find out from you:  did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  Did you suffer so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain?  Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:1-5).

The Christian life is lived by faith, not by works of the Law.  Paul’s argument for freedom from the Law throughout Galatians is that just as you were saved by faith apart from keeping the Law, so the Christian life is lived by faith, not by works of the Law.

Here is another:  “But it was because of the false brethren who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.  But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (Gal 2:4-5).

The Judaizers, the false brethren, taught that despite being saved by Christ’s death, the Christian life requires adherence to the Law.  This confusion is understandable given the transition from Law to grace that is only now, in New Testament times, being explained and taught by the apostles.  But even in this transition period, requiring new believers to follow the Law is such a grievous and oppressive error that Paul says, in our vernacular, “We did not even give them the time of day!”

And finally:  “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).  It is an interesting comparison between the “yoke of slavery” and the “yoke of Christ”.  Jesus called His yoke “easy and light” (Mt 11:30) and invites us to join Him in it.  We are to embrace the yoke of Christ and reject the yoke of slavery.

The yoke of slavery is the burden of living under the Law.  The burden of trying to keep the Law.  The yoke of Christ is light because with Him living His life through us, He is doing the heavy lifting.  Christ is in the yoke with us providing the power to move ahead.  As for the yoke of slavery to the Law, Paul says to no longer be subject to it (Gal 5:1).  In other words, “Throw off your chains!  And start by throwing off the chain of the Law!”

Now, given that most of you reading this post are not from a Jewish background and the Law is now 2000 years in the rear view mirror, is the chain of the Law really a problem in today’s church?  I believe it is.  But it has taken on a more subtle form than the Law vs grace situation of Paul’s day.  What we are facing today is a New Testament form of the law.  And it can be just as dangerous and oppressive as its Old Testament counterpart.  We will talk about it next time.

Living Free

I love this quote by hip-hop artist Lecrae in his new book Unashamed, “I had finally been set free, but I was about to find out if I could live free.”  Did you catch those powerful two words, “live free”?  That, my friends, is the Christian life in a nutshell; learning to live free, learning to live in the freedom that we already have in Christ.  That is really the question at the heart of living the Christian life, “Can we learn to live free?”

When you and I embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ, we were instantly set free; free to enjoy the fullness of Christ in us.  We were immediately set free from the penalty of sin.  “And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven all of our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which were hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14).  We have been set free from the penalty of sin, fully alive in Christ.

But we have also been set free from the power of sin.  Our freedom from the power of sin has both an immediate and ongoing aspect.  In the immediate sense, we were instantly indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:11) who infuses us with godly character and a desire for righteousness (Eph 4:24).  We instantly received a new heart inclined toward God (Ez 36:26); inclined toward His laws and ways (Heb 10:16).  We were instantly released from sin as our master (Rom 6:6) and were set free to obey a new master, the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 6:13).

But even with all these (and many more) instant changes, learning to live into all these “set frees” is a lifelong process.  This is the ongoing aspect of a life set free from the power of sin.  As God continues to mold, shape, and change us from the inside out, we learn more and more how to experience the freedom we have already been given.  We learn how to experience the supernatural presence of Christ in us.

One of the first steps to learning to live free is to identify and throw off the chains that hold us back, the chains that place us in bondage.  What are some of these chains?  Over the next few weeks, we will be learning what the Bible says about throwing off …

  • the chain of the Law
  • the chain of legalism
  • the chain of pride
  • the chain of shame
  • the chain of guilt
  • the chain of fear
  • the chain of worry
  • the chain of selfish ambition
  • the chain of idolatry
  • the chain of our own unworthiness
  • the chain of sin itself

Now on a scale going from bondage to freedom, where would you say you land in your experience of the Christian life?  If you are more toward the bondage end, do you have an idea why?  Are there spiritual authority figures in your life who want to place or keep you in bondage?  Is there a family history that keeps you in chains?  Is there a besetting sin that is holding you back?  Are you actually more comfortable in a trapped, enclosed negative space?

After all, on a strictly human level, freedom can be scary.  Freedom can be dangerous.  Freedom can look like life unscripted.  I can measure and see the edges of the box I have been placed in or put myself in.  Freedom, on the other hand, cannot really be measured.  It has a limitless quality to it.  And that can be frightening.  But the freedom wrought by Christ’s death in our place, is the freedom embodied in Him and lived through Him.

Over the next several weeks, we will literally scour the New Testament to see what “living free” looks like.  We will learn that freedom does not equal autonomy.  It is not a personal freedom untethered and loose.  It is a freedom to walk in Christ’s ways.  And we will also come back to those pesky chains.  What does God want us to do with them?  Won’t you join us?

Thanksgiving and the New You

I am a stickler for truth in advertising.  When the Bible talks about God’s commands as not burdensome or His yoke as light, I want to know how this happens.  Because, quite frankly, I have felt the weight and burden of Christ’s commands and it was not always pleasant.  And I do not think I am alone in that feeling.

What lifted the burden for me was an understanding of all that changed at my new birth.  And one of the changes was an infusion of a new nature – an infusion of the righteousness of Christ – such that obeying Christ’s commands is now my new normal.  I am not saying my new normal is always easy, but following Christ’s commands has become my second nature and yours too.

When we recognize that Christ is literally living His life through us, that He is in the yoke with us (after all Jesus calls it “His yoke” and I fully expect Him to be in there with me), it lifts the burden.  On the other hand, when we fail to embrace or believe or expect that Christ is living His life through us, we become worn down, oppressed, and yes, burdened by all that He requires.  Our Christian life turns sour and gratefulness is the furthest thing from our minds.

But when we recognize that the gospel message is not only about our initial salvation, but also informs our new power to live the life now, a thankful heart is our natural response.  We can not add anything to what Christ has done for us.  We cannot live the life He wants to live through us by will power and shutting Him out.  We cannot lift ourselves up to righteousness by our bootstraps and true grit.  No, we live the life by accepting all that Christ has accomplished on our behalf.

In the book of Colossians, Paul explains that legalism – working our way to righteousness – is not only foolish, but has no value in defeating the flesh.  He goes on to explain that we live the life, defeat the flesh, and experience victory over sin by living into our new nature; by putting on the new self.  And this new self is infused with thanksgiving.

Gratefulness is so much a part of our new life that Paul comes back to it for three verses in a row as He concludes his treatise on the new self.  “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.  Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col 3:15-17).

In your unity and peace, give thanks.  In Christ’s word dwelling within you, give thanks.  In your singing, give thanks.  And then it is as if Paul looks up and says, “You know the more I think about it, just go ahead and give thanks in everything you do” (vs 17).  Thanksgiving and a grateful heart are that important.

May I encourage you this thanksgiving to thank the Lord for His goodness.  To thank the Lord for the friends and family in your life.  To thank the Lord for His material blessings.  But don’t forget to thank Him for making you a new creation; a new you with a soft and grateful heart.

Your Righteous Smile

Several years ago, when we lived in Houston, I went to visit our daughter, Bethany, on the job.  She was working at the time as a nurse on a medical-surgical floor at Methodist Willowbrook Hospital.  She didn’t know I was coming.  It was a surprise.

I made my way to the seventh floor and wandered through the labyrinth-like hallway.  I am sure I looked lost.  I came up to a nurses’ station and said to the secretary, “Can you tell me where I can find Bethany?”  As the secretary stared at her paperwork, she asked, “What room are you in?”  I guess she assumed I was a patient looking for my nurse.

As I pondered her question and before I could answer, she looked up.  I smiled.  She let out a quiet shriek.  “Oh, you must be Bethany’s dad!”  Which of course was what I was about to say.  But before I could say anything, she exclaimed, “I would recognize that smile anywhere.  You have Bethany’s bright smile.”

I did not correct her with the fact that actually Bethany had my smile since I had it first, but I did appreciate her making the connection.  As with most families, there are many physical and personality qualities that I share with my kids that point to a family resemblance.

Likewise, you have a family resemblance to God.  You have a “smile” of righteous character that looks like your Father.  Now that is not to say that your similarity in character is always obvious.  Just as a child can hide their family resemblance though how they wear their hair, or color their hair, or their dress, or other factors, we can hide our family resemblance to God though sin.

Because sin is not part of God’s character (I Jn 3:9), when we sin we are putting a blemish on that family resemblance.  We are hiding the fact of our resemblance.  The look is still there under the sin.  The look does not go away.  The look was given to us at our salvation.  Our role is to let the look fully shine forth.  Our role is demonstrate what a child of God looks like by the “smile” of our righteous character.