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Entries in legalism (2)


It's not about trying to act like a Christian.

If you chase externals, you get either a pharisee or a defeated Christian.

"External manifestation of "Christlikeness" is not, however, the focus of the process [spiritual formation]; and when it is made the main emphasis, the process will certainly be defeated, falling into deadening legalisms and pointless parochialisms ... We know now that peculiar modes of dress, behavior, and organization just are not the point."  - Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart


It's not about acting like a Christian, even though loving actions are important.

Willard continues,

"...to strive merely to act in conformity with his [Jesus'] expressions of what living in the kingdom of God from the heart is like is to attempt the impossible."


For example many Christians, under a pressure to be holy or under a false sense of conviction from the pulpit, try then to act loving:

"Love, we hear, is patient and kind.  Then we mistakenly try to be loving by acting patiently and kindly - and quickly fail."  - Willard

Willard says that, rather than conjuring love and attempting to act in loving ways, we need to "advance in love itself - the genuine inner readiness and longing to secure the good of others."

My own suggestion is that the way in which that inner readiness is developed is to:

  • Recognize that in your new nature, it's already there.

  • Celebrate with God's Spirit as he nourishes and releases that already-present love.

  • Learn how God uniquely awakens and nourishes your heart:  Music?  Solitude?  Conversational prayer?  Scripture study? Art?  A good hike in the woods?  Meaningful conversation with others?


"the letter of the law kills, the spirit gives life."  [2 Corinthians 3:6]


Related resources:

  • "And please, try not to sin!"

  • My book, Recover Your Good Heart, goes into much more detail about living from the good and noble heart Jesus has given the Christian; and what the Bible has to say about it.  It debunks many of the myths we've been given about our hearts, so that we can live the life Jesus invites us to.

[Also in Kindle and AudioBook/MP3 formats.]


Sniffing out the gospel that will wear you out

About fifteen years ago, while I was  in grad school, I "attended a church" just off campus.  Without fail, I left that building each Sunday with the same sensation:  spiritual heaviness.  The unspoken message being delivered was, "You're simply not measuring up to expectations."  Without fail, that same experience has repeated itself in nearly every "church" experience, conference, retreat, or organized gathering of Christians since then.

 At the time, I had no words to articulate what was going on, but I now have a well-developed internal filter -- a warning flag, a nose for sniffing out false substitutes.  (After a while, your heart says, "No more!  This can't be all there is.")  At the center of what I experienced each Sunday was the effect of the partial gospel.  Sometimes it isn't the Gospel at all; and in any case, it is a "gospel" that will wear you out. 

This false substitute goes by several monikers:  "the religious spirit," "religious legalism," "the gospel of religious duty and shame," or "living under Law."  Whatever its name, it is not what Jesus came to offer.  All you have to do is look at its fruit:  defeated Christians, fleeting personal transformation, frenzied activity substituting for apprenticeship at Jesus' side, and a meager affect upon the culture we hope to transform.

So how does one develop this early warning system, that ability to sniff out false substitutes?  Well, how does your heart react in those situations?  Do you experience:

  • Spiritual pressure to measure up to expectations.
  • Spiritual heaviness.
  • You suspect God, is in fact, not really pleased with you.
  • You're constantly being asked by leadeship to be more committed.
  • Every message is about getting you to do something, or to stop doing something.
  • The leadeship is more concerned with managing people's sin, than releasing a new life that is now within them.
  • No one ever talks about the heart, and when they do, it is with suspicion -- even in the case of the believer.

What have you experienced when you've encountered a substitute "gospel?"