Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Unbearable Burden of Legalism

My husband and I finally sat down and watched Les Miserable after hearing many mixed reviews about it. We loved it and blubbered ridiculously together. My favorite scene had to be Jean Valjean's (Hugh Jackman) turmoil in the church after he is given the candlesticks. His moment of coming to terms with his sin and shame and God's immeasurable grace. Glorious.

So we see in Javert the law, and in Valjean, grace in the gospel.

One staunch and unyielding, unable to see beyond its own conditions. The other a soul that knows it belongs to God.  

In John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, we see another picture of law and grace and its effects on our heart: 
Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large parlour that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he had reviewed it a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now, when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a damsel that stood by, “Bring hither water, and sprinkle the room,” which, when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.
CHRISTIAN. Then said Christian, What means this?

INTERPRETER. The Interpreter answered, This parlour is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel. The dust is his original sin, and inward corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now whereas thou sawest that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou wast almost choked therewith: this is to show thee, that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it; for it doth not give power to subdue.
Again, as thou sawest the damsel sprinkle the room with water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure: this is to show thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and gracious influences thereof to the heart, then, I say, even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of glory to inhabit.

"...thou was almost choked therewith..." 

In an article titled Legalism and its Antidotes, Smart claims: 
There's a sin which takes a peculiarly Christian form in churches. It is burdensome, lethally plausible and, tragically, it's rife.
Who am I? Who are you? Are we Javert?

In my efforts as a Christian, a homeschooler, a wife, a friend, do I revive, put strength into, and increase the law in the soul of those around me? Or, do I bring the Gospel with its sweet and gracious influences to the heart?

Smart continues...
Legalism is primarily a God-ward thing. It's a way of making and keeping yourself acceptable to God. From this flows the legalism that is directed towards one another. It's a way of scoring sanctity points in our fellowships, and exerting what one postmodernist called a "truth regime" - it's about pride, power and control. It simultaneously glorifies man and "unsecures" man. Thus its true opposites are grace and faith...
...It often arises out of a good motive: to be holy. We don't want sin to rule over us, we don't want to grieve God or to stray from his path ... It is the well-intentioned, keen and committed who are most prone to it. The half-hearted Christian couldn't really care enough to veer towards legalism (though he or she makes up for it with many other errors). It was the scribes, following good Ezra, who developed "the traditions of men" which people preferred to the word of God: a preference that Jesus blasted in Mark 7.
But all this focuses the mind on self. It takes the mind and heart away from Christ ... It takes our faith away from His sufficiency and misplaces it upon ours. We live to achieve his approval; we forget that we are already alive and accepted in Christ. Ever so plausibly, we are sold a different gospel: one that isn't really a gospel at all. And the desire not to sin in some big way can be little more than a mask to hide our lack of faith in Jesus, "who has become for us wisdom from God - that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption". (1Cor 1:30).

In Matthew 23 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
and later:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness.
Is it His righteousness, holiness and redemption that is saving us, or our own? When there is a chink in our perfect little church, our perfect little marriage, our perfect little children, our perfect little homeschool, our perfect little life... do we crack like Javert and resort again to power and control, creating a burdensome and false Gospel? Or do we rest in His grace and the true Gospel, the fruit of which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control?
"He is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth."[Romans 10:4]
Pray God we are Valjean, not Javert! For it hangs in the air about us - the atmosphere CM talks of - and there is no one who can bear the burden of the law - not one, except Christ himself. 

Smart describes its ugly effects:
The mindset of legalism has four great products. 
Despair - you cannot keep the rules, and so your self-esteem plummets and your assurance of the Father's love evaporates from under your feet. 
Pride -you can keep some of the rules, and so you do think that you can keep yourself in the Father's good books and so your assurance becomes grounded on self's performance - performance related pay. 
Judgemental-ism - you constantly assess people according to the rules and are quick to look down on others on the basis of your negative assessment. 
Control - the desire to have people tow the line and conform to the regime - nowadays it's called spiritual abuse. 
Legalism never produces gracious and expansive souls, growing richer in compassion and wisdom as the years go by. You'd never run to a legalist with your moral failure, breakdown, temptation, depression. Unless you're a masochist.
 The cure? You can find it in Smart's article. To sum it up, it is the Gospel.