How to Avoid Legalism While Pursuing Holiness?

These are some thoughts stirred up from Sunday’s sermon entitled “Freed to Holiness”

Legalism is a matter of the heart.  Pursuing holiness, especially obeying God’s commands, is not legalism. It is being an obedient child.  However it is doing the commands of God for the acceptance of God or to avoid the wrath of God, which turns a pursuit of holiness into legalism.

To pursue holiness is 1) to be separate from sin and 2) to pursue God’s glory above your own.  A pursuit of holiness can turn into legalism when obedience is done for your own glory or when your obedience is a boast in your deeds rather than God’s power.  Look at the Pharisees in Matthew 6:1-4 or Luke 18:9-14.

A pursuit of holiness becomes legalism when we major on amounts rather than on the heart. For example, we read our Bibles to savor the Savior not to earn favor before God. And we come to the Bible because our heart desperately needs God’s word day after day, moment after moment.  That is different than saying I must read for 30 minutes because any less time is not enough.  “Not enough for what?” is the question. When we talk in terms of time as a measure of holiness then we are usually seeking to avoid guilt derived from comparing ourselves to others or from a standard of holiness established by amounts rather than the intention of the heart.  The word “enough” is a dead give away for legalism as we seek to pursue the freedom of holiness.

We can also pursue holiness by praying to our Father in heaven. This is not to gain acceptance or to avoid wrath. I am accepted in Christ and Jesus is my only shelter from the fatal wrath of God.  I pray in order to commune with my Father, to petition him for needs, and to call out for his power to be exerted on behalf of others.  The legalist would be tempted to find obedience measured in the amount of time he/she prays or the amount of people you pray for (unless you gave your word you would pray for all 15 people in your community group…then you pray for 15 people). Holiness is not about amounts it is about the intention of the heart.

In your mind, the question might arise, “What if I don’t feel like reading my Bible, praying to God, or giving cheerfully? What if I don’t feel like loving my enemy or my neighbor?”  The answer is not, as I have heard before, to avoid “legalism” and disobey clear commands of Scripture. A pursuit of holiness is total surrender to Christ as your Lord and a desire to obey everything he has commanded that we might stay separate from sin.  Therefore the answer is to repent- repent of your lack of desire, confess your feelings of indifference, ask for God to meet you as you seek to obey, and then….Act.  Obey the commands of your good Master.  1 John 5:3 says, “ For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”  They aren’t burdensome because he will give you everything you need-  the faith, the energy, the wisdom, and the way of escape- so that you can obey your Father.

Finally we avoid legalism when we remember pursuing holiness is more about walking by the Spirit than about externally obeying rules. As Christians we are not against rules. We have a loving Lord a good Father who commands us for our good and pursuing holiness is seeking ot obey him.  However as we fully submit our lives to God, we are said to be walking by the Spirit. Not everything in life has a rule attached to it.  And that is by design.  The law as commands was shown to not be able to change the heart of the Israelites. That is why when Jesus came we have been set free from the law of Moses to obey the law of Christ. Christ’s law has fewer commands, and is a stronger call to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit as  you seek God’s wisdom. You don’t have a law that says share the gospel with 2 people every day. You don’t have a law that says work for 45.35 hours and that is obedience and that 45.36 is disobedience.  You don’t have a law that says 5 kids is the obedient number of kids and that you should spank them 4 times for hitting and 2 times for talking back.  So how do we pursue holiness in the every day when there isn’t a specific command from God?  Briefly I call it worship and wisdom.  This is walking by the Spirit of God. We worship by cultivating a relationship with God through his word, prayer, deepening church community, giving generously of time and money, etc.  We read his word to know his explicit commands and we read his word to grow in our relationship with God. This cultivates a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit who gives us wisdom as we live life and make decisions regarding things where there are no laws. The Holy Spirit guides us into wisdom and growth in holiness through calling the word to our mind, through impressions, internal conviction and encouragement, and through circumstances. The Psalmist says, “Delight yourself in the Lord (worship), and he will give you the desires of your heart (wisdom is cultivate: your desires growing to line up with God’s desires).  So as we take our thoughts captive to Christ (2 Cor.10:5), prepare our minds for action and fight for sober-mindedness (1Peter 1:13-16) through daily discipline, the Holy Spirit guides us to know what wisdom looks like in certain situations.  I pray not only as individuals but as a community of faith we stir one another up to love and good works, that is we enjoy the freedom of pursuing holiness.

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About Sean Cordell

Rescued from my sin by Jesus, husband to Dana for almost 11 years, daddy to Elijah (7), Jadon (5), and Mercy (1), Pastor of Treasuring Christ Church a church plant in downtown Raleigh, NC View all posts by Sean Cordell

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