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Warning against Legalism

January 6, 2011

I love the foundation that Teri Lynne and Kathy have set for us this week as we start our  month focusing on spiritual disciplines. But before we go any further, I’d like to put a little disclaimer on being disciplined about the disciplines. I speak from experience on this issue and have really had to confess my sin and receive His grace to move forward. We must not let what we do (even when what we’re doing is good) become areas of legalism in our lives.

Let me give you a personal example. Prayer is a spiritual discipline. We are commanded to pray, we are given examples of prayer in Scripture, and we all know how important it is to spend time in prayer. So I pray. And I check it off my to-do list.

The Pharisees had a to-do list. A long one! Jesus spoke to them about their actions and their hearts in Mark 7. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus’ disciples were not following their traditions. Jesus answered them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me…. ‘” (Mark 7:6-7a). Like the Pharisees, I was doing what I was supposed to do, but my heart was far from God.

But I thought I was doing good. I was praying, right? Tim Keller writes in his excellent book, The Prodigal God,  “As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough for him. You simply aren’t sure God love and delights in you” (63).

The temptation in adding the spiritual disciplines to your to-do list is that you focus so much on the fact that you are doing them, you forget why you are doing them.

So how do we avoid the temptation to become legalistic in this area? Paul sets a good example. He wrote, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ…. ” (Phil. 3:7-9, emphasis mine).

Paul combated the sins of pride and entitlement (root causes of legalism) with the power of the cross. Like Paul, my to-do list (or have-done list!) pales in comparison to the life of Christ. When I compare all my good deeds to His death on the cross, I am reminded of what a sinner I am. I’m also reminded of His grace and love. I must continue to preach the gospel to myself.

My prayer–Please God, continue to reveal to me my sinfulness and your holiness. Meet me there with your grace. Remind me that my motivation to practice the spiritual disciplines is to conform to the likeness of Your Son.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2011 8:57 am

    Sandra, thank you for this reminder and encouragement to have the proper motivation and heart as we pursue the spiritual disciplines. I too must “continue to preach the gospel to myself.”

  2. January 6, 2011 10:11 am

    Thank you so much for this post!

    I have actually been going through this for a while now.

    The way I spend time with God is by reading in my bible, reading blogs/devotionals, and praying. But I have felt so empty. I noticed yesterday I am trying so hard to have time with time with God as reading all the blogs/devotionals I follow on Twitter,, and Facebook, I am getting overwhelmed. I am losing the passion. I felt the holy spirit telling me yesterday “You don’t have to read all of them to spend time with me.” I have been so consumed with making sure I check them off my to do list everyday that I find myself ignoring my family or ignoring what really matters, sit down and be still, to achieve that.

    Thank you for this post.

    • January 6, 2011 10:33 am

      I think we’ve all been there Michelle! So glad the post reaffirmed what the Holy Spirit was saying to you. Thank you for sharing so we can all evaluate our busyness!

    • January 7, 2011 11:34 am

      I really appreciate your transparency and insight here, Michelle. I think that in our age of so much “free” and available information, we somehow feel like we have to take advantage of it and not miss out. Satan has always used attractive things to distract mankind from God, and I sometimes wonder if all of the “good” things technologically today aren’t contributing to less time knowing God. We never want our Dig time to be “in place” of time in the Word and with God Himself. I’ve been working through some of the same thoughts you have. Thanks for sharing.

  3. January 6, 2011 11:52 am

    Thank you for this wonderful reminder. My theme word for 2011 is discipline and this has been a wonderful start for my new year to read this! I discovered your blog only about a month or two ago and am finding it so encouraging!

    • January 7, 2011 11:55 am

      So glad you found us! Said a prayer for your “year of discipline.” May God bless you!

  4. January 6, 2011 1:43 pm

    i’ve heard it said when speaking of spiritual disciplines that they are practices of wisdom–not righteousness. i keep this in mind when i am feeling particularly proud or strident in my practices. thanks for the reminder.

    • January 6, 2011 1:50 pm

      Ooo…that’s good!

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      January 6, 2011 3:00 pm

      Great, succinct way to state that! Thank you for sharing!

    • January 7, 2011 3:01 am

      That IS good! “…practices of wisdom–not righteousness…” Love that.

  5. Kristi Stephens permalink*
    January 6, 2011 3:00 pm

    Amen, Sandra!! Love how you said that we must continue to preach the gospel to ourselves. So true.

  6. Martha Stacy permalink
    January 6, 2011 11:05 pm

    Thank you. This has really been good. Would love to purchase the book.

  7. January 7, 2011 12:57 am

    Thank you for the great post! Loving this months study on Spritiual Disciplines.
    What a great warning for us all to be vigilant in keeping our heart in our discipline, and keep God first in our to-do list knowing that without Him all is “vanity”.


  8. January 7, 2011 3:01 am

    Great post, Sandra.

    I actually was just reflecting on this issue not too long ago. I’ve been guilty of taking things too “legalistically” at times. I’m a rule-follower in many ways by nature, so when given “rules” of doing good, I can get frustrated at myself and others when we don’t follow them! But, one of the most astonishing things for me about this beautiful faith is GRACE. When I remember God’s gift of grace, that reason why we should do good that you mentioned becomes so much clearer (rather than harping on the “what”).

    I love that quote you referenced. I will never be able to do enough good to earn God’s grace; that’s why it is grace and undeserved! If I focus too much on “doing good” itself and not enough on the God behind the good, then that goodness won’t be real or helpful enough to others.

    Thank you for these thoughts here.

    • January 7, 2011 11:56 am

      I’m a rule follower too Caroline! That’s why I have to remind myself daily of the power of the gospel!

  9. January 7, 2011 9:58 am

    I have fallen into this trap so many times! I even get to the point where I’m going to church because I have to do Sunday school stuff and because I have to sing on the worship team. There are times I go to church and I’m so busy doing stuff I don’t even get to sit down and worship or hear the sermon! A lot of my Bible reading last year was with the mindset of get in and get it done. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this!

    This year is different for me. This year I’m delving into the Bible with the heart of someone who wants to read. I will not allow it to become a chore for me. This year I will serve in my church with the heart of someone who is serving the Lord, but I will make time to serve God alone and go to services and Sunday school class. My theme word for this year is loyalty. In my loyalty to God, I will honor Him with every aspect of my life, taking nothing for granted and being legalistic in nothing.

    Thank you for this post Sandra.

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