Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 2

[This is part two of a two-part entry. Click here for Legalism's Knockout Blow, part 1]

Mural, St. Sulprice, Price

The Encounter: Wrestling with God

Jacob prepares for dawn’s showdown with his fraternal Grim Reaper. He splits his family into two caravans, hoping one will survive. He sends forth his bribe. He waits in solitude by a brook.

Enter an Unnamed Somebody who picks a fight with dispirited Jacob. Later, he will worship that Somebody, identifying him as God (v. 28). God comes down to wrestle Jacob.

Why would God kick a guy when he’s down? Isn’t he supposed to be loving and kind? Why would he pick on Jacob at the lowest point in his life? Is he that uncaring?

Or could it be that he’s lovingly trying to condense a lifetime of legalism into a single encounter that he might uproot it once for all?

Verse 25 makes the stupefying claim that puny, frightened Jacob prevailed against infinite, Almighty God. What’s going on? These Scriptures present an acted parable—depicting how legalism stretches its tentacles into every area of life with God.

First tentacle: the idea that we are on equal footing with God. Legalism, by nature, demotes God to our own mercenary level and imagines we can go nose-to-nose with him. Was Jacob indeed on equal footing with God? Of course not. God wrestled him the way a father wrestles his five-year old. And, like the five-year old, legalists don’t get it. Like Jacob, they imagine themselves “winners” in the eyes of God; they believe they can, by human effort, merit his approval.

Second tentacle: the idea that we must strain ourselves to gain anything from God. Under grace, God himself bears the entire burden for our blessing. Under legalism, we bear that burden, or some part of it. We break the sweat, pay the price, put forth the effort, and rise to an imagined level of merit before infinite Majesty. Jacob expended every effort to win the wrestling match and, thus, deserve the blessing of God.

Third tentacle: the idea that God is against us. Like the girls who worried they had offended God by wearing shorts to church, our Inner Legalist frets over every sin and imperfection, worrying that God has turned against us. Instead of a grace-oriented friendship, legalism transmogrifies Christianity into a score-keeping fight with a perpetually peeved Heavenly Principal.

Fourth tentacle: the idea that if we become moral “winners” God will owe us. Legalists delude themselves into thinking that if they can only wrestle down enough temptations to take the moral high-ground, God will suddenly become their debtor. He will owe us answered prayers, healed diseases, happy emotions, and fat wallets. Legalists conjure up their own moral “winning-ness” and morph God into a Reluctant Stepfather who only gives us what we earn.

Jacob fought to earn God’s blessing.

God had to knock the legalism right out of him.

The Knockout: Human Inability and the End of Our Resources

After hours of wrestling, the Unnamed Grappler dislocated Jacob’s thigh just by touching it—proof that all his winning-ness was a figment of Jacob’s self-promoting imagination. No muscle-power needed at all. Just a touch, and POP! goes the socket.

It was at this point that Jacob finally flipped a spiritual switch—the same switch that God has been wrestling us to flip all our days.

He switched from wrestling to clinging.

He stopped fighting, stopped demanding, stopped trying to win. Only a fool would wrestle God, and only a bigger fool would think he could win. The moral of this story is not the victory of wrestling; it is the victory of clinging. How many Christians have been confused by preachers who make a virtue out of Jacob’s [delusional] wrestling!

Quit wrestling and start clinging.

Jacob switched from earning a paycheck to asking a blessing.

He switched from legalism to grace.

And what made the difference? God dislocated his thigh. His permanent outer limp became a perpetual reminder of the very real inner limp he’d been denying all his life. He wasn’t a moral winner. He wasn’t a religious champion. He was a spiritual cripple who needed grace, and suddenly he understood.

The lights came on.

He clamped a death grip on God and said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). That’s not a claim of victory; it’s an admission of defeat. It’s a tapout. A plea for mercy.

The verb barak (bless) means to grant a favor to someone who doesn’t deserve it and hasn’t earned it. Blessing is the opposite of a paycheck; it is grace in action. In that moment, Jacob died to his self-deserving ways. He died to his self-reliance. He died to “getting what I deserve” and became alive to “getting what I don’t deserve.” At that moment, Jacob entered the Bible’s Hall of Faith.

Far from suggesting that we should somehow wrestle with God in prayer until he relents and blesses us, Jacob’s life teaches the opposite. God is showing us that we’ve been crippled all along, and that apart from his amazing grace, we’d deserve nothing but divine retribution. Even so, his heart has been inclined to bless us all along, but our stupid claims get in the way.

Flipping the switch from legalism to grace is the real victory.

Simply cling. You can do that, can’t you?

The Rebirth: Better than You Ever Imagined

Finally, Jacob faces his day of reckoning. It’s time to meet his offended brother face to face. Jacob seems to revert to his old conniving ways when lines up the women and children in front of him, but at the last second, he “passed on ahead of them” and meets Esau first.

Grace wins.

What would his militaristic, offended brother do? He would do the opposite of what Jacob expected; just as God so often does the opposite of what your low thoughts of him expect.

In words that presage the Prodigal Son, “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Gen. 32:4).

Jacob’s bribe was irrelevant.

Jacob’s wrestling was irrelevant.

Jacob’s pre-planned apology was irrelevant.

The only relevant factor was the gracious heart of the One he offended.

The God we worship—the God of the Bible—runs to those who are least deserving. He is better than you think. Oh yes he is.

God’s love is not for sale. God’s love is not a prize given to moral winners. It is not a reward for great spiritual performances. God’s love flows eternally from his heart. You don’t have to wrestle it out of him. You don’t need to be a moral winner. So climb down those Sacred Stairs. End your self-inflicted guilt trip. Turn away from your needless penance. Wear your shorts to church. Shed your legalistic tendencies. Cling to Christ, through faith asking God for the blessing you need. Flip that switch from legalism to grace. And thank God that he only blesses us because of who and what he is, never because of who and what we are.

God had to dislocate Jacob’s hip to make him realize it. What must he do to you?

What does it mean to cling to God? To ask for a blessing? In what ways to people try to merit the approval of God? 

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8 thoughts on “Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 2

  1. I love this teaching. I’m trying to sort out how to apply this concerning prayer. Our church has followed a teaching “much prayer, much blessing. little prayer, little blessing. no prayer, no blessing.” I do want to pray, obviously, but not in order to earn blessing. I do want to spend more time in prayer, but I wan to have the right motivation. I’m wrestling with how to reconcile, if possible, these teachings. Thanks for sharing!

    • Great question, Dave. I start from the premise that I have already been blessed with every spiritual blessing (Eph 1:3, 2 Pet 1:3). That is a past-tense action with present-tense reality. I am a fully blessed person. Every expression of faith in my life, like prayer, enables me to consciously experience the blessings already procured for my by the grace of God, through the Cross of Christ. Christ paid for my blessings. Faith lays hold of them in life and experience. By grace, through faith. Hope that helps.

  2. I have always prayed, Lord help me receive all you have for me today, change me, grow me to see and take part in all you have for me. This is the flip side of what God has done, He is GOD. But can I open my spiritual eyes to see, the opportunity to speak for him, to give, to pray, or just simply to walk with Him. Turn down all the noise to hear Him! I am not a student but I am always excited to learn.

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