Legalism for the 21st Century, part 2

Before you read today’s post, please scroll down and read part 1.

bible-study.jpegIn my early years as a youth pastor, I watched God do some amazing things. A group of students at Lane Technical High School–my alma mater and Illinois’ largest high school at that time–had launched a Bible Study. Ruth V, Ruth K, Mary S, and a couple of others. They dreamed of reaching their peers for Christ. After a few weeks, they invited me to be their regular Bible teacher. What an experience!

These students packed into a house, eighty strong. No shoes. Smelly feet. But a hunger to hear God. I brought a big box of old Bibles, the lost and found from my church. I lane-2.jpegdidn’t try to be relevant, just biblical, figuring that the Bible was relevant enough on its own, especially when consecutively taught. We worked our way paragraph by paragraph through the book of Colossians. It took us most of the school year.

And dozens of students were radically saved. The original group that launched the Bible study was so faithful in embracing their friends for Jesus. They were a catalyst for God to work throughout the whole school. The captains of the football, soccer, and baseball team all received Jesus, as did scores more.

But that’s not my point in telling the story, though how I would love a Bible study like that again.

I tell this story because of a lesson that first hit me while I was preparing for one of those Wednesday afternoon high school Bible studies. I was completely captivated by this verse:

“To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.” Colossians 1:29, NKJV.

hardlabor.jpegWhat struck me was the coupling of Paul’s “labor” and God’s “working which works.” Paul did the labor, but God did the work. Hmmm. I was on to something.

Last year, I think, I brought a soda can and a hammer to my pulpit. I set the can on a little stool and suggested to our congregation that every time I preach an “ought,” it can feel like I’m bopping them on the head with my hammer. So I tapped the can with a hammer.

  • “Pray more.” Tap.
  • “Serve more. Give more.” Tap, tap.
  • “Love more, sacrifice more, it’s not about you any more.” Tap, tap, tap.soda.jpeg
  • “Be a better dad, mom, husband, wife, employee, employer.” Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
  • “Why aren’t you a missionary?” Tapety, tap, tap.
  • “Don’t worry… be happy.” Tap, tap.
  • “Do what Jesus would do.” TAP, TAP, TAP.
  • “Fall in love with Jesus.” TAP, TAP, TAP.

It didn’t take long to crush the can.

And it doesn’t take long to crush the human spirit, especially the spirit of a child of God who desires to honor Jesus.

Am I saying not to preach the “oughts?” Of course not. We ignore the moral imperatives of Scripture at great peril to our nation, churches, families, and selves.


Legalism as bad as any Pharisee’s. As bad as any old-time pulpit-pounder’s. As bad as the Judaizer’s. May I echo Scripture’s loving sentiment….

“I only wish that those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves.” Galatians 5:12, NLT.

haironend.jpegPaul did the labor, but God did the work. Paul never lost sight of that fact. He broke the sweat, but it was according to God’s inner energy (energeia) which energized (energeomai) him powerfully (en dunamis). See how I threw some Greek at you there? Impressive, huh?

So millions of faithful Christians attend their churches week after week to hear, in effect, how they don’t measure up, and that if only they would take steps one, two and three, they would measure up. Indeed, steps one, two, and three work. But only for a while. Not because the steps are wrong, but because the inner power and motivation are absent.

No wonder people are dropping out in droves.

God has once for all coupled our Christlikeness with his divine power. What God has joined together, let no one separate.

It is legalism to uncouple obedience to God from empowerment from God. Christians used to say, God’s commandments are God’s enablements… meaning that He will never command you to do something without giving you the power.

That’s true, but it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t tell you HOW he gives you his power.

Yesteday I listed 3 options and promised a 4th:

  1. Drop out of church altogether.
  2. Fake it (and feel guilty over your repeated failures, but don’t let anybody see the mess within)…
    • I add here that faking it is the duty of your flesh (your Inner Mess), which can imitate the entire Christian life in a carnal, sickly way… working out of obligation, guilt, duty, and shame.  Our legalism only stimulates the flesh.  No wonder the church is emanating such a stinking odor to the world!
  3. Get therapy because there’s obviously something way wrong with you.

Here’s the fourth one:

4. Always couple the moral imperatives of Scripture with the indwelling life of Christ.

I love how Vince K (a wonderful friend and pastor) said it in his comment yesterday. He asked are the “ought’s”–the moral imperatives of Scripture–an obligation laid on our shoulders or on God’s?

sparks.jpegThe only way to protect ourselves and our churches from 21st Century Legalism is by routinely coupling the “oughts” with the supernatural divine reality that I can do NOTHING of myself; I can’t, but HE CAN. The power is God’s or forget about it.

We must teach this from every angle at every opportunity. We must stop sending well-meaning Christians on a moral wild-goose chase. We must stop bopping them on the head with the hammer of our oughts. We must stop deflating their spirits. We must, instead, inflate them with precious promises by which we become partakers of the divine nature (morally speaking, 2 Pet. 1:4).

How have we gotten to this point?

By being practical. Practicality is the greatest mistake to hit preaching in a few centuries. Why? Because our rush to be practical has killed the mystery of “Christ in batterylight.jpegyou.”  It has given the church an excuse to put theology on a shelf. And that lack of theology, that lack of understanding the method of grace, is killing us. You can’t live like Christ unless you think like Christ. and you can’t think like Christ without knowing the deep doctrines of Scripture. But who’ll sit still for that these days?

This is why any attempt to separate right living (orthopraxy) from right doctrine (orthodoxy) is doomed… sorry Brian McLaren.  I actually had a seminary student–an emerging church pastor– say, “I don’t care what he believes as long as he’s fallen in love with Jesus.”

Yucch.  I confess… I swore.

I’m not talking about delivering seminary lectures from the pulpit. I’m talking about the real-life connection between theology and WWJD… being preached and explained and made real from the pulpit.

We must ALWAYS, without fail, couple the “oughts” with a confession and a profession.

  • The confession is that I cannot do these things, no matter how hard or sincere my attempts.
  • The profession is that Christ in me can do them; he can do all things, and by him so can I. It’s HIS POWER!
    • ““I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Galatians 2:20, NKJV.
    • ““I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”” Galatians 2:21, NKJV.
    • “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” 1 Corinthians 15:10, NKJV.
    • “But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”” Mark 10:27, NKJV.

whipped.jpegThat high school Bible study holds a special place in my heart for a lot of reasons.  One of them is the discovery of Col 1:29.  I labor, but it’s his power.  That’s the only way to avoid 21st Century Legalism.

Where does the power come from and how do we activate it? It comes from the filling of the Holy Spirit, activating the Indwelling Life of Christ, buttressed by an intact Grace Lineup of the Soul (a.k.a. spiritual maturity)…. switched on by faith.

Hey, maybe I’ll preach out that.  Or write a book about it.  Or blog it… what do you think?


11 thoughts on “Legalism for the 21st Century, part 2

  1. “You can’t live like Christ unless you think like Christ. and you can’t think like Christ without knowing the deep doctrines of Scripture. But who’ll sit still for that these days?”

    I will…I will!!!

    It’s what we’ve been searching for, for years. We’re sick of pablum.

  2. Go for it! Whatever means God leads you to do will be such a hurricane of fresh air to us out here. Thank you for allowing God to fill you to help us.

  3. Great message Bill. I only wish you were back home to preach it. We miss you here. Anyway I am compelled to ask… How do you if you are acting from the Holy Spirit or 21st century legalism? I know you need to be in the word, praying and growing daily but isn’t it possible to be both in the same day? It seems like a daily battle seeing as though we are all sinners saved by Hesed. Again it is a great blog that you should add to your book list. Mind boggling as we all deal with the battle field of the mind, thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit. I think I need to go out and buy a case of pop.

  4. “I don’t care what he believes as long as he’s fallen in love with Jesus.”

    just a thought: can you really fall in love with Jesus if you don’t know Him as He reveals Himself in His Word. Otherwise, I guess, you’re falling in love with how you choose to see Jesus (which could be totally off).

    I guess that’s why I’m so thankful for your teaching Bill, and especially your encouragement to stay in His Word.

  5. Bill,
    You’re on a roll! This blog is great! In additions, I just listened to the countdown to Christmas sermons, (thanks for the props in #2 btw..), and I wanted to stand up and cheer! Of course, since I was driving…
    Thank You!


  6. Sherri F.

    First, you nailed it girl. It is a daily, moment by moment battle between the Spirit and the flesh.
    Second, you can’t have him “back home to preach it”, he’s ours! (just kidding)

    I remember one Sunday many years ago when the pastor of our church preached on the Holy Spirit. (a subject I didn’t like at the time because that’s when things usually got a little weird)
    After the service I went up and casually asked one of the elders, “How do you know IF you have the Holy Spirit? His answer was “if you’re asking the question, you’re probably OK”.
    I must confess that this was the answer I wanted to hear at the time, but I have never been able to get that answer out of my mind…and it has bugged me, “probably OK!?!?
    I don’t want to be “PROBABLY OK” I want to KNOW that I know that I know that I am (to use his word) OK.
    We ended up leaving that church (for other reasons) and years later landed at a church that was “Alive” with the Spirit. I have learned a lot about living in the Spirit (like surrender) but no more important lesson that this; Once I received the Holy Spirit, I never had to ask any one every again IF I had Him.
    Life is still a daily battle moment by moment to be lead by the Spirit and I fail often. But I know when I fail and I know why and I know to do the one thing left TO DO…
    I confess my sins.

  7. Reading these posts on legalism was like looking at the Shanendoah Valley from the top of Black Rock (I’m loving Virginia)…

    You wrote: You can’t live like Christ unless you think like Christ. and you can’t think like Christ without knowing the deep doctrines of Scripture. But who’ll sit still for that these days?

    So then Bill, from this amazing view you gave us…let us “sit still” a little longer….

    A tragic Reversal:
    I think 21 Century Legalism then effects a tragic reversal…this post-modern legalism inclines us to start thinking that we have to “live out” the (above mentioned) moral imperatives before we can EXPERIENCE “Christ in us”. From there, our fate gets worse: our ability to “live out” these “oughts” becomes a prerequisite of God’s before we BECOME the person (“a good Christian”) we ought to BE.

    Orthodoxy:that counts:
    On the contrary, Christ comes into our mess… and makes us new…and turns the weight of the moral imperatives into an opportunity to give glory to Christ (our faith breathing)…

    Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith… Christ in us, the hope of glory… THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS- THE ONLY THING THAT IS OUR JOB THEN IS: FAITH EXPRESSING ITSELF IN LOVE! (It feels good to yell!)…

    Heb 12:2
    Col. 1:27
    Gal. 5:6


    P.s. Bill, Thanks for including my comment in your post and your kind words…feel free 🙂 to link to

  8. all too often we take for granted the work of God and the power of the Spirit in concerning our lives when we preach. Thank you for reminding us to constantly recall to mind the central dependence on the Lord.

    one thing I feel must be mentioned: practicality for the sake of being relevant is a mistake, but practicality stemming forth from sound biblical exegesis is essential. The former doesn’t take the Bible as seriously as it should and it causes many interpretive problems and hermeneutical errors so that Scripture is wrongly applied in our lives. The latter responsibly applies the Bible to our lives and is necessary in preaching. It isn’t so simple as to say that practicality is a huge mistake, but rather that practicality when not done from a serious and proper study of Scripture is not only a mistake nut of is also dangerous, especially since it can lead to the legalisms you have mentioned.

    Thanks again for your work.

    (it was nice to meet you in person at church. The Lord be with you.)

  9. James,
    Right on. Practicality, in its place, is essential in preaching. But it is the superstructure. Doctrine is the foundation. Wise followers of Jesus build their houses on the ROCK.

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