In the early 70’s, a book circulated among the high school & college students at my church. It was called, Why Churches Die. I just found it revised and updated on Amazon (2007). I remember it being an excellent book, based on solid research. Churches die for many reasons, the author explained. But as I remember it, the central one is LEGALISM.
Amen. If there is one core reason why the American church has missed the target, and why our whole nation tumbles downhill, it is legalism. For a thousand years, until 1905 when it was banned, China practiced a form of torture and execution called, The Death of a Thousand Cuts. It’s self-explanatory, but you can check it out on Wikipedia if you’re feeling gruesome today.
Legalism is the church’s death of a thousand cuts.
Never forget that the Pharisees saw themselves as good guys. Jesus still ripped into them.
Legalism is invisible to the legalist.
What is legalism? There are many varieties. At root, legalism is our attempt to offer God the produce of our own hands. Like Cain, we imagine God is pleased with the harvest of human righteousness. We become do-gooders, moralists, or crusaders for a cause… in our own strength.
But our own strength never pleases God. Human effort, unaided by the Holy Spirit, not energized by the Word of God, cannot please God.
- “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.” Isaiah 64:6, NKJV. (At our best, we’re like filthy rags)
- ““God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” Acts 17:24, NKJV.
The church–and I include myself, and convict myself–has gone on in her own strength. We have invited Jesus into Temples Made With Hands (human strength). We have been busy for Jesus (Martha), without first listening and loving at his feet (Mary). We are too busy fixing the world, and not busy fixing the mess in our own hearts. This inner wholeness comes only through the Word and the Spirit.
The power for Christian living must be supernatural. And here is the great fault of our churches and pastors… We give Christians an ever expanding “to-do” list UNCOUPLED from the supernatural power to do it. The essence of legalism, don’t you think?
- “having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” 2 Timothy 3:5, NKJV.
So our churches offer a litany of really good things to do (truly good): end hunger, fight AIDS, love the loveless, do righteousness, be a better husband, be a better wife, be a better steward, conquer your addictions, nurture your marriage, be a witness, watch your language, don’t gossip, dress modestly, avoid worldly entanglements, follow God’s laws, support missions, pray… the list is endless.
The problem is that we have uncoupled this list from the power of God. Two generations of Christians have NOT been trained in harnessing the power of God. So we do them in our own strength: legalism. We do them hyped up on temporary human emotion/adrenaline: legalism.
I am for all these things, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I am NOT for them when we do them apart from the supernatural power of God. And here is the heart of the heart of the problem: not one in ten Christians knows how to access the supernatural power of God. This returns us to our default position: do what we do the way we’ve always done stuff, by our own power, which is not acceptable to God.
Christianity is not simply an improvement on our unregenerate state. It is a whole new creation. We become a new spiritual species. It is a supernatural life (I’m not talking signs and wonders here; I’m talking about the Holy Spirit filling an increasingly mature, Scripture saturated, doctrine-loving soul). Church is not a psych-job; it is a supernatural renovation by the indwelling Christ.
Legalism is invisible to the legalist. Put yourself in the Pharisees’ shoes. You’re just trying to be a good person, and love God, and follow his laws… and then you have this long-haired, wandering carpenter/Rabbi yelling at you. Of course you’re going to get indignant! Of course you’re going to deny his charges! What does he charge you with?
- ““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” Matthew 23:27, NKJV.
Your behavior is right on, but your heart is a mess. Your behavior springs from a source other than the indwelling Christ, the power of God. You are offering God the produce of human effort, unaided by the Spirit, not energized by the Word. And God may love you, but he hates your offerings.
- “Therefore the LORD said: “Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths And honor Me with their lips, But have removed their hearts far from Me, And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men,” Isaiah 29:13, NKJV.
- ““To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” Says the LORD. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats. “When you come to appear before Me, Who has required this from your hand, To trample My courts?” Isaiah 1:11, 12, NKJV.
The impact of legalism is horrendous. It gets churches bickering over worship wars. It makes generations distrust each other. It causes Christians to judge one another. It makes us superficial. It makes us hypocrites. How many churches still argue over music? How many churches fight over petty things? One pastor I knew removed an unneeded pew from the choir loft, and his board called a special meeting over it. Yikes! God help us!
Legalism has the twin results of (1) preoccupying Christians with stupid intramural warfare, and (2) barricading the doors to lost people. We don’t see it that way, though. We see it as “defending the purity of the church.” Right.
Unsaved people can smell our legalism. We can’t, but they can. It may take a while to sniff it out, but they’ll find it. And once they find it, they’ll be heading for the hills as fast as their unregenerate legs can carry them.
So the church descends into a squabbling pack of Protectors: protecting the church from innovation, protecting their own self-interests, protecting “the way it’s always been,” protecting their rights to a low-cost country club. (Was that harsh?) A thousand cuts… each one small… each one no big deal… but cumulatively deadly.
How far from the servant-Church God had in mind when he came to indwell us! Revival cannot come to a legalistic Church. Before we crusade to fix even one more social ill, we need the power of God. We need to reawaken our hearts to the GRACE of God. We need to send down roots into the love and mercy of God. We need to pause in our doing that we might concentrate on our growing and learning and healing. I know it’s counter-intuitive. But so was the monastic movement (not that I’m a big fan), but they got something right: the contemplation of God is the strength of the church.
Or, as A.W. Tozer wrote, “No church has ever risen above its conception of God.” Who is God to you? What do you know of him? Do you know his wonderful attributes? His powerful names? His glorious works? When we have best selling books on the nature and attributes of God, on the significance of Calvary, and on walking the fulness of the Spirit, you’ll know that revival is just around the corner.
Your God is too small.
Legalism makes a people-centered Church. Grace makes a God-centered church that loves people.
We need to operate in the power of God.
I’ll blog on that next week. Thanks for hanging in there with my rant.