HE WANTS HIS STONE TABLETS BACK
Ah yes, legalism. It’s as old as Moses, and it’s as popular as the Beatles. It comes in so many forms, and it transcends generations. Male or female, black and white and tan and yellow, fat and skinny and tall and short, it has a genre for all types and ages. It is satisfying to the flesh and it is famous for creating crusades, denominations, and systematic theologies. Legalism is when believers cull out certain outward behaviors and either make them either a necessity for salvation or a necessity for being “right with God”. In almost 40 years of being a believer I am still looking for the believer who is completely “right with God” because of something he does or does not do, and that is even without examining his or her thought life which many times would rival a toxic waste dump.
The new starting quarterback for the SF 49ers is a man named Colin Kaepernick. His short term as the starter has been extremely good. He is now being criticized for his many tattoos. Wow, for a minute I thought I was in church. Tattoos, although not mentioned or dealt with in the New Testament, find their way into some churches as standards or lack thereof of…well…something. And do not fret if you are unable to find this subject in the New Covenant because there are talented men and women who can cast a line backward and reel in a prize Mosaic catch. And they can take that catch, place it on a plaque, and display it handsomely on the doctrinal wall formerly known as “grace”.
Israel just approved 3000 more West Bank settlements. China has stealth technology. The United States is going to spend 4 billion on new fighter jets. The world teeters on the edge of economic collapse. Violence still rages around the world. Children are molested and raped around the world. And tattoos get under our skin? The church is filled with adultery and divorce; our children are leaving Christ; addictions are widespread within the church; preachers are becoming filthy rich; billions upon billions of evangelical dollars go to pay mortgage interest; but tattoos are the demons we must exorcize?
But tattoos are just one example of legalism, which when unpacked is self righteousness. Believers so desire to feel righteous and vindicated by what they believe that we add to God’s Word. And armed with those outdated weapons, we wield them against all kinds of miscreants who refuse to tow the line to our dictates. But legalism is a hard task master and requires an enormous amount of self righteousness and Biblical compromise. While the legalist contends that others compromise the Scriptures, he himself is compromising the essence of the freedom in Christ.
Usually a legalist does not choose divorce or adultery or drugs as his sin of choice against which he rants. It is some periphery behavior, many times aligned to a more modern era, which elicits his hobby horse. In the above example it is tattoos, and that is a s good as any. Sometimes it revolves around honoring a certain day as holy. It used to be long hair on men or makeup on women or some other breach of an ecclesiastical construct set up by man. And when some unsuspecting saint steps over this legal line he places himself directly in the line of fire. Most of the time the legalist must be armed with some Old Testament fodder in order to complete the condemnatory ensemble.
Even today many legalists suggest a prominent display of the Ten Commandments in certain public places. But they are not using those commandments in order to create a thirst for Christ or a need for the gospel. That display is not to make sinners see that “the soul that sins it shall die”. No, quite the contrary. They contend that a prominent display of those Ten Commandments will, get this, help elevate the morals of the culture comprised of sinners dead in trespasses and sins. Oh yes, they suppose that lost and depraved sinners will elevate their sin game to an acceptable standard which will positively affect the culture which will ultimately satisfy the legalist and in turn create an atmosphere more morally pleasant to believers. Yes, I believe that is called narcissism.
Imagine a very large house completely engulfed in flames. You are in it, but as yet you do not know you are going to die. Somehow firemen come and rescue you. They bring you out into the street and suddenly you become aware of just how deeply your life was in danger. You look back at the house on fire and you are thankful you are out. You rise to your feet and begin to walk, but as you walk you hear the screams of people still trapped in that house. Their screams start to annoy you and you tell them to lower their screams. You realize they cannot stop screaming altogether, but you insist their screams are way too loud.
That is self righteousness toward the lost. But imagine that when you begin to walk you stop to purchase some shoes. Although they are a little painful, you still love them. But when you look at the feet of other people who were once in the fire with you, you notice they are walking in different shoes than are you. You hurry over and tell them they should purchase your kind of shoes because the firemen that rescued you command it. These other shoe wearers say that they have spoken to the firemen and they said nothing about shoes. And when they refuse to change, you go about speaking words of condemnation against those who wear shoes different than yours.
You see, it would seem to be difficult to place such man made restrictions upon people once we have ourselves been rescued by grace from the pit of destruction and despair. You would think we would err on the side of grace, and yet it is so easy to slip into self righteousness. In fact, the flesh demands it. And even though our theology shouts grace with boldness and even smugness, our flesh needs a consistent fix of self righteous condemnation and at least a small list of contrived dos and don’ts in order to feel spiritually content. Throughout the church age it has been an all too familiar ecclesiastical treadmill. Believers have made days and holidays and foods and tattoos and jewelry and all kinds of things their hobby horses. And like-minded people have formed ecclesiastical cliques bound together by one or more of these issues. It makes them feel spiritually superior and divinely favored. All of us are prone to such things, and many of us have participated in some form of this continuing phenomenon. Only after we are set free and repent can we see just how self righteous we were and are still sometimes.
There are some issues that are important but must never rise to the level of, legalism, even if they are Biblically sound. Of course all redemptive issues are sacrosanct and must remain sacred. But there are other issues that have varying degrees of importance and must be addressed, but they must never be our focus or our constant crusade. Politics, Halloween, Christmas, Bible versions, number of children, Biblical foods, prophecy, and others should be important but not be draped in self righteous legalism. We as believers feel very strongly about a host of issues and it is difficult to embrace things with anything less than the strongest conviction and emotion. And that can and does lead to legalism.
The gospel is a message of hope and redemption and freedom. It should never be made to carry legalistic baggage. Every true born again believer is on a journey and at any given moment he or she is either growing or retreating, but no one has arrived. But when we make things like tattoos an issue of spiritual depth or a staunch Biblical position, then we have entered the "no grace" zone. And in keeping with my title, “Moses called…he wants his stone tablets back!”