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Legalism’s Red Flag: Addressing the Motives That Fuel Our Actions

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“For Christ’s love compels us…” ~ 2 Corinthians 5:14


If there’s a red flag that signals I’ve been caught in legalism’s deadly undertow, it is the word should.

Should isn’t always, but often is a guilt word. It’s a shame word—the kind of word we use when looking down at the ground.

I know I should pray more. I know I should give more. I know I should share my faith more. I should lead the committee. I should take them dinner. I should forgive.

But these are good things, right? Absolutely.

For example, prayer is a means of grace that allows me to speak freely with a sovereign Father whose love for me is higher, deeper, broader, and wider than I can comprehend. Is prayer profitable for me spiritually? Yes! It is nourishment for my soul. 

Profitable but not meritorious.

Nothing we do is meritorious. For the disciple of Jesus, all of my merit before heaven is exclusively the merit he earned and has given to me as a gift. 

Nonetheless, giving, serving, sharing, caring, forgiving are all good things.

The issue is not in the doing of good things, it is the motive for what we do—the why. Why do I pray? Why do I give? Why do I share my faith? Is it because I should, with obligation, duty, or law as the driving motivation? Or do I act because I am compelled by the love of God (2 Corinthians 5:14)?

In view of the cross, I don’t have to pray or do anything in order to be accepted by God. By grace though faith in the finished work of Jesus, I’m fully forgiven, perfectly accepted, and dearly loved. Period.

It is not that I have to pray. I get to! I don’t have to give, serve, etc., I get to.

From this perspective, practicing spiritual disciplines (i.e., the means of grace) and producing spiritual fruit are not obligations I must fulfill. They are opportunities to experience more grace. And the more grace for me, the more glory to God.

The moment I start to believe this, I am filled with joy and empowered to love, which is expressed in things like generosity, kindness, and taking someone in need that meal.

Not because I should, or have to, but because I get to bless someone else as we have been blessed. Now, rather than live under the dark cloud of should do something, by the power and influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, I actually want to.

The motivating desire has changed from a law-response to a gospel-response.

Francis Schaeffer wrote about this dynamic in his book, True Spirituality. For years as a pastor, he had experienced conflict after conflict in his denomination. Eventually, he became disillusioned with the lack of love among Christians, especially those in leadership. After a long season of reflection on why this state of affairs continued to plague the church, he realized that the problem in his day was the very same as it is in ours.

He writes, 

Gradually, I saw that the problem was that with all the teaching I had received after I was a Christian. I had heard little about what the bible says about the meaning of the finished work of Christ for our present lives. Gradually the sun came out and the song came. Interestingly enough, although I had written no poetry for many years, in that time of joy and song I found poetry beginning to flow again—poetry of certainty, and affirmation of life, thanksgiving, and praise. Admittedly, as poetry it is very poor, but it expressed a song in my heart which was wonderful to me. (Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality, The Complete Works, Vol. 3, p. 195-96)

Schaeffer discovered that the secret of the Christian life is living moment-by-moment with a conscious awareness of the present value of the blood of Jesus. Not just the past value or future value, but the now value.

Here’s the application.

Let your “shoulds” be red flags that lead you to Jesus for a fresh awareness of the present value of his shed blood.

Whatever you feel you should do to make up for your deficiencies, he has done for you. There is nothing the cross hasn’t completely covered that you need to improve or sustain. So rest. Be restored and renewed in his inexplicable but undeniable affection.

And then, by the power of the Spirit, live a life compelled by the love of Christ Jesus—to the praise of his glorious grace.


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