Living a Life of Love

Living a Life of Love

Understanding the confusion of legalism

by Lydia Covey, Guest Writers | July 1, 2013

Legalism. It is a simple word that strikes fear in many Christians. Allow me to set the stage with a little analogy:

The newlywed wife is busy preparing dinner and waiting for her husband to return home after his long day of work. She looks up excitedly as he walks through the door, holding a bouquet of beautiful flowers. With a smile, she hurries to greet him and sees his lovely gift. But her smile and excitement turn to confusion and hurt as he hands her the flowers, and with a sigh, says, “These flowers are for you. I’ve heard this is something a husband is supposed to do for his wife.” Tears fall from her eyes as she takes the flowers from the man to whom she has given her life and love.

It’s not hard to imagine this bride’s immense hurt and pain. But think for a second – if the husband is actively showing kindness and serving his wife, why would such a gift produce such hurt and sadness in the young bride? Because his action is meaningless without the foundation of love. She needs to be served and blessed out of her husband’s love, not simply out of duty. 

We read of people in the New Testament whose lives reveal this same lack of love. The lives of the Pharisees were filled with hypocritical obedience to the law, serving God primarily out of duty. Jesus boldly called out their false life of devotion and their focus on the externals: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me…Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 15:8; 23:28 NKJV ).  These men understood their religious duties; they obeyed in full detail everything they were supposed to. So why did it upset, sadden, and even anger Jesus so much? It was the same reason why the flowers brought such hurt to the hopeful bride: the lack of love and falseness of the heart. The Pharisees acted out of duty, just as the husband gave the flowers out of duty. Both of them in their own way took action on what they were supposed to do – they took action on the rules. But in such a relationship, be it husband and wife or man and God, the action must come out of love.  

Legalism Defined

Legalism is simply defined as an adherence to law and rules. It is clearly seen in the lives of the Pharisees as we read of their extreme actions and outward obedience to laws and rules. But it is far too easy to focus solely on outward actions when thinking about legalism. Recently, the Lord has opened my eyes and understanding to see that the state of the heart is actually where legalism is born. Two people can do the exact same action, but for very different reasons – one out of duty, and one out of love.  While the husband in my analogy gave flowers solely out of duty, another man could offer this gift out of a deep love for his wife and the desire to manifest that love in an action. As I came to understand this more clearly, I turned my focus to the depths of my heart and was able to see where there was legalism in my own life.    

As the Pharisees were legalistic when they adhered to the law rather than adhering to Jesus, I discovered I was a legalist when I focused my energy on good standards rather than adhering myself to Jesus. I was holding on to my choice to live a set-apart Christian lifestyle rather than abiding in Him and loving Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength (see Deut. 6:5). The branch cannot produce fruit if it is not abiding, if it is not connected to and living through the vine. You and I are the branches, and no matter how hard we try, we can only produce fruit when we adhere ourselves to Jesus and rest in Him.

Rooted In Love 

The young woman who abides in and loves Christ obeys out of that deep affection, passion, and obsession for her Savior, while a legalist obeys simply out of obligation. A legalist knows the command, not the Commander. Deuteronomy 6:5 does not tell us to love the commands and sacrifices, but to “love the LORD thy God…”

As the Lord has grown me in understanding the life I am to live as a Christian, I see how incredibly pivotal is my love for Him. I’m challenged to honestly answer these questions: What in my life, in my Christian walk, do I do only because I know I’m supposed to? Are my actions and choices coming only from the knowledge of how I should act? Or do they flow out of love for my Lord and the sole desire to bring Him glory? Have I chosen a set-apart life because I have been commanded to, or because He is my great treasure? Do I choose standards because they make me look and feel like a better Christian? Or do my life and choices prove that I have “found the one whom my heart loves” (Song of Songs 3:4) and my life is His?

The Dread of Legalism

Sadly, a common misconception about legalism is that any standard a person has is considered legalistic. Anyone who chooses a conservative lifestyle or follows a “rule” is labeled as a legalist. Christians are often far more worried about being legalistic than they are about obeying and serving the Lord out of love. We must not throw out all standards and obedience to the commands of God because we’re afraid of legalism. I’ve watched many fellow Christians allow the fear of legalism to hold them back from living a set-apart and holy life. But we need to know that it is not legalism when our love for Him is displayed in our life, in our choices, in our standards, in our acts of service, and in a lifestyle that is not of this world. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (KJV). Fear of legalism must never interfere with our love for Him and thus keeping His commands.   

The point at which my obedience ceases to be legalism is when I see the holiness of the Lord, and can serve Him completely out of love. Then my love for Jesus grows deeper and my obedience purer.  

I love how Dwight L. Moody simply states the switch from living out of duty to love: "Before my conversion, I worked towards the Cross, but since then I have worked from the Cross; then I worked to be saved, now I work because I am saved." Working toward the cross in our own strength leads to self-righteousness and legalism. But when we are saved and set free by the precious blood of the Lamb, we now have the honor and calling to live for the glory due our King and Savior. When our eyes are set on Him and the incredible new life we have been given, no longer are we distracted by the rules.

A key to knowing whether you’re living out of duty or out of love is whether there is joy in your life. Duty without love will not produce joy in our actions. From what we read about the Pharisees in Scripture, joy was not abundantly present in their lives. When we’re in the position of serving, a lack of joy indicates a lack of respect for the one being served. Therefore when we treasure the Lord, obedience is not done out of obligation but with joy, delight, and love. The more Jesus is the object of our heart’s affections and becomes our supreme treasure, the more we will know joy in serving Him.   

Our focus for every action and act of obedience must be set on the foundation, our love relationship with the Lord. Remember, without love, action is meaningless. It is important to continually test our hearts and press on hard to know our Lord. Don’t become strictly focused on the outward actions and “rules” of Christianity. Rather, set your focus upon loving your Lord with an upright heart. Don’t be afraid that others might think your actions are legalistic. When Mary of Bethany poured out her spikenard on Jesus’ feet, she gave her greatest and most treasured possession – essentially her life and future to Jesus. It was an action that reflected her heart. When we hear of Mary’s outpouring of love and adoration for her Lord we would never think of calling her legalistic. Yet if such an action of sacrifice and total abandonment to the Lord occurred in our Christian culture today, it would likely be labeled as legalism. But Mary of Bethany was not focused on what the world around her thought; she did not allow the criticism of even the disciples to stop her. She was overcome with love for Jesus and acted upon that love by radically pouring out her treasure - proving Him to be her one and only Treasure.

I greatly desire to become a woman like Mary of Bethany. But I am unable to live with such beautiful abandonment to the Lord if my focus is always on the action and trying to figure out which step of service I should take. I must continually press hard to know my Lord and set my energy first on simply loving Him. For He is only truly served and glorified out of a heart that loves and treasures him. 

This simple yet deep truth of loving the Lord has completely changed my life and is continually convicting me. As the Lord revealed the ways I lived out of duty and legalism, I realized it was not my actions that had to change. It was not that I had to stop obeying His commands or stop choosing to live with standards. But it was my heart that had to change. I had to set my eyes on Jesus and fall more in love with Him. And this never changes – I must continually seek to know Him more and fall in love with Him over and over again.   

If you are struggling with legalism in your life, don’t stop following God’s commands.  Don’t turn to the modern idea that “freedom in Christ” gives Christians the authority to live however they choose. Rather, turn to the Lord; press on hard to know Him more, dwell on His perfection, and find Him as your one True Love. Continually remember His powerful work on the cross and His saving grace. Remember that He died for you, to give life, and life everlasting. Never stop placing Him above everything, for He is your supreme treasure. And as you see Him in all His glorious, holy beauty, Jesus Christ will become more and more the One whom your heart loves. And thus your service, duty, actions, and obedience will be a natural outflow of that love. Just as a loving husband finds delight in treasuring and serving his wife, so you will find the deepest delight and joy in serving the Lord. He is worthy of your life and love!

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