Choosing Love over Legalism
By LESLIE LUDY
I sat up groggily as the alarm clock beeped, groaning at the unwelcome intrusion into my comfortable sleep. Rubbing my hand across my eyes, I contemplated pressing the snooze button and dozing for an extra thirty minutes. Did I really need to have a quiet time this morning? Maybe if I skipped my morning devotions and just ate a quick breakfast I could sleep a little longer and still make it out the door on time…
As I pondered various ways to avoid the discomfort of getting out of bed, out of the corner of my eye I noticed my roommate, Krissy, sitting up and pushing back her covers. The moment I glanced at her face, I did a double-take. She was smiling. She hadn’t yet been awake for thirty seconds, and already she was beaming with genuine happiness. I was taken aback. How was it possible to be that happy from the very moment your alarm went off? I leaned forward and watched her more closely to see what she would do next.
“Good morning, Lord!” she exclaimed joyfully, looking up toward heaven and still wearing a radiant smile. Then with great eagerness, she reached into the drawer of her bedside table and pulled out her Bible. Her face was glowing with excitement as she drank in the words of Scripture. It was almost as if her soul’s Beloved had written a special love letter just for her, and she couldn’t wait to read it.
I was startled and convicted by what I saw. At seventeen, I had recently surrendered my life to Christ. But I realized that I didn’t yet have the same passion for Jesus that Krissy did. When the morning alarm went off, I was only concerned about preserving my own comforts, but Krissy couldn’t wait to spend time in the presence of her King. Abandoning the idea of pushing the snooze button, I reached for my journal and began writing out a prayer that had been growing in my heart for several days:
Lord, I want to love you the way that Krissy does.
I hadn’t known Krissy for very long, but I knew there was something different about her. I had been around Christians my entire life, but rarely had I seen someone with the kind of sincere love and joy that she had. During church worship services, she would smile, raise her hands to heaven, and sing with a fervor I had never seen before. When she was in social situations where she didn’t know anyone, she would immediately look for the most insecure or needy person in the room and reach out to him or her. Often, she would even lead the person to Christ. She seemed to be always in tune with God’s Spirit, letting Him guide her steps, lead her to the right people, and pour out His love through her.
Krissy was set apart in every area of her daily life; her clothing, her activities, her interaction with men, her speech, and her pastimes all reflected a heart that longed to honor Jesus Christ and live according to God’s pattern of purity and holiness. Yet, she didn’t look down on those who didn’t live the same way that she did. She was always loving, giving, and serving others; never criticizing or nit-picking them. Instead of feeling intimidated or defensive because of Krissy’s high standards for purity and holy living, I was intrigued and inspired.
Growing up in conservative Christian circles, I’d been around many women who were seeking to live a holy lifestyle; wearing modest dresses, avoiding certain movies and music, carrying around large Bibles, teaching their kids to sit stone-still in church, and so on. I’d never had any desire to be like them. All too often, these well-meaning Christians seemed to believe that their religious lifestyles, modest clothing choices, homeschooling convictions, and strict child-training methods were the things that put them on good terms with God. Rarely did they demonstrate the kind of genuine love toward others that I’d seen in Krissy’s life. In fact, they often exuded a critical spirit toward anyone who didn’t share all of their personal convictions. As a result, nominal Christians like me were often tempted to swing in the opposite direction and throw “holy living” standards out the window for fear of becoming like them.
Krissy was different. She had all of the same standards and convictions as many other conservative Christians I’d known. But her motivation seemed to come from an entirely different source. Instead of trying to be set apart for God by adopting a slew of self-imposed rules, she simply focused on loving and knowing Jesus Christ. Every standard that Krissy upheld was simply an outflow of her personal, intimate, loving walk with Him.
Observing Krissy’s radiant example changed my life. I began to understand where true set-apartness must come from; not from rules but from a passionate daily relationship with the King of all kings. I had always been afraid that if I adopted higher standards for purity and holy living, I would become like those stiff, somber, legalistic Christians I had observed growing up. Now I saw that set apart living, when it flowed from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, was not dour and restrictive—rather, it was beautiful, radiant, and fulfilling.
As I learned to build my life around my relationship with Christ and surrender myself to Him, He gently purified my daily habits and choices. Like Krissy, I began to dress differently, speak differently, and spend my time differently. None of these choices were made out of obligation or “trying to get on God’s good side,” but simply because He was lovingly refining me and making me more like Himself.
The book God’s Missionary by Amy Carmichael captures the kind of “relationally refining” work that God did in my life during that season:
It is not that He forbids us this or that indulgence or comfort of life, it is not that He is stern…but it is that we who love our Lord and whose affections are set on the things that are in heaven, voluntarily and gladly lay aside the things that charm and ravish the world, that for our part, our hearts may be ravished with the things of heaven, and that our whole being may be poured forth in constant and unreserved devotion in the service of the Lord who died to save us.
This is true set-apartness. And as Krissy’s life so beautifully demonstrated, true set-apartness can come from no other source but Him.
Reflecting His Radiance
There seem to be two distinct camps in Christianity today. There are those who have embraced a worldly, carnal version of Christianity in the name of “Christian liberty” and there are those who have embraced self-imposed rules in an attempt to be “set apart from the world” and right with God. Neither of these extremes reflect the heart or nature of Christ.
But there is another kind of Christian whom God is raising up; those who are truly set apart for their heavenly King. They are not enslaved to legalism nor are they in bondage to fleshly, compromised living. Like Krissy, they are lovingly, joyfully surrendered to Jesus Christ, and continually being purified and refined by His Holy Spirit. Their lives reflect His purity, His love, His holiness, and His radiance—not through striving or self-effort, but through the enabling power of God’s Spirit who dwells within them. As Oswald Chambers so eloquently explains, “We are to be perfect, not by struggle and effort, but by the impartation of that which is Perfect.”
As you seek to become consecrated to Christ, Satan would like nothing better than to distract you from true set-apartness and pull you either into the bondage of legalism (self-constructed holiness) or licentiousness (self-ruled, fleshly living). I would like to share some important principles that can help you avoid both of these pitfalls and keep your eyes on the true Source of set-apartness.
Freedom from Legalism
Even after I began to understand true set-apartness, I noticed how easy it was to let my choices and decisions come from an attitude of duty rather than joyful surrender. I so desired to be right with God that I sometimes bought the lie that it was all up to me to keep my life on the straight and narrow path. I worked hard to wear God-honoring clothes, speak God-honoring words, and conduct my behavior biblically. It was easy to fall into the trap of doing all the right things, but for all the wrong reasons. Whenever this happened, I would lose my joy and feel weighed down by the idea of being set apart for Christ.
One day, a simple yet profound verse in the book of Jude helped set things straight for me:
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy (Ju. 1:24).
As I read those powerful words I was freshly reminded that Christ—and Christ alone-—was the one who could keep me from stumbling. My job was not to make a list of “set apart rules” to obey and put my trust in. Rather, my job was to simply abide in Jesus Christ. If I abided in Him, He would keep me from stumbling.
1 John 3:6 builds upon this principle: “Whoever abides in Him does not sin.” As we abide in Christ, He guides us, directs us, purifies us from sin, and convicts us when conviction is needed. In other words, our lives can only truly become pure and pleasing to Him as an outflow of daily soul-intimacy with Him. What incredible freedom! When it comes to righteous living, we are to focus on abiding in Him, and let Him do the rest, by His grace.
Abiding in Christ is the single most important step in being set free from the bondage of legalism. If you are unsure where to begin, I encourage you to meditate upon the words of John 15, where Jesus tells us what it really means to abide in Him, and reminds us, “without Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).
There are also some great classic Christian books on the subject of abiding in Christ, such as Abide in Christ by Andrew Murray, The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer, The God of All Comfort by Hannah Whitall Smith, and Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.
In addition to learning how to abide in Christ daily, here are two other important keys to being set free from the trap of legalism:
One: Don’t Idolize Personal Convictions
When others think of you, do they think more about your personal opinions and choices than they do about Christ? If so, that’s a sign that you might be placing too high a priority on your own convictions and opinions. Of course, that is not to say that people can’t be impacted for Christ by seeing you living out your convictions. But people are far more likely to be drawn to the Gospel when they sense the attitude and nature of Jesus Christ exuding from you, rather than just noticing that your kids sit still in church or that you always wear long skirts instead of pants. When personal convictions are placed above Christ, they make us susceptible to self-righteousness and spiritual pride.
Remember Krissy’s example? It was her joyful attitude and selfless spirit that people noticed, not just her clothing choices or the fact that she wasn’t out with a guy on a Friday night.
People should primarily see you as a Christian, not as a homeschooler, modest dresser, or courtship advocate. If you find more satisfaction in your opinions and choices than you do in the simple, amazing, astounding fact that you are a daughter of the King, then your convictions have most certainly become an idol in your life.
If you are ever imprisoned for your faith in Christ, it certainly will not be your example of homeschooling, wearing long skirts, or teaching your kids to sit still in church that will impact the prison guards and other inmates for the Gospel. Rather, it will be your hope, your faith, your gentleness, your courage, and most importantly, your love. As it says in 1 Corinthians 13, every other demonstration of our Christianity is meaningless without this all-important foundation.
How can you tell whether a conviction has become an idol in your life?
First, evaluate your beliefs about where your righteousness and justification comes from. Do you believe that you are accepted by God because of your personal lifestyle preferences, or simply because you are “in Christ Jesus”? (See Romans 8:1.) If you are looking for spiritual security in anything outside of Him, you are not walking in the reality of the Gospel. Take some time to become rooted in what it means to be clothed in His righteousness and not your own. (Note: To explore this subject further, I encourage you to listen to the message “The Poison of Political Correctness” by Eric Ludy, available for free download at www.ellerslie.com.)
Second, ask yourself where your identity is coming from. If you are more known for your opinions than you are for your example of Christ, it’s likely you need to readjust your priorities. That doesn’t mean you should throw all your convictions out the window and go the opposite extreme in any area of your life. But it does mean you need to shift your focus. Ask God for the grace to center your life upon Him, to make Jesus Christ and Him crucified your true North Star. And whenever you start to veer away from that True North, ask Him to gently pull your gaze back to where it belongs.
Two: Guard Against a Critical Spirit
Ask God to give you His heart toward Christians who don’t share your same convictions. If you are harboring a critical spirit toward other believers, you are not reflecting true set-apartness. Yes, certain foundational principles of Christianity are truly non-negotiable. And we must be willing to divide and separate over those points, or even die to preserve them if necessary, as Christians have done throughout the ages. (See 1 Corinthians 5:11, but keep in mind that even these steps must always be done in love and not harshness.)
Many other areas of life are not a central part of the Gospel, yet we often try to make them so. If you are convinced that no one can be a Christian unless they homeschool, sing only hymns, dress a certain way, and so on, then you need to gain a better understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Take some time to focus on the glorious, life-changing reality of the Cross and the transforming power of the Gospel. Let God build your convictions upon the things that truly matter in light of eternity, and never allow the peripheral issues to make you critical toward your brothers and sisters in Christ.
I love what Oswald Chambers says about this: “God never gives us discernment in order that we may criticize, but that we may intercede.” If you see areas in other Christians’ lives that need to be refined by the Spirit of God, the worst thing that you can do is to gossip, criticize, or develop a superior attitude toward them. Instead, pray for them diligently, and consistently show them the love and nature of Jesus Christ. James 1:20 reminds us that “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (NIV). Adopting a harsh, angry, critical attitude toward other believers will not help to accomplish God’s purposes in your life or theirs. A critical spirit can never produce the righteousness of God. It always leads to harm and never to good.
Remember, it is God’s job to convict, refine, and purify another person’s soul — not ours. When we try to become someone else’s conscience, we are revealing our lack of faith in God’s ability to do His refining work in their soul. Don’t try to do the work that only His Spirit can do. He is far better at convicting and purifying than we ever could be!
Using Liberty Well
A young believer I know was disgusted by observing a group of Christians who had become enslaved to legalism and self-righteousness. Instead of taking his frustration to God and responding in a healthy way, he swung to the opposite extreme in order to prove his “freedom in Christ.” He threw all standards of holy living to the wind and embraced a sinful, self-indulgent lifestyle — watching perverse movies, listening to ungodly music, drinking alcohol freely, using crude language, and filling his life with worldly attitudes and activities. He still professed to be a Christian. But he believed he had the freedom to live any way he wanted to. Because he had seen the damaging effects of legalism first-hand, this man assumed that living in purity and holiness would automatically mean bondage to self-imposed rules and spiritual pride. He felt it was up to him to show the world what “freedom in Christ” really meant.
Many of us as modern Christians have adopted this mindset; believing that the best way to prove our “freedom in Christ” and protect against legalism is to reject holiness and purity and embrace a worldly, compromised existence instead. If you find yourself shying away from words like “purity,” “holiness,” or “righteousness” and frequently letting sin and worldliness creep into your life under the banner of Christian liberty, then it’s quite likely you are abusing your liberty in Christ.
Christians who abuse their Christ-given liberty often justify their behavior by talking about their “freedom in Christ” and quoting verses like Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free…” or 1 Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful for me…”
But this attitude reveals a lack of understanding of what “freedom in Christ” really means. Christ did not set us free to live a life of sin and self-indulgence, but from the controlling power of our sinful flesh, so that we are now free to serve righteousness instead of sin. (See Romans 6:10-14.) Paul clearly answers the “liberty in Christ” question in Galatians 5:13: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh, rather, serve one another humbly in love” (NIV). And in Galatians 5:24 he says, “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
The evidence that we have truly given our lives to Jesus Christ is that we are no longer controlled by fleshly desires and indulgences. As Christians, we are now free from sin’s control and empowered by His grace to live a life that is pleasing and honoring to Him. Galatians 5:19-23 distinguishes the difference between the “fruit of the flesh” (idolatry, drunkenness, jealousy, factions, carousing, etc) and the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, self-control, etc.). If our lives are ruled by the “fruit of the flesh” it is a sign that we are not truly abiding in Christ. But if our lives are ruled by the “fruit of the Spirit”, it is a sign that we are yielded to His Spirit and empowered by His enabling grace.
Beware of attempting to avoid legalism by swinging to the opposite extreme and embracing a sinful, self-indulgent lifestyle. As Paul says, “Do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh.” Rather, use your freedom in Christ to embrace the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control that He created you to exude. As you yield your life to His Spirit, He will enable you, by His grace, to live a life of radiant purity that you could never live on your own.
What True Set-Apartness Looks Like
A Christian man in a foreign country was imprisoned for his faith in Christ. His heart was burdened for the soul of a fellow prisoner—an atheist who did not know Christ. Day after day, he showed love to this prisoner in every way possible and followed him everywhere, witnessing to him about Jesus. Finally the atheist was fed up with hearing about Jesus. He angrily told the Christian, “That’s it! Tell me in one sentence who this Jesus is, and after that I don’t want to hear anything more about Him!”
Without hesitation, the Christian smiled and told the atheist, “He’s like me.” The atheist paused, considered those words, and then said quietly, “If He’s like you, I want to know Him.” And that day he gave his life to Christ.
If you and I were given one sentence to describe who Jesus is to a non-believer, would we be able to confidently say, “He’s like me”? The world will stand back in speechless wonder when they see true set-apartness. May we be Christians who are neither ensnared by legalism nor licentiousness, but empowered by God’s grace to live holy, pure, loving, joyful, peaceful, courageous lives that radiate with heavenly beauty and change the world around us for eternity.