Christians, of all people, desire to make changes for the better: to break patterns of sin, live more faithfully, and grow in godliness. And yet, our battle with sin remains, and our enemy works tirelessly to distract, discourage, or weigh us down in that pursuit. One of his well-known tactics is legalism, reducing the Christian life to a series of dos and don’ts, and turning a joyful, Spirit-filled walk with Christ into a joyless, calculated pursuit of goodness in our own strength and for our own glory — a pursuit void of real gospel grace and genuine freedom.
There is another danger, however, that is often more subtle than the suffocating trap of legalism; it’s one that neglects spiritual effort out of the fear of legalism. Pastor Colin Smith wisely notes this trend growing in younger Christians and offers this warning: “Don’t let the fear of legalism rob you of the benefits of a regular pattern of walking with God.”
In our resistance toward legalism (which is good and right), we easily can swing the pendulum, and neglect the very avenues of ongoing grace God has given for our good.
Legalism and Discipline
Some years ago, while my husband and I were in a small group with other young Christian couples, a man suggested that we shouldn’t force ourselves to pray before each meal. “If we did, wouldn’t that be legalism?” he asked. “If we don’t feel thankful in the moment, aren’t we being hypocritical and legalistic to pray and thank God for our food simply out of habit?” Although something seemed a bit off in his reasoning, I found myself pondering it anyway. For a while, I even tried a little of his method, praying before I ate only when I felt moved to do so. I will admit, this caused me to grow only in a spirit of thanklessness.
As I considered Pastor Colin’s warning, I began to realize what a subtle, yet real, lie this has become in many believers’ lives. For fear of being legalistic, we can rob ourselves of the benefits of a regular pattern of walking with God in the spiritual disciplines. But the apostle Paul tells us to resist this way of thinking in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
The danger of confusing legalism and Spirit-empowered discipline is that we can lose the very God-appointed means that are crucial for our ongoing growth, sanctification, protection, and intimacy with Christ. So, as we consider whether our personal disciplines (or lack thereof) are based on legalism or the gospel, we can ask ourselves, “Am I striving to live up to the law in my own strength, in order to earn God’s forgiveness and favor, or am I striving in the strength of the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of growing up in Christ and reflecting more of him?”
Legalism stems from putting confidence in our own efforts and abilities, producing pride and self-righteousness. Discipline, on the other hand, recognizes that we are already fully accepted by God through faith alone, and that we need to depend on the power of the Spirit, and exert effort to strive toward holiness, producing freedom and joy as we grow in godliness. Such discipline reflects a heart that is living wisely now in light of our security in Christ and the imperishable reward that is to come.
Will It Help Me Run?
When John Piper was a teenager, he heard a sermon on Hebrews 12:1–2: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.” The preacher challenged him to run his race well by not only asking, “Is it sin?” but “Does it help me run?” Piper continues,
“Does it get in my way when I am trying to become more patient, more kind, more gentle, more loving, more holy, more pure, more self-controlled? Does it get in my way, or does it help me run?” That is the question to ask.
Ask the maximal righteousness question, not the minimal righteousness question. . . .
If you have that mentality about your life, then you will ask not, “How many sins can I avoid?” but “How many weights can I lay down so that I am fleet-footed in the race of righteousness?”
Do you find his words as convicting and motivating as I do? Do we want to live seeking only to avoid sin, or do we desire to run the race with proactive intentionality, laying aside anything that prevents us from running well? This will take discipline! If we want to be equipped to run the race, we will prepare ourselves for it.
Even in the Dry Seasons
I’m certain that most of us would admit that, at one time or another, our sitting down in God’s word, praying, or going to church has been purely a duty rather than a delight. But reading, meditating, memorizing, hearing, and applying God’s word is food to a believer’s soul. Apart from these disciplines, we will be prone to drift from the truth and susceptible to being swept away when the storms of life come.
In fact, the times we feel least like reading the Bible and sitting in church are typically the times that we need it the most. If we neglect these disciplines, it will do more than keep us from legalism; it will keep us from the life-giving truth, hope, and power that we all desperately need. We need to stop making excuses for why we don’t have time to read, study, and meditate on Scripture. Though our habits will look different depending on the season of life, we need to creatively find ways to feed ourselves with God’s word, especially in these seasons.
We have one life, one race, one chance. How we spend our time greatly reflects what we value.
Privilege of Discipline
We each have unique areas that will require more discipline than others. For example, would we consider it legalistic for an alcoholic to keep alcohol out of his home? Is it legalistic for those who feel controlled by their smartphone to turn it in for a less fancy flip phone? Is it legalistic for a family to say “no” to a sport that has games only on Sunday mornings for the sake of making church a priority? No, it isn’t. It’s creating spiritual disciplines and protection for themselves in areas where they know they are vulnerable.
It would be beneficial for us all to seek wisdom in prayer, counsel, and God’s word to see if there are areas in our lives that may require us to put new habits and disciplines in place for the purpose of laying aside anything that does not help us run well.
Christian, as you look ahead to the start of a new year, beware that you don’t add weight to your shoulders by pursuing goals and changes out of guilt or in self-reliance. But let us also not be deceived into lives lacking discipline. Over time, godly discipline, under the banner of the gospel, will begin to feel less like mere discipline and more like the privilege that it is.
Godly disciplines are not legalistic. Rather, they are the appropriate and wise responses of a chosen, forgiven, redeemed, and Spirit-indwelt child of God.