One of my biggest hang-ups in the Christian life is the idea of legalism. I’ve mentioned before that the church I was born into and where I remained until my teenage years was a very strict, legalistic one. Women were encouraged to wear only dresses and no makeup, to be quiet in church and to submit to their husbands in such a way as to make them second-class citizens.
When we finally left that church and went to the one that saw me through my teenage years and the one in which I would eventually get married, there was true freedom and finally joy. Over the years, I’ve had mixed emotions on church finding it stifling on the one hand with its rules and regulations and “loosey-goosey” on the other with its “everything is permissible” mentality taken to unbiblical extremes.
The one thing I have tried to avoid more than anything else is appearing legalistic. Having grown up subjected to the pharisaic legalism of other Christians, I will do almost anything to not be one of those people. To that end, I’ve not always made the best choices. For instance, I don’t particularly believe that the occasional drink is wrong, but deep down I know it’s not for me. My reason for indulging is mainly for the purpose of not appearing legalistic and because “everything is permissible”.
I recently read a fabulous article on what legalism is and what it is not. The writer argues that legalism is not the deed itself but rather the attitude in which it is done. With an attitude of legalism we perform certain actions with the intent of adding to what Jesus has already done for us on the cross because His work wasn’t quite enough. In other words, insisting that women wear skirts was one way the Christians from my childhood church used to add to God’s work on the cross implying that we are not holy by the redemptive work of Christ alone.
What legalism is not, argues the author, is keeping God’s commands. How do we argue with John 15:14 “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments”? When I took a vow to remain true to my husband until death do us part, I vowed to behave a certain way based on that vow. How silly would it be of me to feel like I’m being legalistic by refusing to engage in certain behaviors that would go against that promise? Quite frankly, I don’t care if I look legalistic when it comes to my marriage. I made a promise, and my heart belongs to one man. In the same way, my full allegiance belongs to Christ and Christ only, and my life should be a testament to that not because I have anything more to prove or earn beyond what He has done for me, but because my desire is to live out my acceptance of His gift.
So what does this have to do with this week’s verse?
“Praise the Lord! Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, Who delights greatly in His commandments.”
When I read a verse like Psalm 112:1, I bristle a bit. The first sentence, “Praise the Lord” is fine. In fact, I spent all of last year praising God for something new every day and posting it on my blog’s Praise Project. I did this because I know that praising God is a vital part of keeping my attitude in check.
I can even fear the Lord, that is, live my life with a healthy respect for Him. I understand that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I’ve got that part down too. But then I read that we are blessed for delighting in God’s commandments, and the old fear of legalism rears its ugly head.
Part of the problem with the Church is that we don’t have our facts straight. We use words we don’t know the meanings to and attempt to live our lives by incorrect standards. We think of terms like commandments as stifling to our freedom and reject them in favor of what we envision to be a footloose and fancy free existence only to find ourselves strangled by chains of our own making.
If God’s commandments are so stifling then why is His Word filled with statements like these:
“The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.”
“I will never forget Your precepts,
For by them You have given me life.”
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.”
Statutes, precepts, commandments, they are all boundaries set up for us to live the most joy-filled life possible on this earth. The Christian faith is a faith with borders. God’s commandments are the borders in which we live in safety and joy, not because our works determine our salvation, but because our salvation determines our works.
“If we love Him we keep His commands” (John 14:15, NKJV)
We keep His commandments, not because we need to add to what He has done for us. His work was complete and always will be. We keep His commandments out of a love for Him.
Psalm 112 is one of several Psalms known as a didactic Psalm which simply means it’s written to teach a lesson, in this case living a righteous life versus living an unrighteous life. In the NKJV the heading to this chapter is “The Blessed Estate of the Righteous”. We will either choose to live the life of a righteous person, or we will choose the unrighteous life. There’s really no in-between. Living a life that is pleasing to God is not legalistic, and Jesus wasn’t legalistic. In fact, in John 10:10 He said this, “ The thief does not come except to steal and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (NKJV).
An abundant life is a righteous life, and a righteous life involves praising God, fearing Him and keeping His commandments because we love Him and desire to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (James 1:27). It is the lie of the enemy that causes us to believe that commandments are legalistic when, in fact, they are what bring us true freedom. If we want to live a life pleasing to God, we have to get our facts straight first.