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In response to my last post, a dear reader named Karin posed the following question:
Some folks have a wrongly calibrated conscience, i.e. it is sin to see a movie, to dance,to play sports or even shop on a Sunday, etc. etc. It would be wise not to do anything that goes against their conscience, but they see other godly believers doing it. That's where their struggle begins and their feelings of guilt about having their particular weakness are not based on truth. Not sure if I explained this well enough. What are your thoughts on that?
Karin, that's quite a good question.
Legalism is a deadly thing, and it often keeps its grip on people even long after they've begun to understand grace and freedom in Christ. On the other hand, some people throw off legalism and exchange it for sinful self-indulgence...just trading in one wrong for another.
Maybe before we can discuss this problem, it would be helpful to define what we mean by "legalism." I don't know what anyone else's definition is, but this is the one I've come up with that best expresses my understanding of it:
Legalism is an attempt to make the lost act like the saved;
to make those who don't love God behave as if they did,
and to make those who do love sin behave as if they didn't.
When people cast off legalism and turn to sinful self-indulgence, what we see is more honest, though not more admirable living:
those who are lost act like the lost
those who don't love God act like they don't
and those who love sin act like they do.
By contrast, when we are truly saved, grace changes who we are (gradually at times, and suddenly at other times), to give us hearts that delight in doing good. We are freed by God...not to do evil and get away with it, but to do good and love it. That is the truest form of freedom.
When it comes to matters of conscience which are not "black and white:"
I have met miserable and/or prideful legalists who don't do certain things, but I have also met joyful, free lovers of God who don't do those same things. The legalists are under compulsion not to do them, and the grace-led ones are free not to do them. (And still other joyful lovers of God are free to do them!)
Those who tend to have legalistic consciences may feel a great deal of guilt because of the attraction they feel towards the "forbidden" item or activity. And yet they desire to find the freedom that Christ promises.
(Allow me to stress again that I am not referring to clearly-defined sin, which all Christians should scrupulously avoid. I'm referring to matters which Scripture leaves up to individuals, but about which some Christians have tried to force their own convictions onto others.)
What should the guilt-ridden person do in this instance?
Scripture forbids us to do anything that we believe may be wrong (Rom 14:23). The heart which looks at something it believes is wrong, and chooses to do it anyway, is by definition a heart that is willing to sin. It doesn't matter if the activity was truly allowable. What matters is the attitude that said, "I think it's wrong, but I don't care if it's wrong or not. I'll do it anyway."
So how is the person trapped by legalism to be set free? Should he focus on the behavior in question, examining it from every angle to decide if it can be justified? Should he go see a Christian counselor to get cured of his hang-ups?
Perhaps. There may be some benefit there for some people. But look again at the definition of "legalism" above, and the definition of "honest self-indulgence" just below it.
Think it through. How would you counsel the person trapped in legalism who wants to be free, but is afraid of freedom?
I'd love to hear your feedback, and next time I'll give you what I believe I would say to such a person.
(P.S. While I would dearly love to have lots of comments on this entry, I do not want anyone to hijack it and turn it into a forum for arguing over whether certain "grey areas" are really black or really white. I will moderate all comments in the spirit of Romans 14.)