Jump Start # 2816
Acts 22:3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, just as you all are today.”
I was reading an article the other day. The first sentence was, “I was brought up in a legalistic church.” That was not used as a compliment. The author was not proud of that fact. He opened with that statement to identify how narrow his views once were and how he missed out on so many other things. For the author, legalism held him back and hindered him in his spiritual growth and maturity. Year later, running as fast as he could away from that legalistic church, he now feels that he has found peace and love and joy.
It seems that many folks, especially those who are not content to stay with the Lord’s pattern of things, like to hang their hats upon the nail of legalism. And, legalism is viewed as a form of spiritual leprosy. No one wants to admit that they are legalistic. For some, it’s better to be empty of all faith than to be a legalist.
And, all of this brings us to our verse today. Paul, in giving his defense, tells his story. And, each of us has our own story. In telling his story, Paul refers to his schooling under the rabbi Gamaliel. He was famous. To be tutored by Gamaliel, would open doors for a man in the Jewish community. Highly respected and conservative, Gamaliel believed in the authority of God. Paul’s words are, “strictly according to the law of our fathers.” Strictly. That’s a phrase that will bring shouts of legalism. And, many who throw darts at legalism do not really understand that word. Is there a difference between legalism and obedience? God wants us to obey Him. So, is God calling us to be legalists?
When a parent tells a child to clean up his room. Is that a legalistic statement? When a driver obeys the speed limit, is he being a legalist? And, if obedience is the same as legalism, then what’s the opposite? Lawlessness? A child that refuses to obey his parent is considered rebellious and disobedient. A believer that will not obey the Lord is considered a transgressor.
Modern theology has moved beyond obeying God. It ignores passages and invites change based upon culture. So, to “strictly” stand where the Bible is on marriage, that is considered by many to be legalism. Because some won’t open the door for social issues like transgender and same-sex marriage, the offensive and prejudicial label of legalism is applied.
Is there such a thing as “legalism?” Certainly. The Pharisees, in many ways, were legalists. Their condemning Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, or His disciples not washing their hands are great examples of this. A modern example for us. On the way to worship on a Sunday, you come across a car that is broken down and a stranded driver. Do you stop to help? If you do, you might be late for worship? Not to forsake sticks in your mind, but here is an opportunity for you to be a good Samaritan. Drive by or stop?
One can strictly obey the law of God without be a legalist. Legalism defines one’s faithfulness by what he has done. It’s a check list. Do all the right things and one will go to Heaven. Legalism is built around fear. If I do not do everything, God will not like me. Legalism tries to get God’s attention by one’s goodness. Legalism is about duty and what one must do. Obedience is built upon love. The obedient heart knows that he will never be good enough, do enough, or know enough to ever deserve Heaven. God’s grace is what the obedient follower hopes in. He obeys not to win God’s favor, but because He has God’s favor. He does not try to get God to love him. He knows that God loves him. He does things strictly because He knows that’s what pleases the Lord. The legalist often looks through judgmental glasses at others. He sees others not attending very much and he doubts their salvation. He sees others stumbling along and questions their faith. The obedient heart realizes that we are all on a journey. Some are ahead of us, some are beside us and others are behind us. We need each other and none of us are completely where we ought to be. Do the best you can with what you have, is how the obedient heart looks at things.
Our times scoffs at obedience. And, to skirt around that, culture defines obedience and legalism as the same. They are not. And, what moderns fail to see, is that lawlessness never pleases God. Flying solo, doing your own thing in your own way, being different, being unique may appeal to many, but it’s the same as disobedience.
So, before us are three options. First is to ignore what God says. That’s lawlessness. The second is to do what God says. In doing what God says, one realizes that he is a work in progress and he needs a lot of help from the Lord. That’s obedience. The third way of doing things is to feel obligated and a sense of have to. One feels saved because “I go to church on Sunday.” His obedience has become a measuring rod for himself and others and how well he is doing.
God does not want us to be lawless. Yet, God does not want us to be legalists. Strictly obeying God, with a heart that only wants to please the Lord is the way to go. Among conservative minded people, we must fight the little Pharisee that tends to rise up in each of us. Put down the radar gun that you point toward others. Stop comparing yourself with others. Cleanse your heart and devote your heart to the Lord.