EXCERPTS FROM “UNDERSTANDING GRACE AND HOW TO INTERPRET IT IN YOUR LIFE AND CHURCH”

Lee Turner

2002

Many pastors, [teachers, dad’s, and mom’s] desiring that their [members or son’s and daughter’s] live holy lives, mix law with grace.

Mixing law with grace only produces guilt ridden, defeated Christians and robs them of joy.” (Emphasis added in brackets)

 

Historically religious groups have institutionalized religion in order to preserve their doctrines. The organization of the Roman Catholic Church preserved their doctrines against heretics. Judaism codified their religion with the Talmud and Mishnah in order to purify and protect their doctrines. Many of the “Creeds” of Christianity were written to preserve truth. While “Creeds” and other attempts to preserve truth are not wrong, often they are accompanied by rigid institutionalized structure that hinders the individual’s relationship with God.

Getz points out that historically movements have tended to institutionalize and neglect the individual, “Judaism, Roman Catholicism and the Reformation churches preserved their religious system, but they lost sight of the individual. In fact, the system in each instance—its dogmas and traditions and its forms and structures—eventually became more important than the people themselves. These movements also prescribed their ‘orthodoxy,’ but their adherents failed to appropriate the deeper and personal comprehension of God’s truth. People gave mental assent to doctrine, but there was little relationship to their daily living. Being a part of the movement was little different from belonging to a club, society, or group in the secular world. In many cases traditions overshadowed the Word of God. These movements all gained external conformity on the part of their followers, but apart from inner experience. People religiously performed routines and rituals, but without the true spiritual meaning. Their religion became a matter of form and ceremony, not life and experience. A personal relationship with God was replaced with an impersonal relationship with an organization. All of these movements perpetuated themselves by means of an education that was authoritarian, stereotyped, and transmissive. They utilized the indoctrination with little room for creative thinking and freedom. The learning atmosphere became non–permissive. All of these movements developed a hierarchy of leaders, who in turn developed a careful and logical system of theology. It was the leaders who did the ‘thinking’ and the ‘communicating,’ while the ordinary people became the recipients and followers of the wisdom of the sages.”

A pastor may find an authoritarian, institutional style to his liking because it is a comfortable way to preserve truth, produce results and feed his ego. But believers in such a church do not develop a strong faith in God. They develop a “toxic faith” which blindly follows with unquestioning loyalty the doctrine and direction of the leader. Motivated by peer pressure and fear, they fanatically support, and win converts for their church or group. However, they soon “burn–out” from this fleshly activity and begin to question why their faith is not working. Having never developed their own spiritual growth through a strong personal relationship with Christ, they have no inner strength of their own. They are codependent on others.

This “toxic faith” does not satisfy the longings of a hungry soul. If they start seeking an answer, it is interpreted as a challenge to the leadership. They are not given answers, but told, “If you are not one of us, you are one of them.” They are either brought back into conformity through guilt and threats, or if this fails, finally ostracized from the church or group. Arterburn and Felton comment, “When religious addicts create a toxic faith system, God is lost in the process. In God’s place, rules are implemented that serve only to further the empire of religious addiction. As new people come into the toxic faith system, they are indoctrinated into the rules rather than strengthened in a relationship with God. The rules reinforce addiction, not faith. Addiction leads to conformity to a predictable pattern of behavior, often blocking faithful following of God.”

Unfortunately, dictatorial leaders will attract some believers who feel comfortable in a legalistic environment. It is a passive life, they are told what to believe, do and say. They never have to exercise their wills and make decisions that develop a strong independent personal faith. They are disenfranchised from the joy of living a daily adventure of walking in the Spirit by faith. Since some believers function under pressure, they may not be conscious of their lack of internal growth. Crabb and Allender observe, “People with ‘executive personalities’ (who rarely have close friends) mercilessly pound others about their responsibilities. They apply pressure in every available way to compel others to have devotions, witness, attend church, and tithe. Some people, depending on their temperament, conform to the pressure and appear to move along nicely on the road to spiritual maturity. Others rebel. In either case, little heart movement toward God takes place” Authoritative personalities can promote an outward unity that masks a concealed problem. The enforcement of lists of “dos and don’ts,” and the security of external conformity do not allow an honest evaluation of a believer’s true spiritual condition. Van Impe elaborates, “One of the most troubling aspects of neo–fundamentalism was the extremes of legalism that were often espoused. One crusade sponsor refused to support the endeavor unless I submitted a written statement that none of my employees wore wire–rimmed glasses. He felt they were an indication of ‘yuppyism.’ Other standards were set for choir members, counselors and ushers. Rules governing makeup, hair styles, clothing fashions and accessories were among the regulations demanded by some of the legalists. Pastors not in agreement usually remained silent so as to keep peace. The tragedy of the situation was that those who practiced the enforcement of such standards often–times overlooked gross sins committed by leaders of fundamentalism or by members within their own churches.”

A woman in our church used to attend an extremely legalistic church where a friend reported her to the leaders because she didn’t fold her husband’s socks correctly. Soul liberty did not extend to doing the laundry!

Many conservative leaders have blind spots; they speak out boldly on visual sins while remaining silent concerning spiritual sins. Van Impe comments, “Christian leaders at times aided and abetted the transgressors by covering up or attempting to get church boards to overlook the wicked offense. Though the sins included adultery, homosexuality, possession of sex magazines, lying, cheating and numerous other forms of wickedness scripturally condemned, still these iniquities by religious leaders were overlooked. At the same time, men who winked at such sin broke fellowship with brothers who held different views concerning hair, sideburns, pantsuits, bell–bottom trousers and music.

Grace Frees the Believer From the Law and Legalism

Paul proclaimed, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8: 2). He declared the good news that the believer is no longer under law, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6: 14).

The believer is not lawless but is now indwelled with the Holy Spirit who exercises supervision over him. He lifts the believer to a higher plane and enables him to live a righteous life. An airplane can defy the law of gravity because its engines’ power allows a greater power to take over—the law of aerodynamics. Likewise, the believer is now given power that can overcome sin, “Because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4: 4). Christ now empowers believers to do something that the law could never do—live his righteous life through them. Paul warns the believer not to go back under the law, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5: 1).

Girard comments, “Genuine holiness cannot be other than the free expression of free people doing what pleases God because they want to. It is less than free—if coercion, pressure, or fear are the source of it—then it is not holiness, it is conformity—a mere work of the flesh.” This does not mean the Christian is “lawless” and should not live a moral life. Paul declares, “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law” (1 Corinthians 9: 21). James calls it, “the perfect law that gives freedom” (James 1: 25 and 2: 12).

Under grace, we are not free to sin, but free from sin. For 2000 years God has run the world without the law. He does not need legalistic teachers to help him now. Rather, He needs teachers who understand grace to instruct believers how they can unleash the unlimited power of Christ who indwells them. The New Covenant believer has not only been cleansed from his sin because of the cross, he now has the resurrected life of Christ living in him to produce holiness. Christ’s death on the cross fulfilled the requirements of the law, and the Old Covenant, which was external. Christ’s resurrection life now allows us to live under the grace of the New Covenant which is internal. Paul warned, “Are you so foolish, having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3: 3). We start the Christian life by faith and live it by faith. The Spirit that gave us spiritual life now produces Christ’s own holy life in us. Most believers “knee–jerk” at the suggestion that the flesh can do anything for salvation—that would be legalism. But the same person may see nothing wrong with the flesh trying to produce holiness. They could state their theology as, “Saved by faith (grace) and kept by struggle (legalism).”

The flesh cannot do anything spiritual. You can legislate, manipulate, pressure, condemn, and coax it, but the flesh will never produce supernatural holiness and good works. You cannot mix the Holy Spirit and the flesh or grace, and the law anymore than you can mix oil and water. Jesus said, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (John 6: 63). Many Christians vacillate between the flesh and the Spirit for a lifetime, never enjoying their joyous victory in Christ. For a time, they appear to be doing something spiritual, laying one law on another and measuring each other by their own standards. Sometimes they try to walk in the Spirit, then fearful of totally abandoning themselves to Christ and growing inwardly they become impatient with the Spirit and slip back under the law.

Because legalism, externally, gives the appearance of being spiritual it is difficult to identify its deadness. Believers can act like Christians, conform to the “acceptable evangelical norm,” perform programs and never enjoy the resurrected life of Christ living through them. They are still living under the law, trying to teach the flesh how to look and act like it is controlled by the Spirit. But when they hear the “joyful sound of saints on higher ground” in Canaan, sadness fills their soul. They must face the reality that they are still wandering in the wilderness.

Rigid legalism also works against harmony in the local church. Hollinger warns, “Based on my observations, a heartless Christianity can lead to two equally undesirable outcomes. One is skepticism… the second possible outcome is rigid legalism. Here one remains within the boundaries of orthodoxy to be sure, but spiritual vitality is replaced by human rules and inflexible standards established to designate those who are “kosher” from those who are not. It is a judgmental faith demanding that believers dot their theological ‘i’s’ and cross their theological ‘t’s’ in precisely the same manner.

This type of religion is callous, cold and austere. It has never learned to feel the inward freedom of Christ. Such freedom does not negate objective doctrines and standards; rather, it frees us from making them the end of the Christian’s life rather than a means to an end—the end being our love for God and love for our neighbor.” Grace does not pressure believers to perform. Grace merely provides an environment where they are free to respond to the Spirit’s leading.

 

Check back later for Part 4!