5 minute read
By: Shane James O’Neill
Revolution and Legalism
People brought up in church often think people in the world are having a blast, pursuing pleasure however they want it, without shaming from parents, friends, teachers, or pastors. In many of our hearts, this develops a sense of envy for the pleasures they’re allowed to pursue, as well as a growing bitterness toward God for keeping us from these pleasures.
The sexual revolution has gone a long way in creating this tension.
The sexual revolution in the 60’s sought after the freedom of sexual expression. The idea being, any sexual practice should be pursued because pleasure is a human right and an expression of personal identity, as long at it doesn’t hurt another person.
This is the counter narrative from people who feel like the church and Christianity just sexually repress humans.
In steps legalism: legalism is the Christian reaction to the sexual revolution, by arguing for Christian morality but at the neglect of Jesus’ gospel.
To be clear, no person ever presents themself as a legalist. It’s a negative belief system that influence all of thinking and practices.
Legalism is the belief that morality can save you from sin and make you a better person. Or to put it another way, if you try and work hard enough then God will love you and you’ll be worthy of Jesus’ death.
Trapped by God
Legalism isn’t something most people think they live in, but we all live in legalism in various ways and at various times.
For those in the church, when we fail in our purity, we can feel like we aren’t actually Christians, many of us question our salvation, we shame ourselves and hide, and we don’t dare talk to God or other Christians about it because we don’t want to feel more guilt. We’re terrified that if we sin in some particular way, or sin just one more time, then God might just give up on us. At its core, legalism is the act of following Jesus without believing He actually loves you.
This is a rough situation to be in: we want to enjoy life — Christianity claims to offer real joy — but we feel only shame and disappointment as we try and live it out. It’s like God has called us to something we’re always going to fail at and then when we do fail He throws guilt at us.
We feel like we’re trapped between wanting purity and the shame of sin.
This is why we put on legalism, because we don’t want to buy into the morality of the sexual revolution but we’re also afraid to admit sin. So how is legalism different from the gospel?
LEgalism vs Jesus
Here’s how Christian legalism is different from the Christian gospel:
Legalism says I can use morality to be good enough. The gospel says your works will never be good enough.
Legalism says if I’m good enough, God will accept me. The gospel says you’ll never be good enough, I already accept you.
Legalism says works can save me. Jesus speaks through the gospel saying, My works are the only ones that can save you.
We all know we’re broken, but we all hide our brokenness. Legalism forces us to hide our sin with the hope that if we try hard enough, we will one day make it. Legalism compels us to lie, to live in shallow relationships, and to grow in envy as well as bitterness toward ourself and others.
The gospel says, you are broken and so I was broken for you. Through the gospel, Jesus says, to find my freedom you must admit that you’re trapped, you must believe that I was broken for you, you must believe that I love you, and you must believe that I forgive you.
Is morality bad?
When we live from legalism, we are believing in the commands of Jesus, just not His gospel. We are being legalistic when we follow the commands of Jesus to get us to His gospel, instead of using Jesus’ gospel to live out His commands. The morality is the same, but the steps are switched.
This all boils down to the question, what is the motivation for your morality? When you are pursuing sexual purity so that God will love you then you are living in legalism. But if you are pursuing sexual purity because God loves you, then you are living inside of His Kingdom.
Legalism believes that striving to be good enough is the road to God’s Kingdom. It believes that Jesus’ commands for purity are that road and if we get His commands down then we’ll be accepted in.
The beauty of God’s Kingdom is its size. The Kingdom is a massive realm and Jesus invites us to journey within it. That is where sexual purity begins and ends in the gospel, through the exploration of His freedom, forgiveness, and deep affection for us.
Legalism is a fear motivated behavior, with uncertainty of acceptance. The gospel is grace motivated behavior, with full assurance.
Legalism is pursuing Jesus’ commands, just without Jesus.
So here’s the takeaway: why do we pursue sexual purity? Simply put, we pursue sexual purity for the sake of knowing Him better. Jesus is good, true, and beautiful. He is humble and gentle toward us, yet fierce and strong in the ways He fights for us. In Him is abundant life. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life for all the shame, guilt, hurt, and deception of abused sexuality.
He looks at us with dignity and love, even as we sin. So what’s your motivation for sexual integrity?
Do you try to not lust so that Jesus will love you, or do you fight lust because He loves you? Do you try and honor the nakedness of other people so that Jesus will one day honor you, or do you practice honoring others because Jesus has honored you? Do you try and live without sin so that He’ll make you sinless, or do you live in His righteousness because He has made you blameless? Are you trying to clean yourself up so that you can have a relationship Him, or will you seek relationship with Him and let Him make you pure?
So, yeah, sexual purity can be legalism. It just depends on if you’re pursuing purity apart from the cross of Jesus, or in front it.
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Shane James O’Neill is the Editorial Director for Proven Men Ministries. He is currently working on a graduate degree in apologetics at Liberty University’s Rawling School of Divinity.