The legalist & forgiveness.

April 18, 2008

As I read through Scripture & prayed, it became clearer that much of my difficulty in forgiving came from a lingering legalistic mentality — the “my works & obedience to the law makes me acceptable to God” mentality.

The legalist is stuck on the idea that it is her “good” works that makes her acceptable. The legalist holds high moral codes, man-made rules that appear to conform to God’s Word, & other outward means of measuring goodness or righteousness. (But note, no matter how high the legalist may uphold her rigid self-rules, it is still too far below the perfect standard God requires.)

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) The “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees consisted of merely an external adherence to God’s law. Their rituals and laws made them look righteous, but not before a God who looks at the heart.

“For You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; You will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken & contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17) King David acknowledged that God’s concern is with the heart: brokenness, humility . . .

But the legalist does not understand brokenness & humility, much less mercy & grace.

The legalist’s #1 priority is keeping the law. The legalist’s #1 boast is herself (her resolve & ability to keep the law). The legalist’s #1 resource in achieving her own ends is herself; maybe she gives lip-service to God’s work of sanctification in her life, but in the practice of her life, she demonstrates little faith in God’s ability & relies on herself. She is the center of her own universe.

She becomes dejected in her sins, because they are personal failures. She tries to atone for those failures, but inside is the gnawing truth that even one failure means imperfection. She becomes elated with others’ praises, because they are perceiving her to be the way she wants to project herself to be; it is an affirmation to her self-seeking efforts. In her pride, she still thinks she can attain God’s favor by her own personal merit. She sinfully concludes, like the wicked man in Psalm 50, that God is “one like [herself]” — proud, exacting, merciless. & in her heart of hearts, she is not at peace.

I can describe such a woman in much detail, because she is the “old self” in me: a legalistic Pharisee & a self-condemning miser, void of any understanding of God’s grace.

God, in His merciful way, unveiled these heart sins to me one by one in the past several years, & He’s been helping me to continually put these remains of the “old self” away. (Studying through Romans, Galatians, & the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew have been especially key in this process.)

What I didn’t realize until recently, however, was just how deeply these old ways of legalistic thinking impacted the practice of forgiveness in my own life.

Yet, it’s a logical conclusion that one who doesn’t understand (or forgets) the purity of God’s grace & the totality of God’s forgiveness also does not extend pure grace & total forgiveness to others.

It’s a logical conclusion that one who feels that she still needs to somehow “atone” for her sins & failures toward God also feels that those who’ve wronged her still need to somehow “atone” for their sins & failures toward herself.

It’s a logical conclusion that one who sinfully, ruthlessly upholds the law as the highest sovereign cannot see that a perfectly holy God can forgive transgressions to these laws. It logically follows, then, that she would uphold the same ruthless “law” between herself & others; & when a transgression is committed, the law remains highest & grace is not extended. According to such a system, grace cannot be extended.

But everything, again, must center on the gospel . . . on the God of the gospel of grace.

“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ & not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things & count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ & be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know Him & the power of His resurrection, & may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind & straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Let those of us who are mature think this way, & if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (Philippians 3:8-16)

Only those who truly know Christ — those who are covered in His righteousness (not a righteousness of their own), those who are found in Him, those who know the grace & forgiveness of God — can truly forgive. Only those who are of God’s family can display the character of their Father in giving grace (which, by definition, is undeserved) & freely, lovingly forgive.

We have been completely forgiven in Christ. We could not even begin to merit righteousness on our own.

I must remember the Amazing Grace given to me, that I might extend Amazing-Grace-reflecting grace in my personal relationships. If a holy God forgave me (a sinner), can’t I (a sinner) forgive another sinner? How can I, who have been forgiven so much at the expense of Another, love so little & harden my heart?


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