Faith, Works and an Unhealthy Dose of Legalism

This is part of an ongoing series about idolatry, highlights from a class I taught largely based on Kelly Minter’s book No Other Gods. Click here and here for the first two posts in the series.

What is the relationship between faith and works? 

This question often leads to a vicious debate about “cheap grace” and “lordship salvation,” two terms I really detest. At first glance it all seems so complicated. Perhaps even contradictory. In reality, though, it’s quite simple.

God has done everything for us. That’s it.

Yes, we want to serve Him and, yes, we want to strive to be holy just as He is holy, but the fact is we cannot do that on our own. Anything good we accomplish or even think should be credited to Him and not to us. So working for our salvation is a myth. Attempting to do so will only inflate our pride, exhaust our souls and steal glory that rightfully belongs to God.

Now some of you are clutching your Bibles tightly, prepared to throw the book of James at me. Faith without works is dead. You’re right! But, again, the works do not find their source in us, but in God. Don’t believe me? Check out Philippians 2:13, Romans 3:10 and 4:5 and 2 Corinthians 3:4–5. These are only a few of the passages that directly apply.

For those of you who don’t believe you need to do something with your faith, check out James 1:22–25, James 2:20 and Romans 6:8–14.

Unfortunately, too many of us trust God for salvation, but fail to trust Him for sanctification.

Even King David in Psalm 51 admitted his need for God to help him escape iniquity. If a man “after God’s own heart” cannot cleanse himself, what makes us think we can? We can’t.

What does this have to do with idolatry?

Legalism is idolatry. It is depending on rules, regulations, obedience and your own strength to acquire righteousness.

Righteousness cannot be manufactured; it is not measured by outward behaviors. Rule-keeping will not make us holy nor will it eliminate our idols. Legalism is its own slavery, its own personal pharaoh. We don’t want that. Rather, we want freedom that empowers obedience.

“Legalism is when we try to obtain the result of obedience by our own means and strength. It is self-righteousness, as opposed to God’s righteousness covering us, and the two are as difference at spirit and flesh.” – Minter, p. 143

The difference between legalism and righteous obedience is the source of strength and motivation. Legalism does what is right through human strength and determination. It is done out of pride or fear. Obedience is a loving response to God’s goodness, done through His strength and for His glory.

So what are we to do?

If we can’t just keep our heads down and press on with new rules and determination, how are we to overcome our shortcomings? How are we to identify our idols and then eliminate them? Well, we have to ask God. He can point out our weak areas, strengthen us and enable us to do what we need to do.

More important than what we do, however, is what we think. Proper godly perspective focuses not on the good works, but on Who is doing the work and for Whom the work is being done.

Kelly Minter compared this salvation-faith-works relationship to becoming an aunt. She did nothing to deserve the title, but once she received it, she did all sorts of auntie things thereafter. She says: “I’m not working for the title, but because of it.” It’s the same with Christianity. We don’t act righteously to earn the title of Christian; we do those things because we are Christians.

God has done the work. He enables us to do good works, but those, too, are for His glory, not ours. And certainly not for our salvation.

In addition to seeking God and His wisdom, we must, like Abraham with Isaac, be willing to surrender what we treasure.

But wait — didn’t Abraham have to sacrifice another son before Isaac? Yes. In Genesis 17 Abraham asked God to bless Ishmael rather than go ahead with some crazy plan of geriatric pregnancy. In His grace, God did bless Ishmael, but it was a very different blessing than what He had reserved for Isaac. Ishmael came from Abraham and Sarah taking matters into their own hands. They grew tired of waiting for God and decided to produce their own child of promise. God required Abraham to surrender his own plans, his own toiling, to God’s plans.

“I have surrendered much at the feet of His supremacy, yet in God’s mysterious economy, He always restores more than I have ever given up in the first place.” – Minter, 167

Tomorrow we’ll talk more about how to restore God to His rightful position on the throne of our hearts.

Your Turn: Are you depending on yourself to acquire righteousness? Think of a time when you’ve taken matters into your own hands. What was the fruit of that? How would you complete Abraham’s plea: “If only __________________ might live under your blessing!”

Talk to me!

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