After church one day an older woman approached me and said, “I didn’t see you in church today. I saw your husband take communion, but I didn’t see you take communion.” I responded, “You are correct. I did not take communion today.” To which she replied, “I’ve been sitting in the front row for years, and I know exactly who does and does not take communion.” I think she even ended with a, “Hmphh,” but I can’t confirm that. Now, I sometimes just blurt stuff out without weighing the consequences. Lucky for my husband in this moment I did more weighing than blurting. Not that I cared what she thought of my spiritual standing. But I still didn’t appreciate the Communion Police Citation. Why does she keep track? And to whom does she send her weekly police report? The façade of perfection that pervades the church gets lost on me. Why would Christians pretend to be godly? Don’t they know they don’t have to do that?
Matthew 7 talks about people who cast out demons, prophesy, and do other wonders all in Jesus’s Name (a.k.a works), feeling shocked when Jesus turns them away, stating He never knew them. The Bible makes this point clear. And if that sounds scary it should. We need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. But legalists perpetrate on other Christians by obsessing over whether or not others have reached their spiritual pinnacles. And I get it. Your husband doesn’t pray enough. Or your friend at church struggles with anxiety. And if they could just get their spiritual acts together….blah blah blah. So we condemn them over their spiritual shortcomings as if that’s our job. It’s not. God doesn’t need our help.
In the Galatian churches, the Judaizers preached this false gospel—that a Gentile had to first become a Jew before becoming a Christian—and that mandated obeying the Law of Moses. In Galatians 5:1-4 Paul addresses those who believed the external act of circumcision would bring God’s favor. We can exchange that ritual for any fill in the blank external act today—like getting baptized, or first communion. Paul said that if they sought righteousness by works, Christ would have no value to them. Because who needs God if we can save ourselves?
Paul did not condemn the act of circumcision itself. He condemned the ritualization of circumcision as a means to righteousness. The same way a communion police would ritualize communion. (Can you tell I’m still peeved about that citation? Don’t worry—I get free psychotherapy at home.)
And Paul warns that every man who receives circumcision must keep the whole Law. Paul wanted them to understand that The Law is one unit—not an a la carte menu. If I put myself under any part of the law in order to obtain right standing in God’s eyes, then God expects me to meet every requirement—which I think is 613 laws. So, “I will not watch Sex and the City on Monday, and not say 4 letter words on Tuesday, and not park illegally on Wednesday,” doesn’t cut it. It’s the WHOLE LAW—over 600 Mosaic Covenant Laws.
By the way, the law prohibits tattoos and eating shellfish. The law states, if raped, an unmarried woman has to marry her rapist. Because that sounds like a healthy solution to the problem. Even so, some people prefer the law over grace. But good behavior doesn’t get us into heaven. Jesus directed some of his harshest words at the Pharisees for taking pride in their own morality. He called them whitewashed tombs because they looked clean on the outside, but were dead on the inside.
And what is a good person anyway? What does that even mean? That I vow to never drink beer, wear tank tops, or go to Vegas? Who puts on an outfit dipped in blood, saliva, pus, sweat, urine, and just for fun let’s add some feces—and then goes out in public shouting, “Look at me! I look amazing”? The Bible compares our righteousness to filthy rags. Why would we brag about wearing filthy rags?
Freedom in Christ does not mean I don’t have to obey God. I do. But it all comes down to my motivation for obeying. Striving for perfection comes from a sense of duty towards God—motivated by fear. That’s not holy freedom. That’s slavery. That’s: I obey to be accepted. But what about wanting to love the God who cares for me enough to show me untiring mercy—not once—not twice—but over and over—the God who forgives me and shows me unrelenting patience—the God who loves me enough to show me kindness—even when I’m at my selfish, angry, lustful, materialistic, prideful worst? Who wouldn’t want to love a God like that? Holiness comes from wanting to please God—motivated by love. That’s: I obey because I’m accepted.
I used to attend Celebrate Recovery. The best part? Hearing testimonies. Because when all seems impossible and hopeless, we see how God does a “180” in people’s lives. For anyone unsure that God can and does transform hearts, these Christ-centered recovery testimonies remove all doubt.
I will never forget one testimony that floored me—a former heroin addict. This woman eventually lost her job—which meant lost income. And when the money ran out, she’d dip into the family bank account. (She had a husband and kids.) Eventually, the money ran short. So she resorted to prostitution to buy heroin. Now when I say she floored me, I don’t speak of the heroin or prostitution. (I got my healthcare training in San Francisco and Memphis.) It’s just that this woman looked like a soccer mom—the woman next door who brings you pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Christians struggle with the same things as non-Christians. And if Christians can’t feel safe and accepted in church, then where can we feel safe and accepted?
The word sanctuary means a place of refuge or asylum. Imagine how church would look if we made it a place of refuge or asylum—a safe place to confess without judgment for struggles, fears, and doubts. Christ died so we don’t have to obsess over the law. So why enslave others to the law? If believers feel turned off by legalism, imagine how unbelievers feel.
Pastor Matt Chandler puts it something like this: The law says I’m a messed up sinner. Grace acknowledges I’m a messed up sinner. The law says I will fail over and over for the rest of my life. Grace acknowledges that I will fail over and over for the rest of my life. The law exposes my mistakes. Grace covers them. The law makes me feel ashamed and inadequate. Grace comforts me. The law says I deserve God’s wrath. Grace protects me from God’s wrath. The law says God condemns me. Grace says God loves and forgives me. And it’s a free gift. God gets nothing out that deal. So why choose the law over grace?
Before Christ transformed his heart, Paul was the most zealous of legalistic Pharisees—a people-pleaser rather than a God-pleaser. But he learned that we can’t live in fear of what people think of us. We only need to fear God’s opinion. Sometimes others won’t like how that looks. That’s OK.
The law only changes my behavior. The gospel changes my life. The Bible speaks of the only way to fulfill the whole law—loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.