That spiritual problem…have you got it?

In the last post I suggested you may have a spiritual problem – quite bold of me! I certainly have no wish to judge or condemn, but rather, to see followers of Jesus walk in freedom. This, after all, is what Christ set us free for – freedom! (Gal 5:1).

I’m not going to beat about the bush in arriving at this two-sided problem. I want to outline them briefly, and then point us to the road to freedom.

The problem is two fold: legalism or antinomianism. Whatcha? HUH? Yeah.

Legalism is the situation where, even if saved by grace through faith, there is a tendancy to believe that we have to do certain things in order to either contribute to our salvation, or work to please God and earn favour. The language of a legalist is ‘should’, ‘ought’, ‘must’. It can be directed at self (eg. I must have at least 20 minutes prayer every day or I will be failing God) or at others (eg they really ought to be at church twice a week every week to be any use to us). This can reduce the Christian life to a guilt-inducing set of requirements on a whole manner of things which, at the end of the day, will make you or those you are legalistic towards fairly miserable. Where is the joy? More than that, is it freedom to be enslaved to rituals, practices and attitidudes?

The opposite is Antinomianism. Basically, antinominism is where, even if saved by grace through faith, there is a tendency to believe that because we are ‘under grace’, I don’t have to do a thing! Don’t sweat it! Jesus has it covered! It is a kind of ‘lawlessness’ because, well, ‘I’m not under law.’ This plays itself out in lots of ways. People don’t take advantage of the means of grace that help us grow deeper into Christ (fellowship, prayer, bible reading, communion, worship etc) and reject the call to holiness (they are over-easy on their purity of heart and life, letting themselves off). This leads to a ‘Christian by name’ but ‘defeated by nature’ situation. This, too, is less than fulfilling, not transformative and leads to nominalism.

Can you see the problem? These extremes feed into each other, and are both extortions of authentic faith. One robs the joy and turns faith into religious doing, and the other robs the fullness by leading into sin, disengagement or spiritual laziness.

What’s the answer? It’s this: ‘grace reigning through righteousness’ (Ro 5:21).

What does that mean for the legalist? It affirms that their is a right way to live as we follow Christ, but rather than it being the case that we slave at religious works, instead we accept we are saved by grace and allow grace to inspire our free devotion, leaving off the religious or judgemental shackles. It’s about learning to live freely and lightly, accepting that Jesus’ burden is easy and his yoke is light – that nothing ill-fitting will befall us. That frees us up for loving devotion.

What does that mean for the antinomian? It means that although our salvation is by grace through faith, there is a demand of the gospel. Salvation is free, but it actually costs us everything. We’re invited to come and die to sin. More than that, as Paul spends loads of time saying in Romans, grace doesn’t mean we go around enjoying our sin simply because grace covers it. No! Grace means that not only are we set free from sin and its dreadful consequences, but we are freed from the bondage to sin. We live by the Spirit, and, like the legalist, we learn to live freely and lightly in response to the call to follow.

As I reflect on 20 years of pastoral ministry, I believe I’ve seen these two ways played out in hundreds of lives. When I started out in faith, I didn’t understand this dynamic and quickly fell into religious legalism…until I learned about grace. There have also been seasons when I’ve played down the call to life a life of repentance, purity and submission and have got tangled in sin for a season, dumbing my conscience to throw of the call of God…until I remembered grace.

I’ve tried to keep this post simple, but I believe the effects of these two tendencies in the life of the Christian not only lead to misery and defeat, but that they hamper the mission of God and the advance of the Kingdom of God so far as that is reliant on our witness in the world. It is a pastoral issue, but also a missional issue. We want to invite people to freedom in Christ – not a dried up religion or a weak, watery believe-ism that rejects the call to radical discipleship.

How might your reflections on this lead you into the freedom grace bestows?