“You never really know when God accepts you. You just keep working until you die.” This was my pastor’s response to a question that I asked in a Bible study. The question was, “How do I know when God accepts me?” I was coming off concurrent nights where I lost sleep over a recurring fear – that I would die, and God would reject me, leaving me to suffer in Hell for eternity. Emotionally frayed and physically tired, I went to the Bible study looking for comfort.
What I got was, “You just keep working until you die.”
My pastor went on to give an analogy of a dirty rag, one used to clean a greasy kitchen. He went on to explain, “We’re all dirty rags. We try hard to be clean, but we know that we will never be clean. However, when you die, even though you will be dirty, God will accept you.”
The clarity with which I can recall his response directly correlates to how this interaction shaped me for the coming years. If I was never going to be clean, I had to keep working. In my legalistic church, this meant volunteering at the church for over 20+ hours a week, making sure that you avoided watching R-rated movies, not drinking, making sure your hair was in an acceptable style, and scrubbing your vocabulary free of all vulgar words.
After toiling under this burden for years, I finally heard and believed the Gospel. God saw fit to pluck a poor sinner who lost sleep while constantly questioning his salvation, and allowed that feeble man access by faith into His grace. I fought hard to shed the persistently clinging shackles of legalism. I read books about soteriology. I became a Calvinist. I stood in awe at the Gospel. All of this made me…prideful and arrogant.
You would think that it would have the opposite effect. In fact, the Apostle Paul thought it would have the opposite effect. “What becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” (Romans 3:27) However, knowing the Gospel did not make me humble. In fact, knowing the Gospel made me want to prove everyone at my church wrong.
Every theological conversation became an attempt to prove the other person wrong. I memorized Bible verses – not to feed my soul, but to make sure my weapons were sharp should theological conflict arise. I am a lover of confrontation and can direct most conversations toward that end. Once they came, I would unleash my arsenal of arguments and verses. I made quick work of some. Others would put up a fight. It is my shame to say that verbal debate, not Gospel zeal, motivated me.
I failed to see the person as another soul caught in the snare of legalism. I failed to wonder about their sleepless nights. Did they face the same persistent fear in the early hours of the night? Did they lie awake, wondering if their day’s work was ever enough? Did they have a strong and perfect plea before the Throne? None of those things mattered to me at the time, theological debate was invigorating. Their inability to answer my questions and to counter my position was all the satisfaction I needed.
I heard a story about an elderly woman who spent many years at that church. She was a dedicated servant, and known as a woman of godly character. As her health declined, she was admitted to the local hospital. I remember hearing a story about her final days before her death. Those who visited and knew her said that she went to the grave, with a dreadful fear of Hell. Such is the plight of those who do not rest in the Gospel, and I saw them as verbal sparring partners?
“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7) It is strange that the people who have the strongest intellectual grasp of a biblical soteriology boast as if they climbed to those dizzying heights without aid. Legalism is a scourge. It is to be repudiated. With more resources available online, there are more Christians young and old emerging from behind Sisyphus’s rock, and seeing that their efforts to reach the mountaintop through their works is a fool’s errand. There are more Christians who are recovering legalists. If that is you, allow me to ask two questions: Do you still bear the marks that legalism left? If so, do you have compassion and love for those who are still under that lash?
This is not an argument to endure legalism or a legalistic church. If God has opened your eyes, leaving is a legitimate and often only option. However, even as you think of those who are still there, who are still trying to self-justify, do you weep that there are those who will never know the Gospel? Only eternity will reveal God’s judgment or mercy on them. As you grow in delighting in the Gospel, as you consider how you slip into old legalistic tendencies, consider that the freedom you experience is not known by those who are still serving that false god. There are those who will go to the grave fearing Hell, while you know that you have a Great High Priest who ever lives and intercedes for you. When you draw near to the throne room, there are those who you know that shrink back since they know that they cannot stand on their inadequate works.
Christian, if you have been freed from legalism, is your posture one of a prince or pauper? The next time you think of that fundamental church you used to attend, may your heart break for the darkness and bondage legalism brings, and may you pray that the Lord sets them free.