Legalism and its Antidotes

domsmartHere’s an article by Dominic Smart, minister of Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen, which describes in a remarkably lucid way, a condition which has affected my heart. I suspect it affects the hearts of many of my Christian brothers and sisters.

I confess to being a recovering Pharisee who needs the grace of God to work more deeply in my heart and to change me. Dominic’s article has helped me to see more clearly the damage that this infection can inflict, and thankfully he points me to the antidotes.

Like so many sins, we can see the symptoms more clearly in the hearts and lives of others, but be totally blind to it in our own lives. Hence Jesus’ words about the speck and the plank. My knowledge of my own heart, and my experience of pastoral work and church life, makes me think that Dominic hits a few nails on the head here.

Deliverance is a wonderful thing.

When a Christian is delivered from an oppressive burden that has weighed him or her down for years, then it’s especially wonderful. For such deliverance brings release into the joy of the Lord. There’s a sin which takes a peculiarly Christian form in churches. It is burdensome, lethally plausible and, tragically, it’s rife. It would be one of my greatest delights if through my years of ministry believers and fellowships are delivered from it to the glory of God.

It’s legalism.

It’s a sin. It always has been and always will be. Like all sins it causes others to suffer. So some of you reading this might be more sinned against than sinning: only you will know that. The indicators, sadly, will be guilt, pain and an inferiority complex that you somehow can’t quite believe.

Legalism isn’t a matter of having rules, structures, limits or instructions in our congregations or individual lives. While they can be overdone, and often are by people of a certain temperament, they are necessary for godly order in any fellowship: God has given many to us in the Scriptures. The opposite of legalism isn’t lawlessness (antinomianism, as some like to call it), which is nothing more than anarchic pride. Nobody is delivered into that. Christian freedom isn’t freedom to do whatever you want: down here none of us is safe to be let loose with such a freedom; up there – well, we’ll be different then!

Legalism is primarily a God-ward thing. It’s a way of making and keeping yourself acceptable to God. From this flows the legalism that is directed towards one another It’s a way of scoring sanctity points in our fellowships, and exerting what one postmodernist called a “truth regime” – it’s about pride, power and control. It simultaneously glorifies man and “unsecures” man. Thus its true opposites are grace and faith.

Yet it is so plausible. The need for order, structures and boundaries feeds our quest for control. Our very ability to keep some rules feeds our pride and gives us the impression that our relationship with God is somehow founded upon this ability. But in the same day, our inability to keep others feeds our despair, which in turn generates more rules and a more strenuous effort to keep them. Since laws and rules can be helpful, legalism seems to be on to a winner.

It often arises out of a good motive: to be holy. We don’t want sin to rule over us, we don’t want to grieve God or to stray from his path. And it is a narrow path compared to the one that leads to destruction. So in order to avoid big sins we add rules to God’s word – hedging sinful territory around with codes that are intended to keep us from it. It is the well-intentioned, keen and committed who are most prone to it. The half-hearted Christian couldn’t really care enough to veer towards legalism (though he or she makes up for it with many other errors). It was the scribes, following good Ezra, who developed “the traditions of men” which people preferred to the word of God: a preference that Jesus blasted in Mark 7.

But all this focuses the mind on self. It takes the mind and heart away from Christ, the Proper Man. It takes our faith away from His sufficiency and misplaces it upon ours. We live to achieve his approval; we forget that we are already alive and accepted in Christ. Ever so plausibly, we are sold a different gospel: one that isn’t really a gospel at all. And the desire not to sin in some big way can be little more than a mask to hide our lack of faith in Jesus, “who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption”. (1Cor 1:30). Holiness is not a matter of living on eggshells with a God who is reserving judgement on us and might turn us away at any moment.

It really is a deadly false thing, this warped alternative, this lie, this all-pervasive and hideous distortion of Christian living – for at least eight reasons that I can think of. The biblical antidotes will follow.

If you want to read the rest of the article, go here. It’s worth reading.

Credit where credit’s due

wda-cwcd-poster-web2Today we launched this year’s World Development Appeal of the PCI under the title of “Credit where credit’s due”. As the poster says, its goal is to help Tearfund and Christian Aid give modest financial aid to self-help groups (SHGs) in a number of countries in the developing world.

The idea of self-help groups was begun in Bangladesh following the 1974 famine when Professor Muhammed Yunus began working with small groups of poor people whose abilities, he believed, were being under-utilised. It resulted in the creation of the Grameen Bank and resulted in Professor Yunus being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Many Christian relief and development organisations have picked up this strategy and are applying it all around the world. The fundamental idea is that small groups, made up of 15-20 individuals, save a small amount of money each week and when a reasonable sum has accumulated they give small loans to members of the group to develop a small business which will provide them with an income.

In our trip to Ethiopia in August we saw several of these small groups at work and heard many testimonies and reports of the benefits which membership had brought to individuals and families. Some of the money from this year’s appeal will go to support men and women who facilitate and coach these self-help groups in their activities.

In Ethiopia, each facilitator looks after 10-15 SHGs. That means that up to 200 people benefit from the advice and support of each facilitator. Given that each SHG member represents a family of 4-6 people, the facilitators’ work benefits and blesses a large number of people. And yet it costs only 20 pounds a week to support a facilitator. What impressed us was the large number of people whose lives were transformed and helped by such a modest amount of money. They are well-trained people whose work is closely monitored and recorded.

If you are a Presbyterian, you will be hearing more about this appeal in your congregation in the weeks before Christmas as each congregation is invited to take up a Christmas offering for this fund. Do give as generously as you can. If you are not a Presbyterian, I can assure you that any money you give directly to Tearfund or Christian Aid is well-used for the benefit of those who live in extreme poverty. With regard to these organisations, it’s also a case of “credit where credit’s due”. They do a marvellous job as thousands of lives are transformed through their work.

Common Grace

In two conversations recently, the topic of common grace has come up, and it was interesting to hear people say that they had not heard of the concept before, nor did they fully understand it.

Reformed Christians believe in sin. Sometimes we call it “the doctrine of total depravity”. By that we mean, not that everyone is as bad as they could be, but that every part of human nature (mind, heart emotions and will) has been affected by sin. But we do not always experience the full effects of human badness and depravity. We have good neighbours. Most of the people we do business with are trustworthy. There are many unbelievers who are kind, helpful and unselfish. How can we account for the goodness we find in people, for the amount of truth we find in the writings of unbelievers, and for the beauty that has been produced by musicians, poets, painters and novelists who are not Christian? Continue reading “Common Grace”

Compassion in Coleraine

We had a busy eight days in the new presbytery of Coleraine and Limavady last week, with a total of 22 different events, appointments and church services. But it was all very interesting and most encouraging. We ended the week feeling a bit tired, but enriched by all that we had experienced. A chronicle of the whole week would be tedious to read, but I felt that I had to highlight two occasions when the “Compassion for People” theme was clearly visible.

Alison at Willowbrook
Alison at Willowbrook

On Thursday evening we shared in a short, informal, and extremely enjoyable Harvest Thanksgiving service at Willowbrook.

Willowbrook is a supported living facility for adults who have special educational and physical needs. It has to be one of the happiest places I have ever visited. The singing was enthusiastic as the residents and friends of Willowbrook engaged enthusiastically in the singing of songs, ably led by my colleague, Rev Robert McMullan, whose long service with CSSM has well-qualified him for leading such times of worship. The supper was great, and then we were invited to see the homes of our new friends. What a joy and delight it was as they showed us around and told us how happy they are living at Willowbrook. We praise God for the compassionate people who had the vision for such a place, and for those who brought the vision to reality.

Kellie at Sandelford
Kellie at Sandelford

On Friday morning, we had the opportunity to visit the impressive facilities at Sandelford Special School. With over 140 students, the staff at Sandelford do a fantastic job in teaching children and young people who have to cope with serious physical and intellectual challenges. Again, the atmosphere in the assembly was one of unrestrained joy and enthusiasm which thrilled our hearts.

Kellie presented me with a beautiful picture which she had painted, and which I have already put up on one of the walls of our home.

The facilities at Sandelford are superb, but the greatest resource has to be the people who work there under Mrs Tenant’s outstanding leadership. We met up with our good friend, Leanne, a member of the Carnmoney congregation, whom we have known for many years. Leanne has responsibility for a class of children who are autistic, and she explained the careful and precise way in which she and her support staff enable these pupils to cope with their condition. It was all very impressive, and we were so pleased that these young people were under the care of such compassionate teachers whose approach is so professional.

These are only two examples of people who need a bit of extra support being treated with love and compassion. There are many others providing similar support in many places. But these two inspired us, and we left Coleraine thrilled and delighted by what they are doing.

Hilary’s Harvest text

_46533561_newhillThe US Secretary of State, Mrs Hilary Clinton, came to Stormont today and shared a Bible verse with all of us who had gathered to hear her. It’s a verse we all know well, and which is often quoted text at our Harvest Thanksgiving services at this time of year.

Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:3 ESV

In addressing the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, she did what many good preachers do; she commended them for the good things they had done and had achieved in recent years. But she called on them to continue to make progress in establishing peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and not to give up. Her particular concern, of course, was for the Assembly members to make progress on the devolution of policing and justice. Being the intelligent and clever politician that she is, she probably knew that her biblical reference would not be lost on many Bible-believing members of the Assembly.

The agricultural metaphor of sowing and reaping is one that we often use with regard to Christian service. Fruitfulness in service, and reaping a good harvest, are the results of patience and perseverance. And it is clear that political progress and success also requires sustained commitment over the long haul. We wish our politicians well as they remain committed to their task and we pray that they do not grow weary in the task.

But, not content with one biblical reference, Hilary climaxed her speech with a call for hearts to be changed. That’s what those of us in Christian ministry are always preaching about. We know, as Jesus taught us, that good fruit only comes from good trees, and that outward changes in behaviour, words and attitudes are the result of inward changes in which our hearts are re-oriented. For me, Hilary’s exhortation underscored the importance of prayer and sustained Christian ministry in Northern Ireland. Whether preacher or politician, as soon as we aim at heart change, we are in an area where gospel principles and spiritual realities are very important, and where we need God to work by his Spirit.

Christians believe that heart change is the result of God’s activity as he, in fulfillment of his ancient promise, replaces hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. Change is an “inside out” process, not “outside in”. No amount of external manipulation will change human hearts. Only God can do that deep, internal work. The spiritual dimension of political progress cannot be ignored, and if progress is going to be achieved here in this country, then it needs the sustained prayerful support of Christian people everywhere. Let’s not grow weary.

Thanks for the Bible verse, Hilary.