From Legalistic Prison to Gracious Freedom

I believe that legalism was the primary problem in our home when I was growing up.  My parents had grown up in legalistic churches and then received their college education in a school where legalism reigned supreme.  My Father’s preaching reflected this blight and my Mother was his willing helper in filling our home with legalistic strictures.  I see the major cause of the psychological disorders that plagued both my sister Georgianna and my brother Jim to this legalism that was so strong in our home.

Some of you may be struggling with the meaning of legalism.  To answer your questions here, I must first insist that it does not mean strict rules or severe punishment for not keeping those rules. If it meant that, then the Marine Corps could be called legalistic, and the Navy Seals would be the ultimate expression of legalism.  NO!  Legalism is not strict rules or strict enforcement of those rules.

This is seriously contrary to the Bible, but it has always been a strong force in the church.  It should be recognized as a dreadful heresy, frightfully contrary to the entire Bible and the whole idea of “salvation by grace alone through Christ alone”.  But it is often embraced.

A leading example of this error are the Pharisees, so prominent in the New Testament. They had invented over 600 laws that they supposedly derived from the 10 commandments and the Old Testament and they wanted to require all Jews and Jewish converts to obey all these laws in order to earn their salvation.

When Jesus burst on the scene, he shattered this Pharisaic scheme with his beautiful teaching recorded in the Gospels and then by his death and resurrection/ascension in behalf of lost sinners like all of us are.  His death atoned for all our sins.  His resurrection gave us new life.  His ascension put him on the throne of God so that all of his and our enemies would fall beneath his feet in surrender to his reign.  So may we summarize the Gospel that our Lord Jesus has given us.

As much as I still love my parents, I have to confess that they had a very faulty view of this gospel.  They filled our home with the legalistic thinking they had gotten from their own parents and church traditions.  The most dangerous part of this legalism was that it completely undermined the precious doctrine of the “assurance of salvation”.  We were trained from the pulpit and in family worship that we could “lose our salvation” at any time simply by yielding to the common temptations in our world.  Yielding to these many temptation was violating the legalistic requirements that “earned” salvation.  Such teaching created an atmosphere of hopelessness in our home.  Since no one could perfectly obey, “assurance of salvation” was unattainable.

I do not believe that I am dishonoring my parents by explaining this.  During my Father’s later years, he came to at least a partial understanding of this himseIf.  By his study of scripture and many conversations with “Reformed” thinkers, he came to embrace the wonderful truth that once a person has come to saving faith in Christ, that cannot change.  Saving faith is an irreversible miracle of God’s grace, giving us eternal life forever. Dad came to that conviction.  My dear Mother continued to struggle with it.  I know she was saved by God’s grace, but I fear she never had deep assurance of that grand reality.

It was during our growing up years, however, that our parents remained in the grip of legalism, and it is my strong opinion that this legalism that became like a prison to my sister Georgianna and my brother Jim. Why the other four of us children were not so seriously affected is another story, but I am convinced that my brother and sister were so seriously undermined by this dreadful form of insecurity that it was the key cause of their “schizophrenia.”

The good news is that God saves people from such prisons.  I am convinced that is what he did for me during my sophomore year in college when the Holy Spirit reminded me of saving truth in Romans 5:1.  Like every other sinner saved by grace, I have stumbled and staggered through my own sinful failures, but God has repeatedly rescued me, continuously preserved me, kept me by his infinite love and grace.

The Lord himself has convinced me from scripture that I am on a RESURRECTION TRAJECTORY.  As the Apostle Paul found himself empowered by the Resurrection in Philippians 3, I am convinced that I stand with him in the last verse of that chapter which concludes so triumphantly, “…who by the [resurrection] power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

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