Legalism and The Tower We Build
For a long time, I used to think that God’s delight in me was somehow attached to my performance on any given day. If I spent most of my day wrestling with sin and messing up, I would think God was unhappy (and maybe even angry) with me, but if I read my Bible and did enough good things, I would think He delighted in me. This thought process was rooted deep in my mind and my heart.
On the surface, some may think it’s beneficial. After all, doesn’t this provide motivation to be a good Christian? While our lives should be marked by a healthy desire to please our Heavenly Father, I had let this pattern of thinking get out of control.
The difference was a misunderstanding in my identity. It wasn’t that I was serving God because He already delighted in me. Instead, I was serving trying to earn His delight. Suddenly, I found myself becoming frustrated even on my best days: Why can’t I just do enough to make God happy with me?
This type of thinking is closer to believing in Karma than it is to the gospel. Now, to be clear, it’s still a battle I face each and every day. I need to remind myself of the gospel and my need for Christ. But that’s just it—the answer has already been provided in Jesus. I no longer have to earn God’s favor because Christ earned it for me.
Let me give you an example: Genesis 11 contains the story of the Tower of Babel. The descendants of Noah had spread out on the earth. At this point in history, all humanity spoke one language. Having one language, and having invented a reinforced brick and mortar, they set about seeking to make a name for themselves. They decided to use this incredible new technology to build a tower to Heaven, thus proving once and for all that they didn’t need God.
As the people were striving and trying hard to reach Heaven, God came down in ease to look at what they had created. In loving kindness, and to slow the evil within the people, He confused the languages and dispersed the people. So, why do I share this?
My desire to earn God’s favor with my performance alone was the tower I was trying to build to reach to Heaven. It may not have looked prideful on the surface, but it was an attempt to earn His favor without needing Him. This is dangerous on two levels: first, it’s dangerous because trying to earn Heaven apart from the finished work of Christ is impossible. It’s like trying to make a deal with God in a currency He doesn’t accept. On another level, even if we’ve submitted to Christ as Lord and repented of our sins, this is dangerous because only following the rules isn’t what Christ has called us to. First and foremost, God wants our hearts.
Living as a Christian Legalist is like trying to build a tower after God has come down to offer life, peace, and rest. In fact, He’s offering us His delight in a way that is far more secure than any favor based on our actions, because it’s based in the finished work of Jesus Christ. This favor now belongs to all who will place their trust in Jesus.
I write this as a recovering (and still struggling) legalist: stop building the tower. Rest in the God who came down for you.
Matt Hall is an NGU alum who has served as the Pastor of College and Youth at Mountain Creek since August, 2019.