My post yesterday, on “The Real Meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:22” seemed to touch a nerve. Sharper Iron excerpted this line from my post: “1 Thess. 5:22 Often ‘Used As a Bully Club to Keep People in Line with the Group\’s Expectations'”. If that’s all you see, it comes across a bit strongly. But this is the real beef with the misuse of 1 Thess. 5:22. It really is used in such a harsh, unloving and hyper-critical way.
A friend of mine from college posted the following on my Facebook page in response to my post:
Good read! I have been doing some extensive studies on the subject of “living under grace” these past few months. I have sat under many of these “bullies”…it is almost as if they are trying to bully us back under the law. It is interesting…when you read the Scriptures through the eyes of Grace…it sheds a whole new light on everything…
I replied back with some of the books that I’ve read over the years that helped me grapple with Grace vs. Legalism. I thought I’d share some of them here with you today.
I should first stress that the definition or the use of the word “legalism” can be much more incendiary than using the term “bully club”. I don’t want to offend and I don’t conclude that people in most fundamentalist churches are legalists. The tendency to legalism in the manner I am talking about, is a wider problem than just fundamentalism. But let me be careful to define what exactly I’m talking about. I’ve defined legalism in the past, but will try to give a quick explanation here as well.
Legalism is an attitude of the heart that depends on self-efforts to please God. It can apply to sanctification and not only to justification. I used to wonder how people could call fundamentalists “legalists” because none of us were close to a works-based justification. But as I left the movement of fundamentalism (I’m still a historic fundamentalist at heart), I came to grips with a real legalism of my own mind and heart. I really did think I was better than other Christians because of the positions I held or the level of personal sanctification (as evidenced by my external standards) that I maintained. I had to be honest with myself and admit that I used to actually think things like: “Those other people must not be as serious about the Lord or love Him as much as we do, because…”.
This kind of performance-oriented Christianity is legalism. When your relation with God ebbs and flows in direct correlation to how much production you have achieved recently in keeping the do’s and don’ts and in evangelism and service, then you really are legalistic and you don’t understand grace. This doesn’t mean you aren’t saved. It means you are missing out on the true glory of the Gospel of grace.
The following books helped me as I thought through these things, and may be a help to you as well.
The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing by C.J. Mahaney This book is a real gem. It has been revised and expanded and is now available under the title Living the Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing although you can still find the first edition. This book will help you see how the Gospel intersects with all of life, and it has a chapter devoted to the legalism of which I speak. I highly recommend it. (Click on the picture of the first book, for a post I did on it way back in 2005.)
The Grace and Truth Paradox: Responding with Christlike Balance by Randy Alcorn This book is an easy read and quite helpful. Sometimes we feel that you can either be gracious or stand for truth, but Alcorn shows us that dichotomy is false. Jesus perfectly lived a life balancing an emphasis on Grace and Truth. This book cuts at the heart of legalism. (Click on the book’s cover to read my review with excerpts.)
Extreme Righteousness: Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees by Tom Hovestol This book studies the Pharisees through new eyes. Instead of seeing how bad they are, or even how bad others are, Hovestol stresses that we are in their shoes. Evangelicals are the closest thing to a conservative religious establishment today, and we would be the target of Christ’s anger too. This book can be biting, but in much of it, Hovestol is sharing his own journey. It’s refreshing to be honest and to really see yourself through different eyes. (Click the book’s cover for the Amazon listing for this book.)
40 Loaves: Breaking Bread with Our Father Each Day by C.D. Baker is a book I reviewed recently. It is a devotional book with 40 small readings. It is packed full of grace from cover to cover. The author told me he shares a similar legalistic past and wanted to stress grace. You will be blessed by this book. (Click on the book’s cover to read my review.)