Are Spiritual Disciplines Legalism?
In this two and a half minute video, I talk about how when it comes to spiritual disciplines, some people think being committed to them is a matter of legalism.
A couple of years ago, I led a group of young guys through a study of Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard, in which he emphasized the spiritual disciplines. Most of the guys immediately saw the value of it, but one of the guys really struggled with the legalism idea. He said, “You’re supposed to daily spend time in God’s Word? That’s like a rule or regulation. So that would be like following the Law.”
But properly understood, the laws that God gives us are like guardrails. If you are driving a car down a windy road, and your car bumps into the guardrail, when you get out and look at your dented fender, you don’t curse the guardrail because your car got dented. You say, “Look what it saved me from—plunging off the cliff!” There are some good rules, laws, and guidelines for us to live by. But that is not legalism.
Our lives need to be centered in Christ. We need to set the bar of standards high, but then depend on the empowering Spirit of God within us to jump that bar. We don’t depend on our own works or on legalism. And we don’t jump the bar because we want to conform to the group, and the group said, “You must live at this level, and you must look this way.” That’s not what the Christian life is about.
But it is about God having standards. Those standards are higher in the New Covenant than they were in the Old Covenant. Jesus said, “You have read ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, if you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you’ve committed adultery in your heart” (Matt. 5:28). So what did He do? He raised the bar. He didn’t lower it.
I think one of the concepts today is that grace means God has lowered His standards. That’s simply not true. God has raised His standards for the Christian life—but He has empowered us to live that Christian life. And His grace teaches us, as Titus says, to say “no” to ungodliness (Titus 2:12).
This is the great and powerful thing: when it comes to pursuing Christ, we live by something higher than legalism or mere duty, because Jesus is more desirable, more attractive, and greater than any of the lesser alternatives we can find in life. When we live life that way—to Christ’s glory and honor—it is exciting. It is passionate. It is joyful. True, it is sometimes very hard work, but we can encourage each other to pursue Christ, remembering that it is all about Him and not about us.
Soli Deo Gloria,