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Author: Ron Graham

Sin and Legalism

Nurturing Guilt
—False religion thrives on guilt

Many false religions are guilt-driven. The priests or clergy cultivate guilt in their adherents. The adherents become dependent, and obligated to the priests.

God wants his people to be motivated by grace —by the blessedness of forgiveness, not by the guilt of sin.

1 Guilt or Grace?

The Bible says, "Repent and be baptized every one of you... for the forgiveness of sins" (Acts 2:38-39). Instead of being plunged by faith into the waters of baptism, to be washed in Christ's blood and freed from enslavement to sin, so many people are plunged into a sea of despair, frustration, and guilt.

Whilst God's grace certainly teaches us to live rightly (Titus 2:11-14) it never teaches us to burdened ourselves with numerous regulations and requirements which engender guilt.

The law of Christ is sufficient. "For this is the love of God that we keep his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome" (1John 5:3). The "his" in that verse deserves to be emphasised —his commandments as opposed to other people's commandments. Jesus sets us free from condemnation. It is in that spirit that we should live and worship him (Romans 8:1,15).

Paul warns us not to submit to the "Do not taste! Do not touch!" rules of human teaching which nurtures guilt (Colossians 2:20-23).

Admittedly, Paul immediately goes on to himself lay down a list of rules for holy living! There's a difference, however, between rules of human origin, and the rules Paul gives us from God.

Paul has said that the human rules "indeed have an appearance of wisdom". So how are we supposed to distinguish them from the true wisdom and rule of God?

To start by noting the sort of thing that Paul mentions in his rules for holy living:

Paul tells us to rid ourselves of the bad things, and clothe ourselves in the good. That sounds all very simple, and surely each of us, even those not strong in the faith, have little difficulty seeing what personal changes we must make.

Suppose we extend the above list to include every Bible rule for Christian living. The list would obviously be a good deal longer. Quite possibly it would stretch all the way to Z instead of just to D.

But - and here's the important thing - no item on the whole-Bible list would be significantly more complicated than the items already on our one-chapter list. Each of us could examine the list from A to Z, and know pretty clearly what God intended, and how we should personally adjust our ways to conform to his will.

In other words, we are each quite capable of being our own priests and putting God's word into effect on our own. That doesn't mean we shouldn't get a bit of help, advice, and encouragement from others, especially church ministers. But we would preside over our own transformation; it would not be imposed upon us by the church or its ministry.

Now let's analyse the sort of decisions you need to make for yourself in putting God's rules into effect in your own life and behaviour.

2 Personal applications

Your life is unique. Nobody else has the same combination of problems, relationships, customs, responsibilities, and so forth, as you have personally .

So somebody has to take general ideas like "impurity" or "greed" or "humility" and put names, places, dates, and circumstances to those ideas so that they become specific and personal for you.

Who is the "somebody" that is going to do that job of application? Shouldn't it be you? You may want to talk it over with somebody, of course, but nobody else ought to be imposing applications on you. It's your responsibility.

Furthermore, you must distinguish between God's rule and your personal application. God's rule doesn't change. It is binding upon you at all times. But your application is only a matter of personal judgment. You can drop it or modify it any time you like, to carry out God's command in a better way.

Sometimes we fail to keep God's commands, not because we are bad or hopeless, but because our application of the command was not fitting. Instead of trying harder and feeling ever more guilty, we change our application of God's word to more perfectly fit our own special circumstances.

We don't change God's word in the least; we simply correct our faulty application of it.

3 Personal precautions

Your own nature and circumstances may lead you to be very cautious with regard to some of God's rules. For example, God's rules forbid drunkeness. You might, as I do, take the precaution of total abstinence from alcohol and other inebriating substances. After all, Paul does say that there are good reasons "not to drink wine" (Romans 14:21).

Because such precautions are not the rule itself, nobody else has the right to impose those precautions upon you. Only you have that right to determine what precautions you will adopt.

You must always distinguish between your precautions and God's rules. Your precautions are only a matter for personal judgment.

Don't confuse "being true to your principles" with maintaining your precautions. Your principles ought to be God's rules. You don't have to be true to your precautions. Unless you have vowed to keep them, you are at liberty to change them without feeling guilty.

4 Personal interpretations

Everybody has their own idea about how to define "anger", "filthy language", "lust", "unkindness", and such like. We all understand the general meaning. But everybody has differing interpretations about finer points and particular cases.

For example, when the Bible says, "Be angry and do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26 Psalms 4:4) we have to interpret what anger is and how we could sin when angry. Obviously we can be angry and not sin as the verse says, and we can be angry in a sinful way as the verse implies.

You have to interpret God's word for yourself. Nobody has the right to force their interpretation upon you. You should listen to other people's interpretations and how they arrive at them. But in the end, you have to make up your own mind, and let the Bible interpret itself to you by comparing scripture with scripture.

There is only one true and correct interpretation, which is not what you'd like the Bible to mean, but what the author himself meant. But you have to work that out for yourself.

You must distinguish between God's rule as a Bible statement, and your personal understanding of that statement. God's rule doesn't change, but you are at liberty to switch to a more accurate interpretation of God's rule, and you should not feel guilty about that.

5 Personal gray area strategies

God's rules are plain enough in general terms, but every person finds "gray areas" and zones of conflict. For example, imagine that I say to a sick person, "Hope you get better soon!" when actually I am sure the person is sinking fast.

In trying to follow the rule of compassion and kindness (1Peter 3:8), have I overlapped the rule concerning lies (Ephesians 4:25) and "love without hypocrisy" (Romans 12:9)?

Everyone handles situations like that differently, rationalising them in one way or another. Nobody has the right to impose their gray area strategies upon you. It is up to you to work out your own in all good conscience.

These gray area strategies are not God's rules. Nor are they a compromise with sin. They are your methods of balancing God's rules against each other and against your circumstances. If changing those grey area strategies will lead to better obedience to God's rules, then change and don't feel guilty about it.

6 Situation Ethics

People of a legalistic mind will reject what we say in this lesson. They will call it "situation ethics", or "twisting God's word around to suit oneself", or "compromising with evil".

However, the doctrine of situation ethics holds that there is no absolute rule from above, only what seems right in the circumstances, and this is the only rule. That doctrine contradics everything I teach on this page.

Some folk are unable to distinguish between God's ethics and their own personal applications, precautions, interpretations, and grey area strategies. In contrast, God's ethics and God's rules are immutable and permanent (Revelation 22:18-19).

We don't meddle with God's law. Likewise, we don't put human judgment on the same level as God's law.

To practice God's ethics in any given situation, human judgment has to be exercised. That human judgment must not be confused with God's rule. Human judgment is always open to question, subject to change, and a matter of individual and personal accountability to God.

Who died for your sins? Christ alone. It is to him, then, that you are answerable, and it is for him that you live (Romans 14:7-12). He can lead you into righteous living. He can forgive your sins and remove your guilt. He sends the Holy Spirit for your sanctification. Don't let anybody spoil that for you.

Questions for Review

1. What should motivate the Christian to live righteously? Is it guilt?

2. What things should we distinguish from God's rules, and what general heading do those things come under?

3. What role do church ministers properly play in helping us overcome sin in our lives?

4. If somebody attempts to make me feel guilty for not following their applications, precautions, interpretations, and strategies, what should I do?

5. Does the principle of freedom in personal judgment give me the right to ignore, or water down, God's rules? If not, what does it give me the right to do?


Webservant Ron Graham

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