Whispers of Faith

Escaping from the Death Grip of Legalism


I had a pretty happy, idyllic childhood. I had long days filled with my imagination, mystery novels, notebooks filled with stories, and giggles and sleepovers with friends. Adventures in Odyssey, American Girl, and Awana were my staples – I was innocent, adventure-filled, and happy-go-lucky.

But just like everyone else, my childhood wasn’t exactly the perfect dream that I’m sometimes tempted to think it was. It wasn’t until I grew up and began peeling back the layers of ideology that I was surrounded by as a child that I began to understand the lies that were believed – by me and by many around me.

First of all, let me caveat what I’m about to say with a few items. Obviously to anyone who knows me, I’m a conservative Christian. This does not mean that I agree with everything that people think “conservative Christians” believe. I dislike stereotyping people, and I dislike being stereotyped because the label is often misunderstood and there are many differing thoughts within a group of people. Therefore, the things I am about to talk about are not targeting or bashing “conservative Christians.” They are specifically addressing thought patterns, rules, and attitudes of the heart that anyone could have – both people who really are Christians and those who think they are Christians, but are not.

Additionally, please don’t think I am angry at anyone in my past who may have taught me any of these ideas – nor am I making fun of them. I care about them all, and I’m grateful for the ways that God used them in my life – from my Sunday School teachers to my Awana leaders to my friends’ parents to my parents. I don’t think any of them are “bad” people or are people who have damaged me in any way. This is a life discovery that I think all of us need to make at some point in our lives.

That being said, I have to be honest with you: it’s been a long and oftentimes confusing path away from the death grip of legalism that I grew up with.

Ironic, isn’t it, that with all those verses I memorized about our faith being by grace and not works, about the Pharisee and the tax collector, about all our works being like filthy rags – that I still measured my favor with God by the good things that I did? I was lured into the very thinking that I said I disagreed with, and it’s still taking a lot of work to disentangle myself from those lies.

It’s taken me years to actually understand that God loves me more than I could ever fathom – and that His love for me is not dependent on what I do or don’t do. It has been a slow process of learning what the Gospel applied to the heart actually looks like. And it has been an even slower process of figuring out that keeping the rules on the outside doesn’t keep a person from sinning on the inside. Because that verse I memorized in Awana couldn’t be truer – “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked – who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

The conservative organizations affiliated with the church that I went to as a child had such good intentions. They supported marriage and the family. They encouraged training up children in the Word of God. They believed in strong education and good morals.

But unfortunately, not all of their beliefs were rooted in an actual understanding of the Bible. And it wasn’t until I came face to face with this recently for me to truly get the depth of the lies of legalism. It was when I discovered that one of the leaders of these Christian organizations believed that women shouldn’t work outside the home when married – ever – because that increased the likelihood of the wife committing adultery.

I was shocked – and appalled. What about the husband? Was he not tempted to commit adultery by working outside the home? But really the bigger concern – did they really think that adultery is caused by the act of working outside the home? And not by the sin issue in someone’s heart? Because truthfully that wife could commit adultery just as much by staying at home as she could going into the office every day.

And the amount of people that I know from that church who had scandalous things uncovered about them proves the point all the more – they were trying so hard to cover up the sinful desires in their hearts by whitewashed living that it pushed them over the edge. And so they indulged in sinful behavior in secret because they knew there would be no grace for them in a church that condemned them for breaking the rules – not offered help for their broken and battered hearts.

This grieves me immensely. It grieves me that the gospel of Christ could be so twisted in the very place that should be proclaiming it most truthfully. It grieves me that the residue still lingers in my heart, causing me to judge myself and others for sin struggles – even though Christ has forever forgiven us on the cross. It grieves me that this legalistic outlook on life has caused us to hide our temptations and sins in shame and fear rather than bringing them to light so that we can help one another conquer them through the power of our Savior.

How grateful I am for faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who have opened my eyes to the way I cling to my pride and rule-following – and have helped me to embrace a heart of grace and forgiveness. I’ve come a long way from the little girl who once viewed the world in black-and-white terms, and I know I still have a long way to go.

But I think I can empathize a little better with those who are broken, because I understand just how broken I am. I think I’ve had my eyes opened to just how desperately we all need grace – and that nothing will make us righteous – not being homeschooled, not getting awards for having the most verses memorized, not avoiding the raucous parties in high school, not being the nicest kid on the block, not volunteering in the nursery, not making the adults happy – it all falls short in God’s eyes. At the end of the day, my worth is still not in what I do or say.

It’s only in the blood of Christ.

And I might have been quoting that to you since I was five years old. But when it starts sinking in and appearing in the attitudes of my heart? Ah, that’s when the chains of legalism start to break – and when freedom truly begins.

I know what it’s like to live with constant fear and guilt from breaking the rules. But the fact of the matter is that I can never keep all the rules. Only Christ could. And did. And what He did covered all my rule-breaking – from the day I was born till the day I die. And it’s in His victory that I can walk forward in the greatest of peace and joy. Not because I can quote the verse that says so. But because it is the truth that’s alive in my soul.


Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash.



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