How our legalistic tendencies take us back to the days on the monkey bars


No matter how deep we grow in our faith, there’s a part of us that is always drawn to legalism. No matter how much we embrace the fact that our salvation is completely based on grace, part of us believes that our obedience, our performance, or our good works must count for something. Why is that? Romans 7 tells us that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives. If we willingly place ourselves under some form of legalism, some performance-based acceptance, we must assume that we are very much alive. On the surface this seems ridiculously obvious. Of course, we must be alive. If we’re dead, what difference does anything make?

Our Life Before Christ

If this is our conclusion, our problem is that we misunderstand what Paul is talking about in Romans 7. He is talking out our life before coming to Christ—the fleshly and sinful old life in which we were running the show. Back then, we had to be given rules to follow so we wouldn’t destroy ourselves and those around us. But even more important were the “rules” of how an unholy people could approach a holy God. This is what God did for Israel when He gave Moses to Law to pass on to the people.

While the Law was good and right, it provided no power to live according to its demands. Instead, it brought death and condemnation so the people would come to see how powerless they were. Its purpose was to lead them to One who had such power—Jesus Christ, their promised Messiah. The same is true for us. Legalism is the Christian’s way of saying, “I’ve got this. I can do it myself. I am quite capable, and I intend to prove it through my works, by my service, by my great teaching, etc.”

Oh, How We Love Legalism

We all have a tendency toward legalism. It may appear that we are simply utilizing our spiritual gifts, but if we are trying to prove something to someone, we have become just like the Israelites, maybe even a good Pharisee. The message we project is that God expects righteousness from us, and we can prove how righteous we are through our stellar performance.

Since the death Paul is referring to is our old life, our “old man,” a legalist is one who has refused to die with Christ on the Cross. He is more interested in the praises of man than the praises of God. His performance strokes his ego, and his ego fills him with pride, which God hates. He refuses to believe that he is as wretched as God’s Word says he is. All those terrible verses refer to truly wicked people, those he routinely points out, especially in political discussions.


Today’s title takes us back to the monkey bars of our playground days. We desperately wanted a “Good job” or a “Way to go!” Doing it wasn’t enough. Someone had to notice. We really needed the affirmation from someone important. Some of us haven’t outgrown it. We’ll do anything for attention so we can feel good about ourselves. We operate under some set of rules based on the current social norms. For some, the rules are established by social media. For others, it’s their church or workplace. There is always a set of rules, whether clearly established or subtle, we can follow to show our worth. As with Israel’s Law, they all end in death and condemnation, not life and freedom.

We all have latched onto something that will display our accomplishments, or service, or our value. Even if we have entered into the freedom of having died with Christ, our old man still resides in our flesh and will seize any opportunity to show himself alive and well. How is “he” revealing himself in your life?

Next week we’ll re-visit the monkey bars to discover how the last two years have created a new set of rules based on irrational fears.



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