“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” Matthew 23:13 Why do we make becoming a Christian so difficult? Earlier in the chapter Jesus told the crowds and His disciples a very uncomfortable truth concerning the theology and practice of the Pharisees and Scribes. “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. (v. 4) How many sincere people who come to church looking for comfort and encouragement are instead confronted by Pharisees and Scribes?
Instead of hearing, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” (Matt.11:28-30) they hear do this and do that.
How do we as Christians equate verses like John 3:16 with Luke 14:25-33? In John we are encouraged to believe and in Luke 14 we are told that we must pick up our cross daily and carry it regardless of the cost. The Pharisees and Scribes confused rule keeping with discipleship. They substituted ritual and obedience to man made rules for the real cost of following Jesus.
People love legalism because by following a bunch of rules it lets them off the hook for surrendering their hearts to Christ. Jesus, for example, told the religious leaders over and over that the Sabbath was a day for doing good. The Pharisees, however, reduced it to a series of rules that protected them from ever having to allow God to change their hearts and become compassionate people. While they were meticulous in making sure they didn’t break any of the hundreds of rules they built up around the day they were quick to want to kill Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath.
When we discover that we are saved by the grace of God something happens in the heart. Suddenly the things you once thought were important have a lot less meaning. Your every waking moment isn’t focused on getting rich, famous or obtaining power at your work. Instead, the focus of your life becomes Christ. Discipleship becomes the result of your love for Jesus, not because it is something you obtain to, but because it becomes something you are. Instead of running home to flop in front of the television to watch hours of mind deadening dribble you find yourself drawn towards the Bible.
Here is the difference between legalism and discipleship in our lives. Legalism tells you to turn the television off and spend two hours in Bible study. Legalism somehow conveys to us that if we do that God would be pleased and reward us for our good efforts and conduct. Discipleship is the transforming of the mind. We turn the television off because we would rather be with Christ. We are drawn to the word of God, not because we earn merit from it, but because it is where our heart is. A man who stays with his wife out of duty might be admired for his resolve and sense of duty, but he is a long way away from the man who can’t wait to be in the presence of his wife.
In his book Not a Fan, Kyle Idleman tells the story of Matt Emmons. “He was one shot away from claiming victory in the 2004 Olympics. He was competing in the 50-meter three-position rifle event. He didn’t even need a bull’s-eye to win. His final shot merely needed to be on target. Normally, the shot he made would have received a score of 8:l, more than enough for a gold medal. But in what was described as ‘an extremely rare mistake in elite competition,’ Emmons fired at the wrong target. Standing in lane two, he fired at the target in lane three. His score for a good shot at the wrong target: 0. Instead of a medal, Emmons ended up in eight place.” Pg. 69
Whenever we think that keeping rules and regulations are the indicators that we are followers of Christ we are shooting at the wrong target. We are saved by the grace of God that was poured out to us through the blood of Jesus on Calvary’s cross. Anyone who accepts the reality and truth of that event into their life will be saved. And when that truth lives in our heart through the guidance and promptings of the Holy Spirit we are transformed.
Our attitudes, desires, longings and actions all become focused on the wonder of what Jesus did for us. Discipleship is the simple working out of the grace of God in our life through the power and joy of the Holy Spirit. Legalism is a cheapening of discipleship because it says I don’t follow God out of love but because I need to pray and read my Bible to make God love me more. Legalists simply forget that God can’t love us anymore than He already does, and we can’t do anything to make Him love us less.
My prayer is that each of us reading this blog will simply pray “God take me and shape me into the loving person you desire for me. Let my heart be filled with your joy and peace. And give me the wisdom to know I am a follower of yours and not a slave to legalism and performance religion. Reign in my life Lord and transform me into your disciple that I may carry my cross with a willing heart. Amen.”