Discerning a Legal Spirit Within You

The default mode of every fallen heart is to turn one’s obedience (works/performance) into the ground for one’s acceptance (justification) before God. It is as natural for a man to trust in his obedience (self-idolatry) as it is for a fish to breathe in water. And, it is about as unnatural for a man to seek peace with God by trusting in the gospel as it is for a man to breathe in water.

Yet, we must seek to always recall the simple yet elusive truth of the gospel, which is: You and I are accepted by God, not on the basis of our personal performance, but rather on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone.

In Galatians, Paul rightly saw that this was the issue in regards to circumcision. He understood that the very integrity of the Christian faith and the eternal salvation of sinners were at stake.

To accept the demand of the “false brothers” for Titus to be circumcised (2:3-5) would have been to renounce the truth of the gospel (i.e., that justification comes by grace through faith in Christ alone apart from the works of the law; 2:5).

Paul understood that to make circumcision (i.e., obedience to the law) a requirement for salvation is to to bring a man into slavery (2:4), to render Christ of no value (cf. Gal. 2:21; 5:2) and place a man under eternal, divine judgment (1:8-9; 3:10).

To be sure, much of a legal spirit remains even in believers even though they are no longer under the law (cf. Gal. 3:25).

Since this is true, How do you know if you are guilty of a circumcision-like faith? How do you identify a legal spirit within you? How do you know if you are trusting in Christ alone or in Christ plus?

1. You are guilty of a circumcision-like faith when you are more inclined to ground your acceptance with God upon your duty and performance instead of Christ’s obedience for you.

Practicing spiritual disciplines are good and necessary (e.g., Bible reading, Bible memorization, prayer, fasting, journaling, listening to sermons and/or worship music on your iPod, etc…).

However, when you begin to base your acceptance with God (I’m in favor; walking in the blessing, etc…) on what you do (i.e., spiritual disciplines) rather than in who you trust (i.e., Christ) you are guilty of a circumcision-like faith.

We don’t reject the practice of spiritual disciplines. Rather, we reject the notion that the practice of them obtains the forgiveness of sins and brings us into a right standing relationship with God.

Do you tend to trust more in your personal holiness as that which makes you effective in service rather than trusting with restless abandon in the perfect holiness of Christ lived for you as that, which alone ensures your effectiveness and makes all of your imperfect service acceptable to God?

When you derive more comfort from your own performance rather than by the reign of free grace in your life and God’s faithfulness toward you, you are guilty of a circumcision-like faith (i.e., of trusting in Christ plus rather than Christ alone for your acceptance and favor before God).

2. You are guilty of a circumcision-like faith when your focus is more upon evidences of grace in your life, than upon the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Let me ask you a question: Do you find more comfort in the fact that when you got into an argument with your wife, you kept your cool and didn’t retaliate in anger? Or, do you find more comfort in trusting in the fact that Christ was never once guilty of unrighteous anger on your behalf?

Do you feel like God is more pleased with you because you refrained from looking at pornography rather than the fact that Christ lived a sinless life of moral purity for you?

Do you feel like you are more loved by God on your “good days” than on your “bad days?”

Do you think you will come into greater favor with God because your offering is based on your gross rather than net income?

Do you live with a sense of entitlement (i.e., that God should “bless” you) because you did a good deed?

If the answer is yes to all of the above examples, you are guilty of trusting in Christ plus your performance rather than Christ alone. Note carefully that none of the foregoing examples are excuses for sin rather they are excuses for the need of a Savior!

3. You are guilty of a circumcision-like faith when your obedience is more influenced by the terrors and curse of the law than by the allurement of grace.

Guilt and fear are pour motivators for the Christian life.

True, evangelical obedience does not come from the thundering of the law (Do or die!). Legalism operates on the principle, “I do therefore I am accepted by God.” The gospel operates on the principle, “You are accepted by God on account of Christ alone therefore go and do.”

True obedience flows from faith in the gospel, as Paul writes in Romans 1:5, “through whom (i.e., Jesus Christ our Lord, v. 4-J.F.) we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,” (emphasis mine).

Slavish, duty-driven obedience flows from fear and guilt. However, true, evangelical obedience flows from faith!

Walter Marshall writes,

    “God does not drive you along with whips and terrors, or by the rod of the schoolmaster, the law. Rather, he leads you and draws you to walk in his ways by pleasant attractions (Hosea 11:3-4). The love of Christ…is the greatest and most pleasant attraction to encourage you to godly living (2 Cor. 5:15; Rom. 12:1),” (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p. 236).

What compels your heart to obey God? Are you driven to obey God more out of fear of punishment rather than His favor?

Is your heart drawn to obey out of a clear recognition of God’s love and favor upon your life? Obedience out of slavish fear is self-centered. Obedience that flows out of faith’s recognition and reception of the love of God is Christ-centered.

4. You are guilty of a circumcision-like faith when you look to what is promised only in a conditional way.

As just noted, the law says, “Do and live.” But, the gospel says, “Live and do.”

God’s favor is not based on whether or not you have lived up to some prescribed level of behavior. God’s favor is unconditional because Christ met all the conditions of the law for you (Matt. 3:15; 5:17)!

Just like the Judaizers, many believers forget or fail to understand that Christ fulfilled the law for us thus rendering obedience to the law for justification unnecessary.

The gospel is a free promise not a conditional promise. Yet, so many believers live in bondage and slavery to legalism because they don’t expect God to fulfill His promises to them unless they have done their part.

1 John 1:9, where John deals with confession of sin, serves as a classic example of this misconception.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but the truth is we do not confess our sins in order to be forgiven. Our sins are forgiven by grace through faith in Christ alone. Rather, we confess our sins because we are forgiven! Only believers confess sin. Those who fail to confess sin are deceived and the truth of the gospel is not in them (1 John 1:8).

However, we do not confess sin (do our part) so that God will fulfill His promise (forgive and cleanse; do His part).

We confess our sins so that we might have the truth of the gospel applied afresh to our hearts and consciences, thus restoring our assurance and the sweetness of our fellowship with God.

In all of the foregoing examples, this is what we are saying: True saving faith leads a sinner to look totally away from himself and to rest in Christ alone as the sole ground of his acceptance before God.

The simple, liberating, Good News of the gospel is this: We come into favor with God by grace through faith alone, apart from the works of the law.

True saving faith in its proper function lays hold of Christ alone and renounces everything else for acceptance and favor before God (cf. Philip. 3:7-11).

Therefore, Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus, the Son of God, crucified and risen again for sinners as the only basis for a right standing before God.

All that a sinner needs to belong to God is faith in Christ alone!

5 Responses to Discerning a Legal Spirit Within You

  1. Thank you for this insightful post. I am glad that God by His freewill and grace, could save a wicked sinner like me. I can testify that in my life I have had circumcision-like faith and need to be reminded of the Gospel. The Lord keep you as He does with all His elect.

  2. Amy says:

    I follow your blog and I really thought this was a great post. So I posted it on my blog and got a response I thought you should read. I put your blog name on the bottom of the post to give you credit for writing it.Just so you know. I can give him my input but since you wrote it I thought you may want to respond first. Here is what he said….
    Nick said…

    I’d like to comment, if you don’t mind.

    You said: “You and I are accepted by God, not on the basis of our personal performance, but rather on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone.”

    Nick: I nowhere see this concept taught in Scripture. Instead I see clear Scriptural evidence we are accepted on the basis of having the Holy Spirit of Adoption dwelling in us. Something the Law could never give, even if kept perfectly.

    You said: “In Galatians, Paul rightly saw that this was the issue in regards to circumcision.”

    Nick: If you are speaking of the Judaizer issue, the problem was not one of working their way into Heaven. That simply wasn’t what was going on. The Judaizer heresy was a form of “grace alone,” where the Jews saw special favor from God by virtue of being Jewish.

    You said: “Paul understood that to make circumcision (i.e., obedience to the law) a requirement for salvation is to to bring a man into slavery (2:4), to render Christ of no value (cf. Gal. 2:21; 5:2) and place a man under eternal, divine judgment (1:8-9; 3:10).”

    Nick: True, but the issue wasn’t legalism or works-righteousness. The Law could never save, even if kept perfectly (Gal 2:21; 3:21).

    You said: 1. You are guilty of a circumcision-like faith when you are more inclined to ground your acceptance with God upon your duty and performance instead of Christ’s obedience for you.

    Nick: Nowhere does Scripture teach Christ was obedient IN OUR PLACE, that simply isn’t there, nor does it make sense in Paul thought.

    You said: However, when you begin to base your acceptance with God (I’m in favor; walking in the blessing, etc…) on what you do (i.e., spiritual disciplines) rather than in who you trust (i.e., Christ) you are guilty of a circumcision-like faith.

    Nick: I disagree, if we turn to lives of sin, we will not be saved (eg Heb 10:26-29; Gal 5:19-21; Gal 6:7-9). So it is based on what you do.

    You said: 2. You are guilty of a circumcision-like faith when your focus is more upon evidences of grace in your life, than upon the imputed righteousness of Christ.

    Nick: The Bible nowhere mentions an “Imputed righteousness of Christ,” it’s simply not a Biblical concept.

    You said: Do you feel like God is more pleased with you because you refrained from looking at pornography rather than the fact that Christ lived a sinless life of moral purity for you?

    Nick: Christ didn’t live a sinless life for us, and stuff like porn puts your soul in jeopardy of damnation (eg Mat 5:27-30).

    You said: 3. You are guilty of a circumcision-like faith when your obedience is more influenced by the terrors and curse of the law than by the allurement of grace.

    Nick: This is correct.

    You said: 4. You are guilty of a circumcision-like faith when you look to what is promised only in a conditional way.
    God’s favor is not based on whether or not you have lived up to some prescribed level of behavior. God’s favor is unconditional because Christ met all the conditions of the law for you (Matt. 3:15; 5:17)!

    Nick: You are badly misreading those Matt texts, as noted earlier, Christ nowhere kept the law in your place. And our relationship is very much conditional (Gal 6:7-9 is a favorite of mine, also Mat 18:23-35)

    You said: Just like the Judaizers, many believers forget or fail to understand that Christ fulfilled the law for us thus rendering obedience to the law for justification unnecessary.

    Nick: That is a significant error, though a common one. Nowhere does Paul say this, and more especially nowhere does this concept fit into what Paul taught.

    You said: This may come as a surprise to some of you, but the truth is we do not confess our sins in order to be forgiven. Our sins are forgiven by grace through faith in Christ alone. Rather, we confess our sins because we are forgiven!

    Nick: That is common response, but it is based on preconceived notions (eg Sola Fide), not the text of Scripture. Nowhere does the Bible say sins are already forgiven, and nowhere does the Bible say we confess because already forgiven (which is illogical in itself).

    Let me know what you think.
    Amy

  3. […] great post from the Gospel-Driven Blog Posted in Biblical […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: