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Rooting out legalism

There’s an injunction in Galatians 6:1 to “watch yourself.” Eugene Peterson in the Message interprets this command as “saving your critical comments for yourself.” Sometimes (and tragically) the Pharisee in me gets the better of me. Instead of watching myself, I see the speck in someone else’s eye. Which got me thinking about rooting out legalism in my life, and then got me thinking about rooting out legalism in how I engage with the Bible. So here are my thoughts as they pertain to rooting out legalism in Bible engagement:

To begin, I should probably admit to a tendency to promote my own personal Bible engagement standards. My personal standards are rules or expectations expressed in words like, “Christians should have a ‘quiet time’ (prayer and Bible reading) every day.” While this personal standard may be okay for me, it’s not okay for me to press others to adopt this standard.

When I was a young Christian I was free and easy about urging fellow Christians to have a quiet time. I didn’t appreciate that what I was doing was legalistic. Most legalists are legalists without realizing it.

Recognizing that the fog of legalism is ever present helped me identify four legalistic Bible engagement inclinations that I need to guard against:

  1. Self-righteousness. If I read and reflect on God’s Word in a way that makes sure others are aware of my good behaviour, I’ve crossed the line into legalism. Performance-based Christianity should never be the goal of Bible engagement.
  2. Human effort. If my motive for reading and reflecting on God’s Word is to exert all the energy I can muster to make God happy or be a good Christian, I’ve got it all wrong. Bible engagement conducted in my own strength is antithetical.
  3. Religious duty. Reading and reflecting on God’s Word to be devout or faithful is another form of legalism. The spirit of legalism is also inherent in the fear that God might punish or reject me for not reading or reflecting on His Word. Religious duty is the enemy of Bible engagement.
  4. Personal standards. Telling others to “Read your Bible every day” is legalism. It’s not a command in the Bible and I shouldn’t equate personal values with God’s values. That to identify that the measure of Bible engagement is in God’s hands, not mine.

 

That’s my Bible engagement short list for rooting out legalism. It reminds me that Bible engagement should never be obedience to a formula or special moral code. Bible engagement, correctly undertaken, breaks all bondage to legalism and sets me free. For true Bible engagement is a grace-filled, Christ-exalting, kingdom-championing process that liberates me to live fully and only all for Jesus.

© Scripture Union Canada 2018

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Reimagining Bible Engagement

The problem with the emphasis of some of today’s Bible engagement teaching is that stress is laid on how often we connect with the Bible and whether or not these connections impact what we think, say and do.

Or to say it differently, the problem in some local churches, Sunday School classes and Bible agencies is that the underlying agenda is to get us to read/hear the Scriptures so that we’ll gain spiritual insight and understanding that results in submitting to and obeying God’s Word (i.e. acting in accordance with biblical morality).

Now hear me out. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t engage with the Bible regularly. Nor am I saying that the Bible shouldn’t influence how we live. Far from it. But what I am saying is that when the emphasis in Bible engagement is on regularly reading/reflecting on the Bible and ordering our lives according to biblical morality, then we have a problem. It’s a problem because in and of itself, it’s legalism.

You see, we’ll struggle to interact frequently with the Bible and live righteous lives if we aren’t first taken up completely with Jesus. I don’t say that lightly. The focus in Bible engagement must always be on how wonderful, amazing and magnificent Jesus is – nothing less and nothing more!

Now why do I say that? Why should Bible engagement be first, foremost and always about Jesus? Because in Jesus “all things (including Bible engagement) hold together” Colossians 1:17 (NIV).

Here’s the rub. When Bible engagement isn’t always about Jesus, our reading/reflecting on the Bible will be done mainly out of guilt or duty and fueled, not by love, but by fear, shame or self-serving ambitions. And when our Bible reading/reflecting is done out of guilt or duty we usually dry-up or fizzle out. That, or our hearts grow progressively colder and more judgmental – holding to the letter of the law and condemning those who don’t obey God’s commands.

First things first. Bible engagement should always be Jesus engagement. Bible engagement is seeing His glory, knowing His grace, and growing in Him. From beginning to end, the Bible is a window through which we look to see Jesus. So when we read/hear the Bible it’s about opening our eyes and ears to His unbridled compassion, His inestimable salvation, His unstinting care, His extravagant provision, and His infinite mercy.

When we don’t get Jesus first, we’re in trouble. There’s no polite way for me to say this, but when the emphasis is on the regularity of Bible reading/hearing and the importance of moral outcomes, it creates modern-day Pharisees.

Bible engagement without Jesus is a heavy cumbersome load. When it’s about keeping score of how often we read the Bible or how many right choices we make in a day, we’ve missed the mark and will always miss the mark. That’s because Bible engagement, according to Jesus, is less about what we do (or not do), and more about who He is (cf. John 5:39).

At the risk of repeating (albeit in slightly different words) what’s already been said; loving Jesus should never be absent from our Bible engagement. The measure of Bible engagement is whether we are, or are not, meeting with Him. When we read, reflect, remember and respond to the Bible we must do so in a way in which we’re constantly recapitulating our hearts to Jesus and inclining the content of our lives to Him. That’s when Bible engagement takes on a life of its own.

So here’s to reimagining Bible engagement. Let’s read/hear the Word as an encounter with the One who is the Word. For when we meet with the One who is the Word, the rest falls into place. That is, when the priority in Bible engagement is connecting with Jesus and abandoning our lives to Him, that’s when we’ll be committed to regularly reading/reflecting and obeying His Word.

© Scripture Union Canada 2018
2 Corinthians 4:5