You see, legalism is a guilt-motivated system. We either allow others to put us in bondage to their list of rules, or we shackle ourselves to our own list.
Here’s how it works. A Christian who tends toward legalism goes to church one Sunday and hears the preacher say, “You need to read your Bible and pray.” This Christian feels guilty because he hasn’t been reading his Bible and praying. So he sets his alarm back an hour that night. But when the alarm goes off the next morning, this guy doesn’t really want to get up. He’s kind of grumpy, but he dutifully staggers out of bed to read his Bible and pray because he feels that he has to.
Is there anything wrong with a preacher telling his people they ought to read their Bibles and pray? No, and I’ll be the first one to say it. And it’s not necessarily bad that this Christian feels guilty for neglecting his spiritual life. That could be the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The problem comes in the way he deals with his need.
Grace-based Christians obey because it’s their delight. Law-based Christians obey because it’s their duty. Grace-based Christians obey and love it. Law-based Christians obey and resent it. To grace-based Christians, the spiritual life is the lifting of a burden (see Matthew 11:30). But to legalistic Christians, living for God feels like carrying a heavy load.
Suppose both partners in a marriage carried around checklists of each other’s duties and checked each duty off as it was done. If the whole marriage worked on that basis, I’d soon be seeing that couple in my office for counseling.
Husbands and wives who love each other help each other, but the doing has to grow out of the loving. God wants nothing less from us. If your Christian life is just a list, you’re missing it—not necessarily because the things on your list are bad. It’s just that living by a list is a faulty approach to victory in the Christian life.
written by Tony Evans