Legalism happens when we try to micro-apply God’s standard of holiness. I was sucker punched by this thought when I studied I Peter 1:15 just the other week, in preparation for preaching: “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”
What does in all your conduct mean? Please tell me more. Spell it out for me.
Should I delete Jay-Z and other “secular” music from my iTunes?
No more Rated R movies?
What about PG-13?
Is five miles over the speed limit acceptable?
What about wiping down my sweaty bike at the end of spin class? I’d been convicted about that, but is that more legalism?
I’m reminded of what Pastor Tom Nelson says, “We Christians would rather have a rule than to think”.
I think he’s onto something. Reading the Bible I’m becoming more awed by how little God actually spells things out.
In the garden he only gave Adam and Eve a handful of rules:
Exercise dominion over and cultivate the garden.
Be one with each other.
Of all the trees in the garden, there’s only one you can’t eat of.
Sure there’s Leviticus with its mind numbing details on what they could and couldn’t eat, touch, etc, but that’s under a theocratic form of government, and those ceremonial laws no longer apply (i.e. Acts 10).
When it comes to the moral law, however, there’s only ten commandments. Ten.
Jesus actually said there’s only two real rules- Love God and love others.
I think when we do these two things Jesus said, we set the stage to just figure it out.
Jesus also said we have the Holy Spirit who will guide us. In other words, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job- not the preachers, or other Christians ultimately- to help us figure it out.
At the first church council in Acts 15, the apostles said new Gentile converts should abstain from food offered to idols, and avoid sexual immorality. Why did they convene? Because some Christians were trying to micro-apply what it means to be holy to new believers.
Figure it out, is an apt three word description for the rest of the New Testament as it relates to rules.
When pressed by the Romans as to whether or not they should eat certain foods, Paul refused to micro-apply holiness. Instead he gave some thirty-five thousand foot perspective:
Honor each other.
Follow your conscience
Let God speak
In other words, figure it out.
If you’re looking for answers about whether or not you can listen to Kendrick Lamar, the most you’ll find in the Scriptures is this offering from Paul:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if thee is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”- Philippians 4:8.
Figure it out.
I Peter 1:15 is really a beautiful verse, but it gets mangled when we preachers, parents and well intentioned Christ-followers try to descend from the thirty-five thousand admonition and micro-apply exactly what that means to others. For sure, God is saying Christians should be different, but we need to give each other a lot of latitude as to how that looks.
For me, God is speaking to me at the gym about wiping the sweat off my bike. It’s a subtle way I can look different (unfortunately, it’s not a common communal habit). I also don’t feel the freedom to listen to about 95% of Jay-Z’s songs because he likes to call himself “J-Hova”. But the moment I stand up and say to my congregation that holiness means every Christian has to wipe off their gym equipment, and delete Jay-Z from their iTunes I’ve now overstepped my bounds.
That’s the Holy Spirit’s job.
Thankfully, I’m not him.
Figure it out.