How Do You Overcome Legalism?
The following question was posed to us by way of e-mail: “How does one overcome an over-scrupulous conscience. The apostle Paul says we must obey what our conscience is telling us to do. John says “if our conscience does not condemn us...” (then we can ask God for things and know that He hears us). Having been a Seventh-day Adventist for so many years and being fed so many do’s and don’ts about everything...especially eating and drinking, etc...my conscience has condemned me for nearly everything. I have prayed to God so many times concerning this matter - and it has gotten better - but some things I still am condemned for that I know God’s Word does not condemn me for. I’m not talking about sin. How am I ever to clear out all the things I’ve learned before...or should I even try?”
Return to Question & Answers
I can readily understand the question! There is so much teaching in religion today that comes under the broad heading of “legalism.” Legalism, often by word and always by spirit, conveys the idea to people that their relationship to God is one of law-keeping, of do’s and don’ts. They are made to feel that if they conform to the particular religious standard then God will approve of them and regard with favor as righteous. If they fall short, they are made to feel that they are condemned, disapproved of by God and perhaps even rejected.
This is surely a major category of the kind of “vain deceit” to which Paul refers in Col. 2:8. It is religious ideas that are conveyed by some means other than the Spirit of God ministering faith through the Living Word. We must have both Spirit and Truth (John 4:24). Without a proper balance the door is wide open for all kinds of false spirits to work. For those who emphasize “spirit” and seek for all kinds of “experiences,” yet de-emphasize the Word, they are open to great deception. For those who emphasize the written Word, but minister without God’s true anointing and call, the door is likewise open to all kinds of spirits to use the written word to bring people into great bondage. This is what Paul meant by being “spoiled.” He means spoiled in the sense of being taken captive as a spoil of war — something that was common practice in his day. The one taken captive became a slave.
Legalism in any form is simply an attempt to add something to what Christ did for us at the cross. To the legalist we are not complete in Christ (Col. 3:10): it is a “gospel” of Christ PLUS works, or Christ PLUS a certain lifestyle, etc. I’m thankful that my standing before God is 100% based on Christ and what He did for me. By His amazing grace and His grace alone I have been declared righteous by God. I have His perfect righteous placed to my account — in spite of the fact that I am utterly undeserving. Nothing I ever do will diminish that righteousness in the least. Nor will any good thing I ever do enhance it in any way. It is already perfect! My legal standing before God — my very foundation — has been established on the basis of grace and faith — and that by the gift of God! — unassailable forever! I can rest in that because it is not of my doing: it is based solely and completely on Christ. And it is “of God” that we are in Christ (I Cor. 1:30): it was HIS IDEA AND PLAN! I can take no credit. I am the recipient of grace, pure and simple.
Nor is the Christian life one of laws and commandments. Does this mean we are free to do as we please? Of course not! A Christian has Christ living on the inside. He has God working in him both to will and do of his good pleasure. Phil. 2:13. “For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Eph. 2:10.
I Cor. 6:12 gives us a glimpse of the principle involved in what Paul did and didn’t do: “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Christians are not under “law,” PERIOD! That is hard to grasp but it is true. Yet Paul lived a Godly life. Why? He measured things by a different set of rules: is it “expedient”? Will it enslave me? Something not being “expedient” meant that that thing didn’t serve the purpose for which God had called him unto Himself. That would certainly include anything directly opposed to God’s character and ways but might well include things that weren’t evil in themselves yet were regarded as a needless hindrance by Paul. The principle of “not being brought under the power of any” — enslaved — is obvious. We are saved to serve God and being enslaved by anything else is plainly not a good thing. It is only by grace, and by Christ’s indwelling presence and working that we are able to walk according to such principles — and then it is a process of growth and maturity that lasts a lifetime. There are many failures and shortcomings, many times in which we must pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and, availing ourselves of the promise of forgiveness and cleansing, go on. Never, however, in all of this, is our righteousness in any jeopardy. What a glorious salvation! Romans 4:8.
I’m sure, judging from your letter, that you are aware of these things but I felt that it would be a good thing for me to express them as clearly as I could. It certainly did me good, anyway! The problem is, how do we deal with leftover religious “clutter” in our minds? The only thing I know that can free us from such clutter is faith and the foundation for faith is the revealed Word of God. I’m sure you are familiar with Romans 14 in which Paul discusses the need for believers to be considerate of one another’s varying convictions about things.
It is interesting that the person who had a lot of scruples regarding what to eat and not eat was referred to as “weak in the faith.” I believe that is because someone whose Christianity has a lot of do’s and don’ts in it doesn’t see as clearly as they might our freedom and completeness in Christ. There is a little of “Christ plus eating” in their belief — not just Christ.
Yet there is a clear admonition not to despise someone in that place. I certainly do not. I have been there to some extent in the past! What it comes down to in the end of the chapter is the principle of “faith.” Faith is the only ground upon which to stand in overcoming religious scruples. Trying to violate them because someone tells you to or because you reason it out in your mind would leave you in a state of doubt and condemnation.
II Cor. 10:4-5 talk about our warfare and the “pulling down of strong holds.” Religious scruples that are not the result of God-given faith certainly fall into that category. I believe that we have every right to subject them to the scrutiny of God’s Word where they differ. The only thing that has delivered me in any measure from religious scruples has been faith rooted in the Word. By that I mean that God made real to me in a personal way some truth from His Word that exposed my religious scruples for what they were — vanity! That doesn’t mean that the scruples instantly vanished and were never an issue any more. But it did give me something to fight with!
Our Christian lives are characterized by God shining the light of His Word according to our need and then us by faith choosing to walk in that light instead of our former darkness. That is how we grow and are changed. It is a process. The scruples fight back sometimes but if God has given us faith in that area through the Word we can confidently stand on that Word and cast down “every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God” and bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”
You mention “eating and drinking” as especially troublesome. You are not alone! I know you know these scriptures: Rom. 14:17-18; Rom. 14:14; Col. 2:10-17; I Tim. 4:4. I’m sure there are others but those come to mind. Pray about them. Ask God to give you faith in this area. Don’t wait for the scruples to evaporate. When God gives you faith, exercise it and it will grow stronger. When the devil tries to condemn, stand on that Word just as Jesus did when He was tempted in the wilderness. Remember that “It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?” Rom. 8:33-34. If God doesn’t condemn you in these things — and He doesn’t — why should you let the devil condemn you?
Such things as eating or not eating pork, or drinking or not drinking coffee (for example) don’t have anything to do with our righteousness one way or the other. God doesn’t love us any less — or more! We may find other reasons for doing or not doing many things but God has not imposed upon us any “laws” that affect our relationship with Him. We may well need wisdom as to whether some things are beneficial and appropriate for us or not but God loves us just the same!
I guess the simple answer to your question is that religious scruples must be displaced by divinely revealed truth based on the Word and that is often a process. Remember, the truth will make you free!