Among the abandoned jewels of the Church, none is so winsome and glorious as grace. When her sweet presence is ushered out, court convenes, law takes the stand, and the inquisition begins. I know all about it, you see, because I’ve lived on both sides of that street.
Someone should do a scientific study of legalism and grace. They could compare blood pressure, anxiety and dopamine levels, heart rate, and life expectancy. I’ll bet the contrast would be shocking. Of one thing I’m certain: a life of legalism will invariably push a person towards either self-righteousness or shame.
The self-righteous legalist appears relatively successful in keeping the law: she’s not divorced, not addicted, not sexually confused, and has never struggled with outward vices. She looks good, and when judged by the law she presents the paradigm of an upstanding believer. “What’s wrong with those people?” she thinks. “Why can’t they just pull their lives together like I have?” Judging herself by the law has turned our sister into a self-righteous, judgmental, pain-in-the-backside who teaches Sunday School and sings in the choir.
The other kind of legalist hasn’t been nearly so successful. Though he feels profoundly convicted, he’s never been able to break free from cigarettes, sneaks behind the sanctuary for a quick drag between services, wrestles with overeating, and has a little pornography issue that he can’t bring himself to mention. He carries a shame so deep that he can barely look at himself in the mirror. Self-righteousness, when it appears successful, puffs us up with pride. And self-righteousness, when we fail, suffocates us in shame and condemnation.
When a church falls into self-righteousness it becomes a grand masquerade with the squeaky-clean legalists parading their plumage on one side, while the loser legalists hide behind masks of pretense and fear on the other. “Masquerade! Paper faces on parade. Masquerade! Hide your face, so the world will never find you!”
The answer, of course, is to utterly renounce law-based righteousness. The law was never intended to justify us in the first place, but only to show us our need. And the happy truth is that though none of us deserve it, all of us are invited into the sweet presence of grace who says, “You can take your mask off now. I know who you are, and I choose to love you anyway.”
(Note: I don’t know how to properly credit the first photo, but the second photo, “Guilt” is from Mark Nickels. It is an oil on linen. http://www.marknickels.com/large-single-view/More…../176148-8-14585/Painting/Oil.html)