This post is part of a series.
In Part 3, we began discussing the passages and principles by which we can escape the torment of Catholic and Arminian (or any other sort) legalism. Let’s continue:
5. You can stop working for God
I am convinced that most Christians work at holiness, and even work for God, out of a sense of duty, obligation, and fear. We don’t really believe that we can be free of the obligation to do good increasing works as proof that we are saved. We don’t really believe that God is at work on us from the inside out, at His own pace. This lack of faith, and our misunderstanding of the lifelong process of becoming like Christ (sanctification), keeps us from really enjoying God and His transformation of our souls. A transformation that ought to occur in an atmosphere free from the compulsion to self-improve ‘or else.’
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. ~ Westminster Shorter Catechism
Once you ARE saved (through faith alone), you don’t go on some self-improvement kick – rather, you bring yourself to God continually, and cooperate with God’s working in you. You didn’t save yourself, and personal initiative, other than bringing one’s self to God, is also NOT required.
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. ~ Romans 12:1-2
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. ~ Philippians 2:12-13
You see, faith does produce good works, but not because we have to prove anything to God or others. Rather, it is the response of a grateful and changing heart, in which we are cooperating with God as He decides what we should be working on.
For more on this topic, listen to my podcast entitled “Stop Working for God.”
6. We still sin and need to repent when we are convicted of sin, but we are not in danger
The evidence that we are God’s children is not that we never sin, but that you no longer WANT to, even if we struggle and often fail. Paul the Apostle documents this reality well, showing that even he was not sinless after believing. He argues that, rather than trying to live a holy life ‘under the law,’ we ought to believe that God has forgiven us and is working in us:
I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. ~ Romans 7:15-20
This same principle of becoming externally unclean but not ‘unsaved’ is seen in Jesus’ parable of the vinedresser. In this teaching, the process outlined is that God continues to purify us, but this is merely ‘pruning,’ not evidence of an undoing of the changed inner core:
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. ~ John 15:1-4
In another passage, Jesus washes the disciples feet – but Peter fails to understand that they do not need to be re-baptized or cleansed from sin on a grand scale – they are already clean, and merely need to “bathe”:
Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!”
Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”
Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”
Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean.” ~ John 13:8-10
7. Go repair your conscience.
When we are victimized by years of legalistic faith, it becomes hard to have a vibrant, free, joyful, and growing faith. In fact, every sermon we now hear may remind us of the abuse we suffered at the hands of well meaning Christian leaders who did not understand or believe the gospel properly.
We need to re-educate our consciences so that they are not too hard (failing to convict us of things that are harmful), nor too active (convicting us of things that are not harmful or forbidden by God). And this takes time.
I have written an entire treatise on the conscience in The Tripartite Man 3: Conscience. I encourage you to read it and pour over the Biblical truths outlined there, in order to recover a healthy, active (but not over-active) conscience. May God heal and bless you in your quest for freedom!