I could easily blame the Catholic college I attended between 1973 and 1977, as well as my three months at the Charismatic Bible College I attended in 1985, for my predisposition toward legalism. If I did so, most people would respond sympathetically. Convinced that my behavior stems inevitably from such a background, those sympathizers do little to correct my error.
Those who do challenge me generally represent the opposite end of the spectrum, insisting that grace means a complete freedom from regulation. If Jesus really paid the full penalty for sin, they reason, we have liberty to behave as we please. I well remember a former boyfriend using the words, "It's alright, Baby...Jesus always forgives us."
Neither legalism nor lawlessness have any place in my life. The abuse of grace should be obvious, but so many evangelicals these days seem to equate grace with license. I've written numerous times about that problem, and I fully expect to write about it in the future. Today, therefore, I prefer to deal with my sin of legalism.
Obedience to the Lord based on His revealed will in Scripture honors Him. In decrying legalism, let's first establish that He demands our grateful obedience, not wanting us to remain in the very sin that caused Him to die on the cross. But I have often distorted obedience into self-righteousness. In that perverted state, I've subtly deceived myself into thinking that my good behavior actually maintained my salvation. My sins upset me, but only because I believed they would eventually cause God to blot my name out of the Book of Life.
Legalism gave me a sense of control...but only when I "played by the rules." As long as I performed appropriately, I felt like I managed my salvation well. Perhaps I even felt like I managed God well. (What a gruesome concept!) Legalism exalted me when my obedience, motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, should have exalted the Lord Jesus Christ.
I could blame the exacting nuns who served as some of my college professors and the 32 rules of the Bible College. But those influences, although incredibly strong, merely nurtured the self-righteous attitudes that I hadn't fully renounced in my own heart. I was the real problem. Blaming external factors looks good from a psychological standpoint, but the Lord would have me accept responsibility by confessing my sin of self-righteousness and then trusting in His shed blood to clothe me in His true righteousness. Then He gets all the glory!