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One person commented on the fact that I should get a lot of sermon illustrations from these stories! (He was right...) That got me to thinking about what the real applications really were. I’d like to reflect on two broad applications here, over two posts.
At one point I asked the question of this group: how did your parents (who were all Christians) continue to believe that it was good for you to be a part of this? After all, I said, you would surely come home and tell them all about it.
Their first response demonstrated how powerful the authoritarian environment was:
No, we were told that if we reported on them we would go to Hell.
[Note, by the way, the similar nature of this environment to a classic abusive relationship-- where the victim is told that THEY (the victim) would get in trouble if they told.]
But as they went on, something else became clear. One of them said:
I was glad to be there. I needed a place where I could belong, and this place felt safe-- partly because of the rules.
And there I saw my first sermon illustration: when it comes down to it, we all gravitate toward legalism. We are all legalists.
When we’re offered an environment where the rules are known, it becomes very easy to settle into that. We know where we stand in the pecking order; we are then able to proclaim with confidence precisely why we have merited the favor of God and men.
I think this is what makes grace so threatening, so terrifying to all of us. If the work that earns us favor isn’t our work (through legalism) but Christ’s work imputed to us (by grace), we are actually dependent on something (grace) and someone (Christ) other than ourselves.
This also illustrates why even communities that are defined by Christ’s grace (namely, churches) quickly return to legalism. Dependence is very uncomfortable. Dependence is often humbling, sometimes awkward, and frequently at odds with pride. Someone who is dependent has just reason to lose some confidence in themselves.
Here’s the irony in it all: we are always dependent. Even when we think we have every reason for confidence (as with the group of teenagers who knew exactly their place in the social order of that legalistic community), we are still dependent on something: for the legalist, it is the rules and laws that we subscribe to, and the authority who creates and enforces them.
Legalism-- that idea that “I can earn merit/favor/righteousness through obedience, and take confidence and pride in myself”-- is a lie.