Sat in on a Bible study discussing the first section of Romans chapter 2 tonight. The discussion was pretty good, and I think they made a very helpful contextualization/contemporizing of the passage by talking about on the one hand the flagrant sinner who wants everything their way and thus rejects God (the very Jewish critique of Gentile paganism that precedes this passage in Romans chapter 1) and on the other, the superficial morality that masks the reality of a person who is still every bit as guilty of sin and in need of redemption (the hypocritical judge at the beginning of Romans 2).
Essentially, the point of the discussion was to say that every person has a god who has captured their loyalty and that, as sinful people, this is not the true God regardless of whether we live in flagrant sin and open denial of God or hide behind a mask of legalism.
In discussing this legalistic individual, it was suggested that such a person’s god, their source of joy, was their own morality or legalism.
The alternative, the worship of the true God, it was said, is to find our joy in God, in Christ alone, and not in what we do.
I discussed this some with the group leader afterwards, but in reflecting on it more it inspired me to write a little.
I started off by wondering if this is not too simplistic of a distinction. To use an analogy: when we find joy in a person, part of that joy is in the person themselves, but likewise a significant part of that joy comes from doing things for and with that person.
To use the perhaps overused but still helpful analogy of a romantic pursuit: if I am pursuing a girl, that is motivated by my appreciation for who she is, but in large part the joy I receive from that relationship is found in doing things for and with her.
Likewise, I think, we certainly as Christians are motivated by an appreciation for who God is. But, just as if I did was sat around day-dreaming about this girl without any corresponding action you would just call me silly, likewise a good portion of our joy in God comes not just from reflecting on his character but from actually doing things for (and with) God, which probably should include living a moral life.
Which means that legalism is a bit of a sticky issue because in fact doing good can be an expression of our appreciation for God.
The New Testament motif of already, not yet may be of help here.
The idea of this motif is that we are living in between the completion of one age and the full arrival of another, the transition period from the reign of sin and death on this earth to the full reign of Christ.
So already, Christ has come, he has died, he has been raised from the dead.
Already, the death blow has been dealt to the enemy.
But the enemy is not yet dead.
The kingdom is not yet fully here.
Sin is not yet fully removed from this world, death has not yet ceased.
And so we live celebrating what has already occurred and looking forward to the final fulfillment of what will yet come to be.
Now, typically this scheme is used to explain the eschatological tension of the New Testament, but I think it can also help us understand our own sanctification, our own growth as Christians, and the boundaries of legalism:
Already, we have been purchased by Christ and set apart as his people.
But we are not yet fully there. All of us still wrestle with sin. We still live in a world that is crippled by sin.
So we live as those who are growing, but are not yet grown, who are advancing, but have not yet arrived.
My proposal is that we consider our striving to live morally upright lives legalistic when when we no longer feel the need to grow.
When we think we have arrived, that we are good and have no need of improvement.
When we no longer look for our flaws, when we are not willing to subject ourselves to self-criticism or listen to the criticism of others.
That is when we have made our own morality an idol: when we have declared our standards to be the perfect standard.