Never before has there been such a cultural battle against holiness. Though thousands of people claim to be Christians, their lives bear no semblance of change or transformation. Their priorities, habits and relationships don’t reflect the perfection of God or the influence of His Spirit. But when confronted with the scriptural prerogative to “be holy as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16), the response goes something like this: “Christianity is about relationship, not religion and rules.”
This catchphrase is tricky because it’s partially true: The entire mission of God is to bring people into a relationship with Him. But there’s a problem with the human side of this equation. God is perfect—and we are not.
Christianity is indeed a relationship. But it’s also a religion: an organized system of beliefs in an eternal, loving God. Our relationship with Christ is completely dependent on what we know of our doctrine: the system of beliefs (the “religion”) that tell us who Christ is and what He did on our behalf. A necessary part of Christian doctrine is the belief that man, of his own accord, is imperfect and unable to approach our perfect God. In order to make this possible, God sent Himself in human form and paid the death penalty that sin requires. Jesus “paid it all” so we could have a relationship with Him.
Okay, so what’s the point?
The point is that holiness is not optional. Christ gave everything for us to be in a relationship with God. God’s heart was broken and Jesus’ body was slain so we could be justified before a throne of grace. This relationship we have with Christ isn’t something we put on and take off; it’s a lifestyle. The closer we draw to God and His perfection, the more our lives should be transformed.
But holiness is not a set of rules. We don’t go down a list, checking off behaviors like Christian to-dos. We are transformed by the work of God’s Spirit within our being: by drawing near, by pouring out and by giving of ourselves for His will and kingdom. As we grow in our understanding of religion (our doctrinal beliefs) and deepen the walk of our relationship (our experience), these two empower us to holy living. We begin to let go of the things we formerly loved as God’s perfection affects us more and more.
Legalism is man’s commentary on God’s commands. It often begins from a heart that wants to be holy, but instead of seeking God daily to do so, creates extrabiblical rules to get there. Legalism is a form of faithlessness.
If a believer depends on legalism to live a “holy” life, she quickly becomes judgmental of others and doubtful of her own security. Her good works are not based on a true love for God, but on “doing the right thing.” This is not what God intends for us! When we create rules to keep ourselves holy, but don’t seek God in the process, we create our very own “religion”: a system of beliefs to make us better than we are. That is not Christianity.
We need to get back to the basics of what Christianity is, teaching ourselves the doctrines of the faith so we know the intended purpose of the gospel. The gospel is meant to transform us. We are called to be holy not because God is unrealistic or unfair, but because we have been adopted into His family (Ephesians 1:5). And because God’s family is holy by the blood of Christ, we have a prerogative to live holy lives. Pursuing holiness is not legalistic.
Legalism happens when we pursue goodness for the sake of being good; when we lose sight of the gospel in our effort to appear righteous. But if we walk daily in the light of God’s Word, we need not fear legalism! It is exposure to the love and grace of God that inspires holy living.
Live set apart. You are already a consecrated person. Christ paid your way! God’s will for all of us—His will for today—is that we live out that reality.