Why would a Christian who has tasted the goodness of the Lord abandon Him? There are several reasons. One of them we see in 1 Timothy 4 is the influence of legalism.
Legalism is not godliness.
Legalism is a works-based way of approaching the Christian life. It is taking your faith in Christ and adding other things you must do or not do to gain acceptance from God and maintain that to keep your salvation. You can recognize it as “faith plus” good works or “faith plus” following church rules.
Legalism is not what is clearly taught in the New Testament about what sin is and what living a life that pleases God looks like. It is those extra rules that some person or organization has decided you must follow to be a “good Christian” and for God to love you. 1 Timothy 4:3-5
Legalism makes you feel guilt and shame, not gratitude and joy.
The hypocrisy of legalism
Jesus pointed out legalism in the Pharisees who kept their bodies squeaky clean while treating fellow Jews like dirt (Mark 7:18-23). Cleanliness is not next to godliness. What they did was hypocrisy. Hypocrisy comes from the word for “actor.” It’s playing a role.
Christians who make mistakes and repent of them before God are not hypocrites. No Christian is perfect in life—no matter how old or established in their faith.
Hypocrites are those who are outwardly conforming to what looks good, but their hearts are not tender toward God. They claim to know God, but by their actions deny Him (Titus 1:16).
God isn’t interested in outward conformity. He wants your heart to be right with Him, and right behavior that He asks you to do should follow that. But, legalism breeds hypocrisy.
The hopelessness of legalism
Christians start out accepting the Gospel of God’s grace by their faith alone. Then, someone comes along and says, “That’s not enough. You have to follow these rules if you want to be spiritual and if you want to stay saved.” But, the rules are constantly changing so you never know if you are saved or not.
Maybe you started out accepting the gift of salvation by faith in Jesus as a free gift. But then you have been thrown into such a works-related way of living this Christian life in order to maintain your acceptance before God. The result is that you stray away from enjoying a love-based relationship with Jesus to practicing a works-based religion.
Outward performance is not godliness. But, the emphasis on “getting it right” with God can lead to hopelessness because no one can ever be able to ever please God enough. That leads someone to stop trying altogether and just give up.
Why does legalism persist in the church today?
Why would someone think it necessary to create additional laws for Christians to follow? Often, it is the tendency to think that you can control sin through lots of rules.
Legalism is used to motivate people to obedience by fear of punishment. It becomes a substitute for devotion to Christ.
God’s plan is for you to live by grace.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Grace means “undeserved favor.” God gives His favor to someone not because they are good enough to deserve it but because His love chooses to do so. We all receive this grace when we trust in Jesus.
God wants you to relate to Him now on the basis of His grace. Jesus paid the complete price for you to be set free from your sinful past. You can do nothing more to make yourself acceptable to God.
Paul understood those who had been relating to God through outward performance. God’s overflowing grace sets you free from whatever has you in bondage—sin, guilt, religious expectations, whatever. 1 Timothy 1:13-14
Grace motivates us to obedience by love and gratitude for what Christ has done.
Knowing what Christ has done for you should motivate you by love and gratitude to live the kind of life that pleases God. You pursue godliness—godlikeness—because you love Him and are thankful for what He has done for you.
Consider how any “faith plus something else” teaching has affected your life, emotions, thinking, or relationship with God and others. Then, let it go and cling to the truth of your identity in Christ. Don’t let legalism rob you of your relationship with God.
Let Jesus satisfy your heart with such love for God that you will want to live a life that pleases Him.