Effort and Earning

I have been really bad at being consistent in my posts so sorry for anyone who has been anxiously awaiting my next one (yeah I’m talking to you mom).

I really do want to be more regular. I suppose it’s harder than I thought to balance all of my responsibilities and also find time to think through a post, write it, re-write it, re-re-rewrite it, disagree with myself after I’ve written it, start all over, end up making the post way too long so I can back up my thoughts, give up in despair, eat a doughnut to cope, and then start a totally different post leaving myself with the fourth half written post saved on my computer to be picked up again one day.
Honestly, I’m not even sure if what I’m writing now will be the next thing to be posted. Anyway, I digress. Let’s move forward with what I actually want to talk about.

Christians love to hate on the Pharisees. We even call other Christians a Pharisee to rebuke them. I can hear it so clearly, “Don’t be such a Pharisee about it.” So who were the Pharisees? They were one group of religious leaders in the Jewish community. They were sort of the religious elite. They felt that the solution to the current situation of oppression by Rome, and the way to get God to step in for His people was to have a super strict adherence to the law. If they could just obey the law enough (even add some extra stuff that wasn’t a part of the law for good measure) God would look upon them with greater favor and would come to their aid, He would end their exile completely.

Here is where we get the idea of legalism. Now legalism is a four letter word within protestant Christianity. Being a legalist or a Pharisee is the ultimate insult. Now I totally agree that acting like a Pharisee is bad thing. At least much more bad than good. And I affirm that being a legalist is a bad thing too. I am not trying to stand up for them and say we need some more Pharisees. Really what I want to do is define what legalism is and is not. I want to do this because I think that we are misusing that term and condemning people for doing something that isn’t necessarily bad, and I think it might even be good.

So lets start with what legalism is. Legalism is putting forth effort with the intent of earning. And that is bad. We cannot earn the favor of God. It’s not something to be gained by works but given by grace. The Pharisees said, If we just follow the Law then God will love us and save us. ” To think that we need to work harder to earn the favor and love of God is misguided. God loves because He loves. If we turn to Him and trust in Him we already have what we are looking for. There is no need to work in hopes to earn.

But let’s talk about what legalism is not. Legalism is not just the use of effort. When there are people who are setting up some guardrails to keep them from sinning that is not legalism. If a guy/girl I know is struggling with purity and what he/she looks at on the internet, and in an effort to keep pure he/she makes sure their phone stays in another room at night, I do not believe that is legalism. Legalism is not the idea of using effort. Legalism is the idea of using effort to earn. I know people who say I don’t want to be legalistic in my fight against sin. They say this as if any victory over sin that doesn’t just happen naturally and is totally free from effort is legalistic and bad. “I refuse to do something about my sin. I don’t want to be a Pharisee. I don’t want to work. It should just happen because I love God.”

This grieves me. We need effort, but we don’t want effort driven by earning. We want effort driven by the love of God freely given. We don’t give effort to get acceptance of God, we give effort because of the acceptance of God. Legalism is not about whether or not effort is involved. Legalism is about the heart and goal behind the effort.

When speaking to the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul talks to them about how Jesus appeared to the apostles and then appeared to him (Paul) last, and how he isn’t even worthy to be an apostle. Paul says that he is what he is only by the grace of God.

What he says next is really interesting. Paul says that the grace given to him was not in vain (or not ineffective). But then goes on to say that he worked harder than any of them (referring to the other apostles), yet not him, but God’s grace that was with him. Paul links this grace to effort. Paul does not shy away from saying that he worked hard or that he gave effort. Yet it was the grace of God with him that had him work hard.

God’s grace did not lead him to avoid striving and working hard in his ministry. It led him to work hard. God’s grace drives the effort. God’s unearned favor is what pushes Paul. Paul doesn’t push in order to earn the favor. James says that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Faith that doesn’t produce works is a dead faith. Now that could mean my faith just produces works apart from any effort, but I think that my faith is what should lead me to work, even when effort is required to get it to happen.

Because God has set His favor upon me for no reason. Because God just simply loves me as I am. Because God doesn’t require me to be more than I am, I work. I put in effort. I “cut off my hand when it causes me to stumble.” (Matthew 5:29–30). And the times that I actually do that it is only because of the grace of God.

I would love to bring up a few more passages to talk about this, but I already talked about making my posts way too long. I know that my case isn’t air tight, and I don’t have the space here to deal with some of the responses people might have, but I hope it at leasts gives us something to think about before going and rebuking someone for their effort when attempting to deal with sin.

Effort isn’t bad. Earning is. God freely accepts those who draw near by faith. May we set our eyes upon Jesus, allow Him to define God, and pursue the God perfectly displayed in Him. Let the unconditional love of God drive your fight with sin, even if that drives us to use some effort at times.

Peace be with you.

Image by Betsy Streeter via flickr


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Curtis Snell

I am first and foremost someone who is trying to follow the example and teachings of Jesus. I serve on the pastoral staff of a church in Iowa and I love writing, reading, and my dog Pepper.

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