I imagine that all of us struggle with finding a balance between legalism and liberalism. For me, this struggle reached a head several years ago while attending a rather legalistic “holiness” church.
Friends were discussing someone we were trying to help out of a difficult situation brought on by this individual’s poor choices when one of my friends said, “It’s impossible to help him. He actually thinks God loves him!”
I couldn’t get those words out of my mind: He actually thinks God loves him!
I wasn’t raised in church. I spend most of my youth rebelling against God and His standards of holiness until one day I discovered that God actually did love me. Unlike many people with whom I’ve shared my faith, I didn’t need to be convinced I was a sinner. I knew that I had messed up.
The problem was, I had come to believe that I went too far, and that I could never make amends, and therefore I used that as an excuse to dive even deeper into sin.
The day I realized that God loved me was a day that I was finally able to get free from a lifestyle that had me ensnared through the power of Christ. God’s love didn’t enable me in my sin; His love enabled me to break free from my sin.
As a new Christian, I wanted to do whatever the Lord asked me to do. I read the Bible all the way through a few times in the first two months after I accepted Christ. I tried to apply as much of His Word to my life as I could.
My motivation at first was a love for the Lord. But it developed into a need to fit in around Christian circles, and perhaps to repay a perceived debt to the Lord (as if I ever could!). The more I learned of His sacrifice for me, the more unworthy of this gift I felt, and the harder I worked to be pleasing to Him.
Slowly, I was no longer motivated by His love for me, but I started to look at His Word as a lengthy to-do (and don’t-do) list. As I grew more, got married, and started my family, this only intensified. I was now obsessing over the gray areas, while failing to make His last command my first priority: telling a lost and dying world of a Savior’s love (Matthew 28:18-20).
The problem was taking my eyes off of the Savior and putting them on myself. Of course I wasn’t worthy of His great salvation. Who is? Paul answers that in Romans 3, saying that there is “none righteous, no not one.” Trusting in myself is what got me into trouble in the first place.
If God’s grace enabled me to have a right relationship with the Lord, then it’s His grace that will keep me right with the Lord on a day-to-day basis. Such a simple truth, but so easy to forget when I fail to keep my eyes on the Lord.
I hadn’t even realized how far away from the Lord I was — living a “holy” life, and yet far from the heart of Christ — until that day when my friend commented about not being able to help someone who actually thinks God loves him. Red flags and flashing lights went off in my head. “But God does love him. He may not be pleased with his lifestyle, but He does love him.”
This thought swirled in my head for a few days, as the Lord started to remind me of some foundational facts of my Christian walk.
It was autumn at this time, and so I spent a few hours in my garden that Saturday, mostly tending my backyard grapevines, and the Lord used that time to remind me of principles I had learned (and apparently forgotten) years ago.
“I am the vine, and you are the branches,” Jesus teaches us in John 15:5. Our ability to bear fruit is dependent on our relationship with the vine, Jesus, not on something He expects us to conjure up on our own to win His approval.
Christian growth is not about us following rules, doing all of the right things, and avoiding the wrong. That’s one of the main things that separates Christianity from other world religions. It’s about a relationship with the living God through His Son. The Bible refers to Christian growth as fruit, and our character should reflect the fruit of the Spirit growing and developing in our lives.
Fruit isn’t something that any branch can develop by sheer willpower. That’s what I was trying to do for several years. Instead, fruit is a natural byproduct of a healthy plant; a natural byproduct in my life and yours, as we develop our relationship with Christ every day, over the long term. Genuine righteousness is different from self-righteousness, because Christ is at the center of it.
My grapevines need several things in order to grow and be fruitful. They need to be connected to the main stock, they need to be fed with compost, watered and pruned as needed. In the same way, the same care is required in my life in order to be fruitful for Christ in a way that pleases Him. By feeding on His Word, and being watered in the Spirit by my time in worship and prayer with Him, Christ is developing the fruit in my life that He knows I need.
Just as I cut back my vines each year, so too does the Lord do some pruning in my own life, as needed, to help me grow better. This was one of those seasons of pruning, to get me back to the basics of my faith again, so that I could grow even more, and bear more fruit for Him.
Throughout the Bible we see that the thread that binds it all together is God’s plan of redemption, from His promise of a Redeemer in Genesis 3, to the return of the victorious Christ in Revelation. In the Old Testament, God set apart Israel to bring the Savior into the world, and He needed them to be wholly set apart for Him. In the New Testament, God calls us to be adopted into His family by grace through faith in Christ alone for our salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The problem with the Pharisees was with their hearts more than their actions. They were doing many “good” things. However, the Pharisees were not obeying the Lord’s commands out of love for Him, but to try to earn His love and the respect of others with their good works.
They didn’t have the right heart attitudes. They didn’t have a relationship with the Lord. They didn’t have His love flowing through them to the lost and hurting souls around them. Instead they stood far off from those who needed the Lord the most, proud of their holiness by comparison.
The heart of the matter is having my own heart right before the Lord. If I’m reading the Bible as a glorified checklist of do’s and don’ts for my life, then I will quickly enter into legalism. However, if I’m seeking to build my relationship with Him from the inside out, feasting on His Word, spending time with Him in prayer, and sharing what He has done for us with others, then God will develop in me character and holiness that not only will last but will be pleasing to Him.
As I stay connected to Him, as a branch is connected to the vine (John 15), I will bear the kind of fruit He wants to see in my life.
I’ve found that this freedom comes from being secure in God’s love, and that operating out of love for Him in my life encourages me to do more for Him than if I were only doing things out of fear or self-righteousness. The liberty to serve by grace through faith has resulted in even more fruit, because of a right foundation.
Copyright 2009 Kimberly Eddy. All rights reserved.