We’re Not Avoiding Legalism, We’re Avoiding Holiness

You shall be holy for I am holy.
— most of the Bible

Let me give you a snapshot of the conversation I’ve been having on repeat for the last 3 years:

Me: I wish that everyone would read their Bible for 30 minutes every day, memorize a Bible verse every week, and spend 4-5 hours in deeper personal Bible study every month.

Hopefully not you: I don’t think that’s a good idea. We don’t want people to burn out. And isn't loving one another and worshiping God more important?

Me: Who said that those things were mutually exclusive?

Hopefully not you: I don’t know. I just don’t want people to become legalists.

Legalism.

I wish that I could make this stuff up, but the most common argument I receive against (yes, people argue against the spiritual disciplines) structured meditation of Scripture is LEGALISM.

The. Bible. Makes. People. Legalists.

Are you kidding me!?

The Bible is the only material thing on planet Earth that will keep you from legalism!

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
— Hebrews 4:12

Here’s the truth: You and I are legalists by default. We don’t have to do anything special to become legalists. It is our natural attitude toward everything in life. As creatures of the Fall, we can turn anything into a method of justifying ourselves. We long to be worthy apart from God. Legalism is finding our hope in something other than the finished work of Christ. 

Which brings me to 1 Peter, chapter 1. I want to walk you through it and show that the pursuit of holiness does not put you in danger of becoming a legalist. The pursuit of holiness is the fight against legalism.

The Foundation of Holiness

According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead...

You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.

Sprinkled throughout the entire book of 1 Peter are identity statements. Over and over again, Peter reminds us that we have been born again. We are living stones. We are a royal priesthood. We are God’s people. We are lost sheep, returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. We are beloved.

The foundation of our fight against legalism is a new identity. The foundation of holiness is the good news that the old has gone and the new has come. We have been crucified with Christ and no longer live; Christ lives in us. We are beloved. We are righteous in the eyes of God. We are holy.

Legalism is what happens when we forget our identity. It’s what happens when we forget that God already sees us as holy. The pursuit of holiness is simply becoming who you already are, in Christ.

How to Be Holy

Better things than this article have been written about the pursuit of holiness, so I’ll keep this brief and just mention what I see in 1 Peter 1

The pursuit of holiness is to have single-minded hope. 

Therefore, preparing your minds for action,and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

It is really hard to be single-minded in our culture. There are too many distractions. And every distraction is an opportunity to forget our identity and to manufacture a new way to justify our existence.

It is a good thing to be single-minded because to pursue holiness is to be single-minded.

Do not be conformed.

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.

Peter does not say, “do not conform.” He says, “Do not BE conformed."

As in, the world is actively trying to conform you into a legalist. There is pressure on all sides to make you into someone with a false identity. The world doesn’t want you to be single-minded. You are like a blob of Play-Doh and the world is pressing you into a mold to become something that you are not. 

Unless you push back, the world will smush you into a legalist. The pursuit of holiness is to smush yourself into the mold of God’s Word and to let him mold you into the image of Christ. 

Be afraid.

Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.

When the Bible uses the phrase “the fear of the Lord” it doesn’t mean, like, real fear, right? Just reverence or something. Like, how you’re afraid that you’ll have to wait in line at the DMV for too long. Or afraid of the dentist. Or afraid of a job interview. Yeah, God is like a job interview. He's not actually terrifying. He's only terrifying if you allow yourself to worry.

Wrong. 

The Bible wouldn’t constantly remind us to be afraid of God if we weren’t constantly underestimating the terror of the Lord. 

Be afraid. The foundation of your holiness is the death of God’s Son. You didn’t sneak out of the clutches of hell by memorizing John 3:16. God murdered His Son so that he wouldn’t murder you. 

The pursuit of holiness is a gift purchased by the blood of Christ. Don’t be afraid that God is going to change his mind, go back on His Promises, and extend His Wrath toward you. But to see God clearly is to be afraid. He is not a tame lion, you know.

Why To Be Holy

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.

The idea that pursuing holiness will make us less loving (or legalists!) is ridiculous. Love is not possible without holiness. The pursuit of holiness purifies our hearts to love like Jesus.

Holiness and love are not mutually exclusive, but co-dependent. It is not possible to choose one over the other. We cannot obey the greatest commandment without pursuing holiness.

Pursue holiness today because you were made to love.

You shall be holy for I am holy.