“I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”
Those famous words are attributed to Linus, from the comic strip Peanuts by Charles Schulz. After his life with Lucy, poor loveable Linus admitted that he found certain people hard to love.
In fact, Lucy was abrupt and unkind and self-centered. We remember how she used to convince Charlie Brown that she would hold the ball for him and then jerk it away just as he was about to kick it. And we remember her little counseling booth where everyone was welcome to receive her latest impersonal word of wisdom, without regard to their real problems. Lucy sounds like a good legalist!
The god of legalism is cool and detached. No one would think of approaching him as a friend. He has formulas and judgments and impossible expectations for all people. The Bible, for legalists, is God’s book of rules and standards, with an account of how people failed throughout history. And the god of legalism is angry all the time.
I am increasingly convinced that legalism must depersonalize both God and people. Legalists see God as an impersonal force consisting of expectations and guidelines and condemnation. They see people as little machines that must operate according to programmed standards or be considered inferior and defective. There is no patience for individuals and no relationship with God.
Why do I think this? This is the legalism and these are the legalists I have experienced. They are hollow in their relationships and conflicted in their hearts. In the face of impossible expectations for themselves and others, they are failures striving only to look better than someone else. And their system of belief is no better. It offers a formulaic and static grace that brings little hope and less personal connection. Legalism is empty.
The grace of legalism, no matter how much it is touted, is a weak and distant grace. It comes from a god who doesn’t really care about you or me. It is carried on a message of performance and judgment. It is laid out in standards and rules and formulas that have no heart.
Praise the Lord this is not the grace of the Bible or of Jesus!