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Legalism Misidentifies the Enemy

Identity in Christ as Principle of Spiritual Warfare

During my army days, one of the things we were taught was the “Principles of War.” Among the first (if not the first) of these principles was “Selection and Maintenance of the Aim.” Essentially, it states that to be successful in prosecuting an armed conflict, a nation’s military must define a singular overall aim and, subordinating everything else to it and/or defining everything else in terms of it, maintain a focus on this aim throughout the conflict. This principle is often titled the “Master” principle, because the successful application of others depends upon it.

Recently I read an interesting column in an Israeli newspaper describing the current mess in the Middle East. Focusing on various setbacks to U.S. foreign policy, including the ongoing situation in Iraq, the rise of political influence of Islamists in Egypt and Syria and elsewhere, and the increasing isolation of Israel, the column identified one of the root causes of the mess as being an American refusal to select its strategic aim properly. Specifically, among other charges, the column accused the Americans after September 11, 2001, as bowing to political correctness and declaring war on a “tactic” – terrorism – rather than selecting an actual enemy.

Clint’s excellent sermon last week unpacked the question of Christian liberty versus the two “ditches” of legalism and license. In light of that theme, I can’t help looking at the column I read as something of a parable for sanctification.

One of the attractions of legalism is that, by prescribing rules and regulations to fight sin, it seems to make the fight against sin “doable.” The problem is that legalism, at its best, only addresses symptoms rather than the cause of man’s problem. Just as the Israeli columnist accused the United States of going to war against a tactic rather than properly defining its enemy, legalism goes to war against particular sins rather than properly defining the Christian’s enemy as being his or her innate sinfulness.

In other words, we need to understand that just as the terrorism the West has been fighting for decades arises as a consequence of the worldview and values of its enemies, individual sins arise as manifestations or practical applications of the sinful nature we have each inherited from Adam. Those sins are in one sense merely tactics used by our enemy. Even if we succeed in nullifying them, the enemy still exists and will find other ways to fight.

Our failure to identify our true enemy really is a result of failing to identify who we are in relation to God. Our innate sinfulness is, really, a failure to believe, a failure to allow our identity to be shaped and rooted in Christ. Rather than accepting and rejoicing in our status as created beings, possessed completely by and beholden exclusively to the God who gives us life and breath, we by nature reject the authority of God over us by doubting his Word (“hath God really said?”) and attempt to substitute our own. And because our sinfulness is fundamentally such an identity problem, our entire perspective is skewed.

This skewed perspective on ourselves and on God leads inexorably to a skewed assessment of our own problems. Even the Christian believer struggles to consistently live and believe as if his identity is rooted in Christ, and struggles to consistently think God’s thoughts after him. As a result, we are instead tempted to view sins the same way the unbelieving world looks at all its problems: as challenges arising from our own victimization by others, or unforeseen external circumstances, or even human frailty and mistakes—anything other than a deep-seated problem within ourselves.

The world resists that conclusion because it calls into question the trustworthiness of its own fundamental authority, that being man at the centre of the universe and captain of his own ship. Even believers have a hard time resisting the tendency to think the same way; having been conditioned by an unbelieving culture to think that same way, we will find it difficult to accept the “foolish” claims of the gospel about the fundamental nature of man and sin. It is simply easier to see individual sins and sinful habits as our enemy than it is to truly face the horrific nature of the beast within.

And because sin and its attendant problems are so immediate, so “in your face,” dominating our situation in the here and now, the promise of Christ to the believer that the sin is already broken and that the time is coming when we will be delivered from this body of sin and death seems distant, far off. We want the problems fully and finally dealt with now, here. We want our “best life now.” And legalism, by defining the problem as being merely the acts themselves, re-casts the problem of sin as one solvable by human effort. It’s attractive because it is immediate and simple. However, our fundamental problem is neither.

As Christians, we need to resist this temptation. We need to maintain the aim that the Gospel sets before us: the glory of God in the face of Christ, a view of Christ that has become the very thing that defines us and shapes us and makes us who we are. Recognizing that, seizing on that, embracing and rejoicing in that, shows us by stark contrast what we used to be: self-centred and rebellious by nature, God-haters that desired only our own autonomy. It shows us by stark contrast, as we examine ourselves, that those urges yet remain in the sinful nature we continue to fight. And it reminds us that the journey of sanctification simply cannot be won by rules and regulations that keep us away from particular sins, for we fight against our very (former) nature itself, a nature that is still with us.