Who me, a legalist?

No, I’m not given to road rage, even if for the simple reason that venting your anger at other drivers in Southern California is risky business. I’m not going to roll down my window, or yell, or make obscene gestures.

Besides, someone from church might see. Whoops.

I will confess, though, that I’m not above an angry sideways glare now and again. Or a quick lane change to pass someone who’s just cut me off. Of course, I wouldn’t do it if my wife was in the car. But an exasperated, snarky comment or two might still escape, which at best, she tolerates with grace and patience, or at worst, greets with a sigh.

Men.

What all of this suggests is that despite all the time I spend communicating the gospel in one way or another, despite that message of grace, part of my brain is still in the grip of legalism. I expect people to follow the rules (some of which, naturally, are my rules), and when they cross the line (you know, those white stripy things on the freeway?) the condemnation is swift, even if it’s only a silent condemnation in the privacy of my thoughts.

Only God hears those condemnations.

But it matters.

. . .

That may sound like a strange association, but it’s one of the things I think of when reading Paul’s description of his preaching ministry to King Agrippa. He’s just told Agrippa about his conversion experience on the road into Damascus, during which he discovered the truth about Jesus. There was no refusing a commission like that, one that knocks you flat and robs you of sight:

After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. (Acts 26:19-20, NRSV)

After three long days of blindness in Damascus, Paul began preaching a gospel of repentance, proving to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9:22).  He riled up enough people that they plotted to kill him (vs. 23). Escaping to Jerusalem, he riled up even more people with his preaching, so that this time it was the Hellenistic Jews who wanted to do away with him (vs. 29). And later, of course, Paul’s missionary activity took him around to different regions of the Roman Empire, preaching to Jews and Gentiles alike.

His message was always one of repentance: “Repent, turn to God, and do deeds consistent with that repentance.”

Does that sound a little like legalism?

It’s not. Having met Jesus, Paul turned aside from his previous commitment to the law-based kind of righteousness at which he excelled. These things he now regarded as “rubbish” (a polite way of translating a word that often refers to…umm…something you’d flush down a toilet) compared to knowing Jesus and the kind of righteousness that’s based on faith in him (Phil 3:4-9).

That does not mean, of course, that anything goes. Repentance means more than just changing your mind; it means changing the way you live. “If you really understand what grace is about,” Paul might say, “then that truth has to show in the way that you live.” It’s not about trying to be better or more “righteous” than someone else, but living with astonished gratefulness that we as sinners have been given the grace in which we stand. 

. . .

Sad to say, when I’m out there on the freeway, my attitude is often not, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’m annoyed by what I perceive as other people’s  selfish, inconsiderate behavior. I get to enjoy a moment of righteous indignation, with an implied spiritual pat on the back: “How rude. I would never do something like that.”

Even if that were true, that attitude is not in keeping with repentance, with the knowledge that I could be the best and most courteous driver in the world and still have to depend entirely upon the cross to get even a toenail across the threshold of heaven.

I guess I’m a recovering legalist. So are many of you. And really, wouldn’t astonished gratitude be a better way to live?

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