Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Religion of Formulas

    I am admittedly a recovering (I hope mostly recovered) legalist. No, I never believed that I earned my salvation by how good a person I was. I never would have agreed with anyone that I could somehow save myself. But somehow, I still fell prey to the lie that my standing with God was dependent on how good a person I was.

    And I use the word "good" very loosely, as I will explain through this article. See, for myself, and several other young homeschoolers in similar circles, as I have agreed, the "good" that God was looking at was not my heart. No, God had much higher aims than that! No, I looked at God with a much more formulaic approach.

    See, the God I believed in was a God of formulas. If you used, for example, courtship to find your spouse instead of dating, you were in some way superior and more deserving of God's favor. Take it a step further, if you did a no kiss courtship, wow, God must really be wanting to bless you. If you did a no touch courtship, double wow! God's ultimate formula has been kept, and now He is actually pleased with you.

    In this system of thought, God has different measures of pleasure, one, say, for the Christian who simply gives as he as extra money, a second, deeper pleasure for the one who tithes scrupulously, and even a third for the one who gives generously.

    It is not a religion of grace and unmerited favor, but rather a religion based solely on formulas and opinions, standards and skewed misconceptions. My view of God was not the majestic Creator who lowered Himself to His creation, but rather a Lord who died for our sins and was resurrected in order to watch us struggle harder and harder to earn His favor.

    It's not just in this way that we show the formulaic basis of many of our beliefs. For one thing, we show it everyday when we use phrases such as "That shouldn't have happened to him! He was such a nice guy..." or "he had it coming!" We have it ingrained in our minds that good things happen to good people because they innately deserve it, and bad things happen to bad people because they innately deserve that!

   However, when we meet Jesus, our new understanding of the world should strike a blow to this whole concept. Suddenly, the world is not as black and white as it once was, because evil man that I am, I am blessed for something I didn't do, and the righteous Lamb died horribly for something He did not do. The gospel itself is the complete antithesis of formulaic faith, because it broke every formula.

    The cross shatters a deathblow to this idea of man getting what he deserves based on his actions. Frankly, the Bible teaches that men, since we are all evil, deserve only the wrath of God in hell. But completely against every recognized system of thought, perfect goodness suffered in order to bring blessings and goodness to ultimate evil. That's inconsistent with the formulaic view of faith.

    Unfortunately, many of us, like me, unintentionally carry over these ideas into our saved life and begin treating our relationship with Christ similarly. If I want God to be happiest with me, I need to enforce the highest standards on my life. Another manifestation of this mental concept is to fall pray to the building of strict, extra-Biblical systems to prevent sin or even temptation.

    The problem? Intentional or otherwise, when we combine formulas with faith, faith gradually falls away. There's a very reasonable explanation for that. Formulas are things we do ourselves, think up ourselves, and implement ourselves. They're the tangible, safe methods of the Christian walk. They're the mental checklist to save me from sin, the safe, solid ground when I'm uncertain.

    Faith is the direct opposite. Faith is trust in something outside ourselves and must be given by One greater than ourselves. Faith is the call to the dangerous in the Christian life. Faith is the call to jump off the safe, solid ground and into the arms of Jesus.

    When we try to build a formulaic religion, the word that comes to mind is "safe". Suddenly, your life is planned out! When you meet girl Sally (I use that name cause I don't know any Sally's) you want to marry, she must be like this and believe this. You will ask her this question, and this question, and check off the boxes on your checklist. You'll ask her father this and this, and then you'll do this and this...

     And life is so safe. It's clean and risk free. As long as the formula is met, then she must be the girl for you, or this job must be God's will for you. But you may see the problem. Amid all the formulaic questions and checklists, where is the dependence on the Holy Spirit? Where is the need for a trust in God beyond my human understanding?

    See, a life lived by formula, by a checklist of high standards that will keep me from falling into sin is much easier, much more simple than a life lived by faith and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to do things that break those checklists is to live a life of faith, faith in a God who leads us sometimes into situations that are difficult to understand.

    A mental checklist of right and wrong extra-Biblical standards is very easy. As an example, I've heard of the standard people apply to their lives to never speak online to a member of the opposite gender after 10:00 at night. Okay, fine. Sure, go for it! But what about when a friend goes through surgery and is stuck at home for hours, and the only convenient time to talk to her is at night? Suddenly, the checklist is now defining how much of a friend I can actually be.

    Checklists are fine. High standards are fine. But when they begin to replace faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit in your life, you got trouble. A religion of formulas doesn't need Jesus, because sin can be prevented by my formula!

    The Christian life doesn't work that way though. Life with Christ is not a journey made by more and more self-effort and higher set standards than everyone else. And His favor cannot be purchased by your painfully strict standards.

    Because His favor has been given! You don't have to earn it! God's love can't be earned by checklists, standards, morals, or anything else; it's given. And a life lived by faith is a life radically surrendered to follow Jesus' leading regardless of the intellectual and logical sense of His commands, or even the perceived wisdom in following through with them, even by the church.

    Formulaic Christianity leaves very little room for the working of Jesus Christ in our lives. If we already have our checklists laid out and our standards formed, and that's where our confidence lies to protect us from sin, then Jesus becomes simply a bonus to our morality rather than the basis of all goodness in us and blessings to us.

    Faith and self-reliant morality cannot walk together. Unmerited favor and merited love cannot stand side by side. If you are someone who struggles or has struggled with trying to define your religion by higher standards or checklists, please, please, please! -Jesus Christ is all you need. He gives His Word to guide and His Spirit to lead into all truth. You don't have to stay in bondage to an extra-Biblical rule sheet!


  1. Thank you so much for writing this!! I really needed to read this deep and very convicting article. You definitely have a talent for writing and sharing the Light. Thank you and keep it up!

    1. It was actually Taylor B. that wrote it! :)

    2. Thank you, Caitlyn! I'm so glad it was a blessing to you!