“The abundant life is a life that is constantly being beheaded by the truth.”
Legalism and Leadership
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
You may have had some experience with a “legalistic” church or Christian. We all know that a domineering leadership is a curse to the work of God, but so many people who make the decision to leave such ministries, or individuals, behind become “lawless” in their liberty. What’s really going on there, and what is the Bible’s solution for legalism?
As usual, the solution can be found in the primeval events in Genesis 1-3. The pattern of Adam’s testing is the foundation for all of history. The intention of God was for the external Law to become internal. Adam was to achieve a basic level of self-government, of self-legislation. He was to meditate on God’s Law, digest it, and expound upon it when required. As a leader, he was to govern those in his care with wisdom. That is, he was to make his own mini-laws based upon God’s inspired Law. God told Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. It appears that Adam had prohibited Eve from even touching it.
If Adam had repeated the Law when the serpent began his slander of God, it would have proved that the external Law, the “elemental principles” (stoicheia) had found a home in him. For Eve, the Law of God would have been embodied in Adam’s faith. For her, it would now be the Law of Adam.
We see the same thing in Christ. He finished off the “elemental” Mosaic Law by obeying it to the letter. It is now no longer the Law of Moses but the Law of Christ. And it is the Law of liberty because He makes us self-governing by His Spirit.
This brings us to the nature of spiritual leadership. Stoicheian Law is legal, but not relational. It is an external force, often enforced by coercion. Now, is this legalism? No. Legalism is not a failure because it enforces the law. The Law is good. But the Law is powerless.
So, Jesus sent us His Spirit to make relational what was previously only legal. Why, then, do Christian leaders have such a problem leading? Why don’t the saints just fall into line?
I think the reason is that we don’t understand how this is really supposed to work. When Adam stepped in to rescue Eve from the serpent, Eve would have found Adam simply irresistible. Their “legal” marriage was now also “relational.” He would have proven his love, not only for God, but for Eve.
Christian leadership is not to be simply relational. It is to be irresistible, that is, self-sacrificial. Douglas Wilson has illustrated this principle in many ways concerning family relationships. If a husband or father has “enough in the emotional bank account” of his wife or child, they will submit to his requirements as he images God to them.
When leaders are self-exalting instead of being self-sacrificial, they become manipulative. They do this by using their God-given role as legislators (writers of mini-laws) as a means of control rather than a means of protection and training. Instead of being advocates they become accusers. Their domain becomes elitist, inward-looking instead of outward looking. The Pharisees became so concerned about attending to the minor details of arbitrary man-made rules that they actually rejected the Laws of God. In some cases, these clouds of little legalisms were used to obscure their very real God-given responsibilities.
So, according to Jesus, how are we to disciple the nations? Our witness, like Jesus, is a combination of the Word and flesh. It is the Law lived out in a life. There will still be times when hands-on disciplinary action is required, as we see with the disciples, but overall they found Him simply irresistible. He could make such demands because their bank accounts were full. And, since His death and resurrection, so are ours. We, like they, understand His heart.
One of A. W. Tozer’s mottos was “Others may; I cannot.” When it came to himself, Tozer was a total legalist. When it came to others, he was a libertarian.  This exposes the sick heart of legalism, which ends up turning that on its head. The Pharisees were a den of serpents who obsessively enforced (or replaced) the stoicheia as a cover for their own lack of self-legislation. Their rule was a hypocritical tyranny. They misunderstood the liberty of Jesus and His disciples because He was self-legislating. He—with the disciples in tow—could pass right through their little legalistic walls like a resurrected Body, a new kind of Tabernacle. One who is self-legislating marches to the beat of a different drum. It is a beat that the Spirit-called human heart finds irresistible.
The Pharisees were indeed righteous, but their righteousness was manufactured, mimicked. It wasn’t a natural outflow. The only way to exceed such righteousness is to internalize the Law. And the only way to internalize the Law is to die. If I die, as Adam should have, as Jesus did, my spirit becomes irresistible, and gathers the Bride from the nations. When Adam dies, Eve can’t resist Him. In some sense, my obedience sends “my spirit” just as Jesus’ obedience sent His Spirit.
So, the cure for legalism is to be entirely legalistic but entirely relational. Self-sacrifice is the deforming knife that brings the transforming fire. Jesus was bound that I might be loosed. Now I have freedom. But my freedom is found in being bound for others, paying it forward. This means that my actions will rarely be consistent with the hard-and-fast rules of the world. It means I will be incredibly lawful but infinitely flexible. The abundant life is a life that is constantly being beheaded by the truth. If you are a Christian, you know this pain. It is the perfect marriage, a marriage of Law and Grace. God never disciplines us merely for our own sakes. It’s not about us, and in that sense our discipline isn’t even about Him. He’s not simply thinking about us or Himself. He is always thinking of others. That is what makes Him so irresistible! The more He refuses any hands-on control of His disciples, the greater His kingdom grows! 
God, help me to put this into practice. As I die to myself, make my witness irresistible to people. Let me be continually bound that others might be loosed.
 This is the foundation for the Biblical pattern of death and resurrection. See Binding and Loosing and Whose Freedom Are You?
 This relates to the Bible’s definition of voluntary baptism as the mark, the “uniform” of discipleship — take note you paedobaptists!