3 Legal Formalism

By John Thiel, Removing Delusions and Fallacies Series, mp3

Scripture reading: Isaiah 54:7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. 8 In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer.

1 Corinthians 13:2 And though I have [the gift of] prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

This is the delusion that we are now looking into:

…to receive the theory of the Word without accepting and appreciating the Author makes men legal formalists. {20MR 307.5}

Even though I am a legal formalist who really stands firm in the theory of the word, who has the gift of prophecy, and understands all mysteries, and understands all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am deluded. I am nothing. This is serious material. We are called upon to lay off this legal formalism, this delusion and fallacy.

We might know it all, but the love that is missing makes that knowledge delusionary.

When this church [Ephesus] is weighed in the balance of the sanctuary, it is found wanting, having left its first love. The True Witness declares, “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted” (Revelation 2:2, 3). Notwithstanding all this, the church is found wanting. What is the fatal deficiency? {1SM 370.2} 

What are they fatally deluded with?

–“Thou hast left thy first love.” Is not this our case? Our doctrines may be correct; we may hate false doctrine, and may not receive those who are not true to principle; we may labor with untiring energy; but even this is not sufficient. What is our motive? Why are we called upon to repent?–“Thou hast left thy first love.” {Ibid.

Let each member of the church study this important warning and reproof. Let each one see if in contending for the truth, if in debating on the theory, he has not lost the tender love of Christ. Has not Christ been left out of the sermons, and out of the heart? Is there not danger that many are going forward with a profession of the truth, doing missionary work, while the love of Christ has not been woven into the labor? This solemn warning from the True Witness means much; it demands that you shall remember from whence you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works; “or else,” says the True Witness, “I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:5). O that the church might realize its need of its first ardor of love! When this is wanting, all other excellences are insufficient. The call to repentance is one that cannot be disregarded without peril. A belief in the theory of the truth is not enough. To present this theory to unbelievers does not constitute you a witness for Christ. {1SM 370.3}

The Laodicean mentality is, “We are rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing. We have the pure truth! and we are going forward upholding pure truth in the last days.” But if we hold it in the theory of it, arguing the truth without love, we are in a delusion; because a belief in the theory of the truth is not enough. We are not witnesses for Christ just because we present this theory to unbelievers.

The light that gladdened your heart when you first understood the message for this time, is an essential element in your experience and labors, and this has been lost out of your heart and life. Christ beholds your lack of zeal, and declares that you have fallen, and are in a perilous position. {Ibid.

This is the dilemma, the delusion and the fallacy that drives many a Seventh-day Adventist, and especially a reformer. What is my motive to be a reformer? When I first accepted the beautiful messages that redeemed me from my past errors, what blossomed inside of me but love? And then, after a period of time, the love that I had has become chilled, sometimes by those who had been in the church for a long time and who lost their first love. And then, with the chilling experience of the challenges that we meet we lose sight of the Author of the truth, and still cling to the theory of it.

…to receive the theory of the Word without accepting and appreciating the Author makes men legal formalists. {20MR 307.5}

Because if we are upholding all the knowledge of the truth, all the prophecies, everything, if we are promoting all this and yet have lost the Author of that, what have we lost?

1 John 4:16 And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.

So if we have the theory of the truth, if we can argue definitely in favour of the truth, but we have lost sight of the Author of the truth, we have lost love; because God is love.

The reiteration of pure truth can actually lead me into a delusion, which is legal formalism.

Man must not only read the Word of God, supposing that a casual knowledge of this Word will bring about in him a reformation of character. This work only the One who is the way, the truth, and the life can accomplish. Firmly may certain doctrines of truth be held. Again and again they may be reiterated, till the holders come to think that they are indeed in possession of the great blessings which these doctrines represent. {Ev 290.1}

Can you see what is leading up to this delusion? There is a delusion that we have the blessings that these doctrines represent.

But the greatest, most powerful truths may be held, and yet kept in the outer court, exerting little influence to make the daily life wholesome and fragrant. The soul is not sanctified through the truth that is not practiced.–Letter 16, 1892. {Ibid.}

It may be preached, it may be upheld in theory, but it is not practised. As we examine ourselves in regards to delusions and fallacies that must be laid off, let us really examine where we stand in our own personal lives. Is my daily life fragrant? A fragrant life is such a beautiful atmosphere. Is it wholesome? This is where the love, the connection with the Author of the truth we hold, will bring forth that fragrance and wholesomeness.

The Author of that truth is saying in Revelation, You say you are rich and increased with goods, but you do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. It is a delusion. I am basking in the thought that I know the truth; I am representing it to the people exactly as it is meant to be represented as fact, but the life is not wholesome and fragrant. What must I learn from this? Where lies the delusion? Let us fine-tune our comprehension and learn the meaning of the words, “Let those who have been deluded give up all their fallacies.”

Are there some fallacies in my life? Do I have delusions that I still harbour and which prevent my life from being fragrant and wholesome? And what must I do to give up that which is preventing this? I need to give up something that I am sure of and that I am relying on. I am not to give up the truth, but something that I am relying on and which makes me deluded.

Sorrow and Woe

It is imperative that we get this message clear from Inspiration. This is not me who wants to do the talking; this is an examination of the word of inspiration that will enlighten me. I need it as much as any one of you. I am not here to put across what I think we must give up. This is the way it is explained under the inspiration of the Testimony of Jesus:

All legalism, all the sorrow and woe by which you may encompass yourself, will not give you one moment of relief. You cannot rightly estimate sin. You must accept God’s estimate, and it is heavy indeed. {BEcho, July 2, 1894 par. 3}

Here is something interesting: legalism is connected to sorrow and woe. One would think that if I am filled with sorrow and woe over my shortcomings I am on the right path. But it says here that this “will not give you one moment of relief.” I am in a delusion! I think that I am doing the right thing, I am sorrowful and woeful, and I encompass myself with this sorrow and woe about my condition, and yet I am not relieved. And the Spirit of Prophecy has put legalism to that. This is legalism? It is somewhat hard to identify, isn’t it?

Ponder upon this. Legalism and sorrow for sin are bundled together in those words of Inspiration. What has legalism to do with sorrow for sin? I thought sorrow for sin was the right thing. What am I deluded with? What is the delusion? In the chapter where the following statement is found, Sr. White speaks about the Pharisee, and then about the Laodicean. After quoting the words of Jesus to the Laodicean, she says:

The gold tried in the fire is faith that works by love. Only this can bring us into harmony with God. We may be active, we may do much work; but without love, such love as dwelt in the heart of Christ, we can never be numbered with the family of heaven. {COL 158.2}

And what follows is the heart of our consideration:

No man can of himself understand his errors. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9. The lips may express a poverty of soul that the heart does not acknowledge. While speaking to God of poverty of spirit, the heart may be swelling with the conceit of its own superior humility and exalted righteousness. {COL 159.1}

There is the legalism. I am feeling bad about me, but while I am feeling bad about my sins and the way that I appreciate my sinfulness, at the same time there is something inside of me that rises with pride, and while I am expressing my sinful condition, speaking to God of poverty of spirit, my heart may be swelling with the conceit of its own superior humility and exalted righteousness.

In one way only can a true knowledge of self be obtained. We must behold Christ. {Ibid.}

Here is the Author of the theory. We may have the truth, but we might not be connected with the Author. In one way only can we see really what we are like, and we will not encompass ourselves with sorrow, because we are not going to get relief by that. When we contemplate the Author, then something happens.

It is ignorance of Him that makes men so uplifted in their own righteousness. When we contemplate His purity and excellence, we shall see our own weakness and poverty and defects as they really are. We shall see ourselves lost and hopeless, clad in garments of self-righteousness, like every other sinner. We shall see that if we are ever saved, it will not be through our own goodness, but through God’s infinite grace. {Ibid.}

We shall see that when we see the Author of the theory of our truth. We can’t see it simply by knowing the theory of the truth. I am called upon to understand what it is that I am deluded by. We may encompass ourselves with sorrow, but this is legalism. Why? Because we are not in touch with the Author; we only look at the theory of what we are doing wrong, and it does make me feel sad about myself, but then, because I know the theory of the gospel as well, I think, Oh well, that’s the way I’m meant to feel; I’m a good Christian, because I’m feeling bad about my sins; and therefore I am acceptable to God… I’m better than others. A strange delusion, isn’t it? This is the Pharisaic mentality of the Laodicean people. The person who is theoretically affected by his condition is not really appreciating the love; he has lost the love. The love is missing. The Ephesians had lost their first love, although they were still so faithful to all the truth.

Legalism Unveiled

What is the legalist doing that he needs to discover and give up?

You cannot rightly estimate sin. {BEcho, July 2, 1894 par. 3}

Through the theory of the truth you cannot rightly estimate sin.

You must accept God’s estimate, {Ibid.}

Can you see what we must give up? I must give up my estimation of what my sins are, and I must embrace the estimate that God has put upon my sin. This is the reason why the legalist stops there: because he doesn’t like it when God shows him his sin. Remember, the Jews crucified Christ because He showed them up for what they really were. You ask yourself the question, If someone shows you up what a terrible person you are, do you like that? A formalist by no means like that.

You must accept God’s estimate, and it is heavy indeed. If you bore the guilt of your sin, it would crush you; {Ibid.}

The true relationship with the Author of the theory of the truth we carry, will make such a heavy burden upon my shoulders that I would be crushed. But if I will accept that estimate of God, then I will be introduced to the truth and not the fallacy.

If you bore the guilt of your sin, it would crush you; but the sinless One has taken your place, and though undeserving, He has borne your guilt. By accepting the provision God has made, you may stand free before Him in the merit and virtue of your Substitute. {Ibid.}

Can you actually identify the struggle that goes on within the natural man? There is this struggle of, I don’t like to see myself as I really am; it’s too heavy; it’s crushing me! And then if the suggestion comes forward, Well, why don’t you just look to Jesus; there is a sort of a resistance. As it is written, the closer you come to Jesus, the worst you feel. And who wants to do that? The legalist doesn’t. The legalism in me, the formality of Christian assurances, does not do this. I need to actually cast off the idea that I am okay even if I feel sorry for my sin; I must let God’s estimate roll upon me, and then look on and stay there! I must stay there and let that which is rolled upon me in all its burden be released by the sinless One who has taken my place.

Give up your estimate of sin, and take on God’s estimate. This is the answer. Give up the delusion that you carry about yourself, your own estimate of yourself. This whole article of Sr. White is entitled, Not Self, But Christ. It is my estimate of myself that has to be laid off. My estimate must come from God who reveals to me my crushing discovery of myself, humbles me to the dust, and tells me to look up and realise that He is there, that He has taken all my guilt and everything that crushes me, and replaces it with His righteousness.

You have been pronounced a sinner, and Christ has announced Himself a Saviour. Accept the remedy God has provided for you in a sin-pardoning Saviour. How would you have felt had you been in the camp of Israel, and seen the people groaning and shrieking in distress because of their swollen and painful wounds, when the brazen serpent was uplifted, and when by one look they might be healed? Would you not have exclaimed, “why do they not look at the uplifted serpent? How strange it is that they do not perform the one simple act by which they may receive healing!” But is it not as inconsistent for you to refuse to look at the crucified Saviour? Heed the invitation: “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” {Ibid. par. 5}

In this struggle of self-examination we put an estimate upon our sins according to the theory of the truth, but we keep it separate from the Author. But as I look at the Author, that is too heavy. And then I see my wounds that Satan has created by biting me, and I am there writhing in the anguish and pain which is crushing and destroying me, and the Lord wants me to stop hanging on to my own righteousness and look totally to the righteousness of Christ and His atonement with me in my painful, serpent-bitten state.

Not Self, But Christ

Legal formalism has to do with surrounding myself with sorrow.

It is in looking upon our sinful condition, and talking and mourning over our wretchedness, that distress becomes more keen, and pain accumulates. {Ibid. par. 1}

We talk about it from our perspective; but

Let the sinner arise in the strength of Jesus; for he has no strength of his own, and let him assert his liberty. Let him believe that the Lord has spoken truth, and trust in Him, whatever may be the feelings of the heart. Let the sinner say, I will look away from my own misery, from the wound of the serpent, to the uplifted Saviour, who has said, “Him that cometh to Me, I will in nowise cast out.” Look upon Jesus. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” {Ibid.}

It is your privilege to believe that Christ has borne your sins; {Ibid. par. 2}

It is your privilege to believe that;

…for God hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. You are under the shelter of the sure refuge, under the cover of the atoning blood of the acceptable sacrifice. {Ibid.}

All legalism, all the sorrow and woe by which you may encompass yourself, will not give you one moment of relief. {Ibid. par. 3}

As I am examining myself in these statements, I can see the natural heart that is always struggling with the revelations that God is placing upon me. And now I see the delusion. I see then that I am looking at my depraved condition from myself, and I must put that away. I must just let God illuminate me by His estimate of sin. And as I let Him do that, I am crushed. And the more I let Him the more crushed I feel, but I see it through the Author and He immediately stands there and comforts me with a comfort that is indescribable. While we hang on in our legalistic self-examination, because we know the truth, we are continually going down and down in our emotions and stress and difficulties, and we think we are doing the right thing, when really we are doing the wrong thing altogether.

We are to be totally relieved from the crushing blow of God’s estimate of sin and let Him take this burden off us. This is a direct revelation of the Pharisee that I must put away:

…is it not as inconsistent for you to refuse to look at the crucified Saviour? {Ibid. par. 5}

This is what we fail to do; we keep on looking at me.

Heed the invitation: “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; {Ibid.}

The thoughts that the theory of the word generates within me I must put away.

Why should the repenting sinner forsake his thoughts?–It is because they are not in accordance with truth. {Ibid.par. 6}

But I thought I had the truth.

He is tempted to believe that because of his sins God has given him up to the will of his enemy, and that there is no pardon for so great a sinner as he. {Ibid.}

You see, when you break through that barrier of formalism and theoretical truth you discover, “Help! This is too bad… I am so bad that I am never going to make it.” Have you been through that? That is legalism! Follow carefully now, because this is our saving grace that is written here:

But all these thoughts are dishonouring to God, because man is God’s possession, both by creation and redemption. {Ibid.}

Did you notice that when you hold on to the Pharisaic self-judgment over yourself you are dishonouring God? We dishonour God when we hang on to this and we encompass ourselves with sorrow. We don’t break through the barrier. But here is the answer. Don’t dishonour God anymore; because man is God’s possession, both by creation and redemption.

“God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him [as his personal Saviour, and accepts Him as the only provision whereby he can be saved] should not perish, but have everlasting life.” You are one of the “whosoever may believe.” But while you cherish unbelief, and permit feeling to govern you, your case will look hopeless to yourself. Forsake these unbelieving thoughts. {Ibid.}

Forsake the sorrow of legalism. Forsake the delusion; give it up! because it does not harmonise with the love of Christ. It doesn’t harmonise; it is a contradiction within your mind.

God says: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” {Ibid.}

O to grasp this in reality in our own experience is so essential – to give up the delusion of legalism. Again, what is it?

All legalism, all the sorrow and woe by which you may encompass yourself, will not give you one moment of relief. {Ibid.par. 3}

We will not get one moment of relief from that.

Christ is the friend of sinners. When the scribes and Pharisees accused Him of eating, with publicans and sinners, Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” If you feel yourself to be the greatest of sinners, then Christ is just what you need; for He is the greatest of Saviours. Lift up your head, and look away from yourself, away from the poisoned wound of the serpent, to the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world. What will all your groaning and the torturing of your soul avail? You may entertain thoughts that condemn you, but in them there is no salvation. Put away your thoughts, and receive the thoughts of God, through which your mind may be elevated, your soul purified and uplifted. The Lord says: “For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.” Why will you carry your burden of sin, when Christ has come to be your burden bearer? Roll your sins at the foot of the cross. Unload! unload! He takes away the sins of the world. “I, even I am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” {Ibid.par. 4}

As you consider those words of Isaiah and you know the sufferings of Jesus at the cross, can you see Him suffering under the condemnation that you and I suffer? “For a small moment have I forsaken Thee.” Is that exactly what Jesus went through? That word applies to Him and to me. “In a little wrath I hid My face from Thee for a moment;” God hid His face from Jesus for a moment; but Jesus battled through the barrier that you and I must battle through, and which we must choose to battle through to get out of this state of legalism; and if we will do what Jesus did, then we will experience what is written: “In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.”

Are we releasing ourselves from the delusion of the Pharisaic, Laodicean legalism? It is a delusion. I think that what I know in theory is right, and I am carrying about a burden that can never be lifted unless I am in connection with the Author of the truth that I uphold (in the way that we have here considered). So let us go to and do this thing.

Put away your thoughts, and receive the thoughts of God.

Amen.

(Illustration by John Heseltine and Pam Masco, used under CC BY)

Posted on November 17, 2017, in Divine Service Sermons, Removing Delusions and Fallacies Series and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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