The Chinese church in which my parents came to faith was likely much like yours: beautiful, messy, and imperfect. Any body of believers is made up of the sinful, sick, dysfunctional, and hurting—all of us who realize we’re hopeless apart from the grace of God. Ours just happened to sing songs in Mandarin and followed every service with a potluck of epic proportions that always included Auntie Liu’s famous chow fun and our Malaysian-born pastor’s fish head stew. Get yourself to an Asian church service, friends, and stay afterward. You won’t be sorry.
What makes the church beautiful is that it is diverse and not monolithic in the way believers worship, the instruments they use, or the way they incorporate their heritages or cultural contexts. But at times, we can let cultural norms and values influence the gospel in a way that causes us to believe that Jesus plus something else saves us. I think one of the reasons why I’ve had a complicated battle with striving and performance is, in part, due to the fact that Asian culture is itself prone to legalism.
If legalism, as we understand it in the Bible, is an adherence to rules and moral goodness as a way to appease God, it’s similar in its focus to the idol worship found in many Asian cultures. The goal in these religions is to appease a god through the right set of actions. Good actions lead to (hopefully) a desired response from the god you worship. Cause and effect. Burn the incense, bring the offering, follow the rules.
When I was in my tween years—when my parents were young believers, doing the best they knew how to lead their family in this newfound faith they didn’t fully understand—my mother would offer what she thought was a helpful remedy to my problems. If I said, “I had such a hard day at school,” her response would be, “Did you have your quiet time?” While it wouldn’t be her response now, as a more mature believer, it was her default back then as someone new in the faith. Back then, it was her natural bent to think of God as a deity who grants favor when we’ve followed the rules or behaved properly, withholding favor when we don’t. Doing or not doing my “devotions” seemed akin to bowing or not bowing correctly. My blessings depended on it. I grew to waffle back and forth between feeling confident in my well-kept “quiet times” and feeling condemned that I brought a hard day on myself when I missed one. Believing and acting this way leaves you fearful, unsure, always waiting for the other favor-shoe to drop. It’s exhausting to try to avoid punishment with good behavior. That’s where legalism leaves you.
Of course, years later, I now understand the benefit of spending time in the Word, whether I call it “devotions” or not. The magic isn’t in the formula of a praise song, short reading, verse memory, and prayer. I don’t secure a carefree or conflict-free day (or life) by clocking time in the Word. The goal, instead, is to know my savior more deeply through worship and the study of his love letter to me, his Word. But how do we move from obligation to delight, legalism to love? And if legalism is so bad and ineffective, why did God give us his law or his rules in the first place?
The Law Was Never Meant to Save
Though it marks the beginning of a believer’s transformation as a new creation, the work of grace, in the sense that it was poured out on us through the crucifixion of Jesus, is the finish line mankind has long ached for. Jesus finally accomplished what human beings could not. That’s what he meant when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus declared his work of redemption a finished work because before then, the people of God could not satisfy God’s righteous and holy requirements simply through rule following or adhering to the Law. They tried and tried. They made offerings, they made rules for the rules, and they continually sought to close the gap between God’s holiness and their fallenness.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:23–24)
Another version states verse 24 this way: “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ” (NKJV).
In other words, God’s righteous requirements of his people could never be met by their own efforts and only served to remind them how much they needed a savior. The Law drove them to understand their need for redeeming grace. Simply put—if you feel like God has impossible standards, you’re right. The amazing grace of God is that he fulfilled his own standards on your behalf through the perfect finished work of Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection. The efforts to restore a right relationship with God through rule-f ollowing and rituals were a futile and vain pursuit, leaving God’s people worn out and unable to fulfill the Law’s demands, so “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). When we try and fulfill those standards once again with moral and right living, we choose the very legalism Christ came to destroy.
The result of Christ’s redemptive work was that we would be made wholly fit for the Holy Spirit to dwell within us, enabling us to no longer work to try and gain access to the Father but to be children, trained and equipped to do as he instructs.