“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Today, I was baptized…
Some of you may ask, “Weren’t you baptized before? And at other times?”
There is always a story, and I would like to share my story leading to this momentous moment in my life.
Loyalty to Lists
Growing up, being a Christian meant to follow the rules and follow a certain image. Christians did certain things, didn’t do other things, and looked and were perceived in a certain way. In college, at Bob Jones University, this mentality was branded onto my soul. My life revolved around looking right, making sure I did not get into trouble, and keeping the correct list.
My loyalty was to a list. When I repented, I repented from bad behavior and turned to good Christian behavior. Sure, salvation was taught as from grace, but the Christian life was walking by a certain code of conduct drafted by people using verses to justify what things I should wear to church, what music I should listen to, what movies I consume, and how I should be perceived by the world around me.
My loyalty was doubted many times, because I did not prove how dedicated I was to the list. I was a slave to sin, but only traded that slavery for a slavery of self-sufficiency. God was not pleased unless I followed these rules. His blessings were held or given based on my loyalty. It was like living in a rewards program. I saw so many people rewarded, so I worked harder and harder to prove my loyalty.
Yet, how many counseling sessions and Bible classes at Bob Jones University, accountability partners, and church services could I make a spiritual decision and still fall short of the loyalty club? I could never measure up. How much did I spend on books to help me? Probably, hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars.
Jesus did not want me since I could not perfectly keep his rules. Looks right, talk correctly, be perceived in a good light became my overwhelming thoughts. The hammering headache became too much. March 2020, I decided to silence it for good.
I wasn’t living in loyalty to Christ. I was living in loyalty to a list. Which, in reality, I was living in legalism.
The Deceived Delivered
May 2020, I left Bob Jones University. I walked away. It was not healthy for my mental or spiritual health. In fact, it was like drinking poison hoping the next dose would cure me.
The months that followed I spent figuring myself out and figuring out God. It wasn’t until I met some unusual people (who are now the closest friends I’ve ever had) that something happened. Bible reading was far from my mind. I struggled with it since all I saw was rules, images, and a burden which almost killed me (literally).
May 2021 came, and I opened to Galatians. My heart started pounding. This book wasn’t about work-based salvation, but about work-based sanctification! Galatians 2:21 sucker-punched me: “I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.” I John smashed through walls revealing to me God’s true commands were only to believe on Jesus and to love one another (I John 3:23-24).
I couldn’t put the Bible down. I saw it everywhere: God loves me, he fulfilled the law, the new covenant is not about my perfection, but his! I had been beating myself up for decades over not being good enough. I said the “Sinner’s Prayer” so many times, but Christian living was a burden I wasn’t ready for. Why wasn’t I? Because I was deceived. Men taught me to follow rules. My savior was ultimately how closely I conformed to the fundamentalist, Bob Jones University image. Jesus was only there at salvation, and after I had to do the rest.
This was a burden never meant for me. Those men were just like the pharisees loading people down with burdens of man-made traditions (Luke 11:46). They removed the key to eternal life and joy (Jesus). Instead, I was forced to jump through hoops hoping to find a smiling God at the end of the obstacle course (Luke 11:52).
My eyes were opened. I was sitting at Barnes and Noble that day crying. In my journal, I wrote:
“Heavenly Father, I have been deceived about you, your gift of salvation, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and me. I believed I wasn’t good enough. I had to prove myself. All my years I tried to feel your love when it was already there. I believed you hated me and cursed me because I couldn’t reach the next spiritual level. I believed, but I believed a lie. I lived out this lie and it affected and infected everything. It became about me proving myself to you and others to hopefully be blessed. That is the lie I lived. I lived a false gospel. Jesus was just a means to an end; not a relationship of freedom to live. I repent of this lie in my heart and mind. I turn from it, and not to a way of rules and right living, but to Jesus. You love me and want me, so you sent Jesus to free me to be who you you created me to be – not a slave, but a son. A slave is only loved by his performance, but a son is loved unconditionally. So God, heal my mind from these lies. Forgive me for living contrary to your gospel and give me a heart to follow Jesus’ love and grace. I believe and confess this is what is true. No more proofs, rules, standards, and images – only Jesus. Thank you for revealing this blindness and opening my eyes to the truth. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” (May 25, 2021)
Separated to the Spirit
“Separation” was a buzzword in college. I was separated to living right, looking right, and being a good Christian example. But, what was never talked about was truly being separated to the Spirit. We talked about the holiness of Jesus, right doctrine, defending the faith, but loving others and the love of Jesus were not there. I cannot remember a lesson about love in my theology classes or seminary classes. The only thing I remember is how professors would mock Christians who focused too much on the love Christ “when, instead, we should be holy.”
It is the love of Christ which causes us to be holy (separated) unto the Spirit. Holiness without Christ’s love is only legalism.
As I stood in line waiting to be baptized, the worship team sang Living Hope. So many times I sang that at Bob Jones University. Today, those words brought tears to my eyes. My hope isn’t found in my loyalty to lists, but in a perfect savior.
In my past, so many people “bet” on the longevity of my spiritual decisions, and used them against me to get me back on the “right path.” Jesus does not do that. Baptism does not celebrate my perfection or my decision to live in loyalty to a list. It is a symbol picturing leaving my past behind and moving forward only towards Jesus by being separated to the Spirit.
As I was lifted out of the water, legalism lost its grip on me. Strivings cease, because perfection could never earn it. A slave is loved based on his performance, but a son is loved unconditionally. I was never created to perform. I was created to connect and to love, because I am loved.
I was baptized today. Why? Because I am turning away from a legalistic noose to the life given freely by Jesus.
August 8, 2021 – The day I publicly leave the fundamentalist and legalistic mindset, and turn to Jesus. He is my living hope.
4 thoughts on “Out Of Legalism Into Life”
what a testimony!! Thank you for sharing this!
Awesome Stephen ! Thanks for sharing this beautiful step in your journey with God.
I could echo much of your spiritual journey. Freedom in God’s Grace is true freedom of soul and relationship with a Heavenly Father Who loves you more than you can grasp. Just accept it. Revel in it. Rest in it.
Good point of being “loyal to a list” instead of loyal to the New Covenant teachings of Jesus