Spirit of Grace Ministries
Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Confessions of a Legalist

Proud Pharisee

by Dennis Pollock

Legalism has always come very naturally to me. I suppose it may have something to do with my "prophetic" personality which tends to see things in black and white.  For years I was a legalist and did not know it.  In my early days as a pastor I thought I understood all there was to know about grace.  And al­though I did indeed see that we were saved by grace, it took me many years to understand that we also live by grace, and minister by grace.    

Zealous Young Preacher

At twenty-five years of age I began preaching to a congregation of eight people who met in one another's homes in a little town in Missouri.  Zeal was something I had no lack of.  When I began to preach, I was certain that revival and great things were just around the corner.  With my preaching and God's blessing we were bound to become the largest church in town, or so I thought.  I worked hard to become a good preacher, diligently studying to create interesting and "dynamic" sermons.

Things didn't happen nearly as quickly as I thought they would.  The church did grow, but the growth came at a very slow and lethargic pace, not nearly rapidly enough to satisfy my youthful ambition.  During this time I began to read about some of the great revivalists and evangelists of the past; men like Charles Finney, John Wesley, D.L. Moody, and George Whitfield.  I also began to read books which described some of the great spiritual awakenings  which occurred throughout the history of the church.  As I read, I realized that these wonderful Holy Spirit outpourings were nearly always preceded by prayer.  It seemed that revival and prayer were divinely joined together in such a way that, whenever you found one you were sure to find the other.

By this time I had begun to realize that my preaching alone was not going to bring revival, and these books gave me hope that revival was still possible.  In those days I was like a man walking around in a daze, so thrilled was I at this new discovery.  I wasn't going to waste any time letting my congregation (now perhaps 70 people) know of these wonderful truths, and I soon began preaching on prayer and revival.  Although not as thrilled with it all as I was, they dutifully listened and did their best to follow along in this new direction.

Challenge to Pray

On one particular Sunday in February I challenged the people to commit themselves to diligently seek the Lord in prayer for the rest of that year and to faithfully come early before church every Sunday to pray together for God to move in the service.  At the end of the sermon I asked all who would so commit themselves to stand up and indicate their willingness to be one who would diligently seek the Lord.  I was ecstatic when nearly the entire congregation stood, and we covenanted together that day to pray.

The next Sunday morning our prayer room was filled to overflowing with the better part of our church family.  Warm-hearted prayers filled the air and I could hardly wait to see what God would do.  I was not disappointed.  That service seemed charged with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  There were more people than usual, the worship service was far richer than normal, and the entire service seemed to have a special blessing on it.  If I had needed any further con­firmation this was surely it!  I now knew the secret to church growth, Holy Spirit manifestation, and joyous worship was found in prayer.

For approximately a month we saw some unusual things.  New people started coming into the church as if drawn by a magnet.  The services lasted about an hour longer than normal, not because we were trying to stretch them out, but because the Holy Spirit was doing so many neat things that it just took longer to finally bring them to a close.  God's power began to be manifest in the services in amazing ways.  All in all it was a most interesting month.

But then things began to cool off.  I no­ticed that our pre-service prayer meetings were attracting less and less participants.  The worship services seemed to be returning to "normal" and that revival atmosphere was just not there.  Having seen what prayer could do, and fearing that we were missing it by slacking up on our praying, I began to preach some very strong messages on prayer and the necessity of maintaining our commitment.  These produced some superficial "repentings," but it became evident that many of the people really didn't have the heart to make a regular habit of coming early before service for prayer. 

“Get-with-it” Preaching

At this time in my life the majority of the sermons I preached were what I now call "get with it" sermons.  Mixing large measures of shame and condemnation with ample exhortations to zeal and action made for what I considered a pretty spiritual message.  Once in a while I tried to preach something a little more compassionate and merciful, but it didn't usually come out too well, in my opinion.  It just wasn't me.  It amazes me now that the congregation was so tolerant of me.  They endured a lot, and for the most part, "amen-ed" me and complimented my preaching.  (The Lord knew what He was doing when He gave me those faithful saints.  Few others would have put up with me.)

The dryer things got, the harder I preached, and the harder I preached the dryer things got.  The church stopped growing and began to decrease.  Rather than achieving the revival I was looking for, we were getting just the opposite.  One day one of our women told me, "It seems like we are under a curse."  And indeed we were!  What I didn't realize then, but have since seen, was that the law always brings a curse.  The apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, said, "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse" (Galatians 3:10). All my hard preaching against sin and exhortations to prayer and fasting had brought our little church under a curse just as surely as if we had all gone back under the die­tary and ceremonial laws of Moses.

Lessons Learned

It has been many years since that experience.  Over those years the Lord, in His faithfulness has taught me a few things about the ways of grace.  And while I have much yet to learn, I know that the things He has shown me have changed me from inner frustration to inner joy.

In my legalistic days I prided myself on being a Bible preacher.  I loved to search out truths and principles from the Scriptures and teach them to God's people.  And I learned a lot by doing this.  But what I did not realize was that I was not giving them the true manna their souls desperately needed.  Toward the end of that first pastorate the Lord revealed to me that I was not preaching Jesus Christ.  I was teaching on prayer and faith and revival and repentance, and a host of other Biblical subjects, but I was not making Jesus Christ the central theme of my ministry.  I could preach entire 45 minute sermons and hardly mention Him. 

Reading some of the sermons by Charles Finney began to show me this.  Finney was a man I greatly admired, and he was certainly not soft on matters of sin and righteousness.  So when He spoke I was ready to listen.  Here is one of his statements which first arrested me:

"Any course of instruction that presses duty without holding up Christ is like requiring labor without food and brings into bondage.  It is like requiring the Israelites to make brick without straw, and those who give such instruction are obliged to whip and scourge, and abuse the dear church of God to get the little service they do out of them.  Hold up duty without Christ, and legality is inevitable.  They are starved for lack of Christ."

When I read that it was like being hit by a thunderbolt!  It became suddenly very clear that all my forceful preaching was leaving the people starving for a knowledge of the One who is the source of life in us.  As I thought things through I realized that my great heroes in the faith, these great revivalists like Finney and Whitfield did not go around preaching on revival; they went around preaching Christ!  And while prayer is indeed important, it can never be the focal point of the church --- that is reserved for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. 

From those days until now I have earnestly en­deavored to make Jesus the star of every message I preach.  I haven't always succeeded, but it is always my goal.  If I preach on healing, I preach Jesus the Healer; if on victory over sin I preach Jesus, our Sanctifier and Deliverer; and if on the fullness of the Holy Spirit it is Jesus, the Baptizer and Fountain of the Living Waters.  I have come to see that our Christian service is not a matter of us going out to work for the Lord with God supplying a little help now and then.  Rather it is Jesus Christ living His life out in us by the power of His Spirit.  Our job is to yield; His is to work in us to will and to do for His good pleasure.  The assurance that we will stay true to God unto the end is not a matter of our own willpower; it is trusting in Christ who is able to keep those who come unto Him until that day.

Warning to the Church

The church today has a very superficial understanding of legalism.  Most equate it with wearing old fashioned clothes or keeping strict dietary observances.  If that is all that legalism involves we have little to worry about.  Few today are trapped by those things.  But I suggest to you that legalism has always been, is now, and will always be a very real danger to the church. 

In the evangelical church there has been for some time a strong emphasis on Bible teaching.  Seminars, Bible studies, and various teachings on an endless number of subjects have abounded.  This has been a great blessing.  Yet we are in danger of forfeiting the blessings gained if we think that we can achieve success in any area of life merely by the careful observance of certain Bible principles.  Couples study Bible principles and are guaranteed a great marriage if only they will follow them to the letter.  Parents are left with the impression that by following the rules their children will never rebel, and ministers are encouraged to employ the right church growth principles and they will soon have the largest church in town.  In all of this I am reminded of Jesus' words to the Pharisees,  "You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life and these are they which testify of Me" (John 5:39).

Bible principles are wonderful but they are never meant to work apart from the grace of Jesus Christ.  As long as we stay in that abiding relationship with Him, trusting Him and looking to Him constantly, the principles can be a powerful means of success and victory in our lives, but when we depart from an active faith in Jesus, and rely solely upon our ability to keep the principles, we set ourselves up for big time failure.

I have discovered that at the heart of that realm which the Bible calls grace is the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Those men and women who have been blessed with the greatest measure of the power of the Holy Spirit have been individuals whose hearts burned with a revelation of and a love for the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Let me close with another quote by Charles Finney:

"Oh, when the ministry... all know and embrace a whole Christ for themselves: when they preach Jesus, in all His fullness and present vi­tal power to the church; when they testify what they have seen, and their hands have handled of the Word of Life --- then, and not till then, will there be a general resurrection of the dry bones of the house of Israel!  Amen.  Lord, hasten the day!"



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