Confessions of a Former Legalist

I am a former legalist.

I grew up attending about five church services a week, not counting special occasions.

I took communion monthly and sang at least three verses of every hymn—enough to have the words imprinted on my memory for eternity to come.

Every spring during my college years while others went on spring break, I went to twenty-one church services. Yes, twenty-one.

In a moment of rebellion, I once got in the car with a friend who flipped through the radio station and found the Billy Joel song “My Life” and sang it at the top of her lungs. I thought I’d die and go to hell.

I’ve read through the Bible more times than I can count.

I have stacks and stacks of journals.

My skirt was always long enough, my shirt always high enough, my father always proud.

I was a rule keeper on the outside and confused on the inside.

The first time I went to a church service with a drum set on the stage, I worried I’d flunk my exam the next week. I tried to pray harder. I didn’t tell anyone. But I liked it. And I aced my exam.

One day I accidentally skipped my Bible reading time. I didn’t feel like God would hear my prayers until I made up the time and then some.

I worked harder. I tried harder. I failed miserably.

Then one day I came across Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

I remember the moment I read it. I remember what I was wearing and where I was sitting. And I remember thinking—I am in Christ Jesus. Did that mean I was not condemned?

Even when I forgot to read my Bible every day? Even when I failed to pray on my knees in the morning? Even when my journal entries said absolutely nothing? Even when I felt condemned?

In 2 Corinthians 3:6 Paul informs us that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” and in Galatians 5:1 he says, “for freedom Christ has set us free!”

Free! Free to love. Free to serve. Free to sing. Free to move and speak and free to be.

For years I made myself approved unto God by my works, even though I’d accepted Him by faith. And I was miserable because I had missed the freedom of His grace in my futile attempts to impress Him.

The problem with a former legalist is that bad habits die hard. I find myself trying to impress God.

“Look at me God, see what I’ve done! Three blogs and a Bible study, all in a week.”

“Check me out, God, I was nice to that lady. I even smiled when she yelled.”

“Hey, God, have you seen my Bible reading plan? I’m good. Haven’t missed a day this year!”

Old ways have a way of creeping back in.

“I haven’t prayed in a week. He won’t listen if I try now.”

“I just can’t get over that sin. I should have known better. I should have done better. He won’t help me now.”

So I start my time of penance. I think pure thoughts. I even memorize a verse or two, just to be safe. If you’re a former legalist, you know the gig.

Oh, I’m not advocating cheap grace. It’s just that I’ve finally realized I don’t need to impress. He’s already died—for me. He’s already paid the price—for me.

He’s already decided: He loves me. Not because of what I’ve done in the past. Not because of what I’m going to accomplish for Him in the future. Not because of my great potential.

No. He loves me because of who He is. He loves me, and I am not condemned.

I am a former legalist, but I now live by grace. And I’m free.

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About the Author

Lina Abujamra

Lina Abujamra

Lina is a Pediatric Emergency Room Doctor in Chicago and the women’s ministry director at her church, Harvest Bible Chapel, Rolling Meadows Campus. She is the author of Thrive, and blogs at Living With Power where she provides biblical truths for everyday life.

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