What is it about God that is the most difficult for you to accept? Is it that He exists? Or that He punishes the disobedient? For most, it is probably that He loves us, that He is concerned with our welfare. The result of this is that many are frustrated, full of fear and guilt. Eventually, this distorted view of God is to be found as the root of all legalism.
Just look at the ways that we view God. We view Him as the heavenly record-keeper, in spite of the fact that Paul, in I Corinthians 13, said that love keeps no record of wrongs. Even Jesus, in answering the legalistically based question of Peter, said that forgiveness is to be unlimited. Surely Peter, thinking himself to be generous with his offer of sevenfold forgiveness, expected the Lord to praise him. And yet, Jesus (expressing the nature of God) explained that forgiveness cannot be limited to what man can imagine. If God were to expect this of man, what can we expect of God? When men begin to find it hard to see God as forgiving, we also begin to view Him as hard to please as though He is always looking to find fault in us. Perhaps this is because our own fathers were this way or because we ourselves are difficult to please. Perhaps we ourselves are constantly looking for ways to find fault in our own children and others, so we choose not to see God as He truly is, we create Him in our own image. Never is God's loving, forgiving nature more clearly seen than in the parable of the lost son (Lk. 15:1If).
TOTAL POVERTY: Jesus tells this story about a young man who went from riches to rags. How many of us can relate to the young man (the one who left)? We have at least felt the magnetic pull of independence. We know what it feels like to think that we can make it on our own, that old pop has lost touch with the modern world, that he doesn't really remember what it feels like to be young. Most of us look back on that time in our lives with shame. We think about the money wasted, the time spent in pursuit of things that, when realized, were so empty and void. We cringe at the thought of our own little hog-pens and the slop meals of our youth.
The problem with some of us is that we do not have a realistic understanding of the spiritual poverty from which we have been saved. Somehow, somewhere in our perverted thinking, we think that our salvation was no more than a "little help" from God. We could have made it on our own, just not as well. This misses the point of what God's love and forgiveness is all about. His love is "in spite of" and not "because of" ourselves. And here is the root of all legalism. We just do not like to think of God's love in these terms. It is not complimentary to us. The thought that we are totally and completely impoverished does not appeal to us because it says something about us that we do not like to hear or think about. Our naturally legalistic minds begin to "reshape" God and His grace to fit our thinking. His grace becomes that little extra "boost" we needed to get us over the hump. God's grace is not in addition to anything (Eph. 2:8-10). The reason that man misses salvation is not because he fails to keep a specific list of rules and laws, but because he fails to see God as a loving and forgiving God who expressed (with the ultimate gift) His love for us (II Thess. 1:5-9; Rom 5:6-8). Man is lost because he fails to see his complete spiritual poverty, and so refuses to turn to his loving God.
SPIRITUAL AWAKENING: The young man in the parable experienced a spiritual awakening that was the beginning of his salvation. When he saw his condition, that he had fallen from great heights to the ultimate bottom, "he came to his senses" and decided to humble himself before his father and accept whatever status his father was willing to give him. There is no negotiation for position or rationalization of his stupidity to be found in this young man. He knew that he had nothing to offer his father with which to redeem himself. He expressed to his father his total unworthiness. The young man may have felt "unworthy" but he missed one very important point. While he may have "felt" unworthy, his father considered him to be of great worth.
FORGIVENESS: Notice the reaction of the father, "while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and KISSED him." If Jesus was trying to express something about the Heavenly Father in this parable, it does not sound like He meant to say that God is some kind of harsh, unforgiving taskmaster. This son had squandered everything that the father had worked so hard to accumulate, he had rejected the love of his father. Surely, the father pleaded with tears, before his son left, for him to reconsider and not do this terrible thing. Yet, here is this same father running to greet this same rebellious son, crying and kissing him.
It would have been enough if the father had said: "I love you son, but you are going to have to prove yourself. You live with the hired men for a while, then, if you are really good, you can life with the servants. Perhaps, one day, you may even be considered my son again." Not this father. His forgiveness was total and complete. It was not based on anything good the son had done and in spite of everything bad. He even did for him what he had not done for the other son; he celebrated.
Some may say "but you don't understand my sin. I have really blown it. Even after becoming a Christian, I have sinned!" Again, we miss the scope of God's forgiveness. I John 2:1 is a good example: "I write these things to you so that you do not sin ...!" God's intention is for us NOT to sin. His grace and love are not to be taken lightly. There is, however, a clause in that verse that should mean a great deal to those who recognize their own spiritual bankruptcy: "... BUT, if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense Jesus Christ, the Righteous one." Try this little exercise: in place of the word "sin" insert the sin that you have the most trouble feeling forgiven for. Go ahead, try it! "If anyone does 'commit adultery' ...
LEGALISTIC JEALOUSY: Legalists always become angry, whenever grace is extended to another. The reason is because they like to think that there is some merit in what they do. Legalists always ignore their own poverty. Legalists usually perform well and, in the eyes of the world, measure up quite well. In fact, they are the ones who set the rules (ones that are easy for them and hard for others to keep). They like to look at the sin-infested world and click their tongues.
The "faithful" son indeed had been outwardly "faithful" but he had no understanding of the father's heart. He did not care that his brother (who had been given up for dead) was now alive again. "I was good to you all these years and always obedient yet you didn't let me have a party. Then when this 'son' of yours comes back from his decadent life, you welcome him with open arms like nothing ever happened." How we hate forgiveness whenever we are dependent on our own performance rather than God's love.
Jesus dealt with this legalistic mind-set time and again, perhaps the most stinging rebuke ever delivered to the legalists was the one given in Matthew 23. Just think about it, He defends the prostitute (John 8), speaks openly to the woman at the well (John 4), He was known as the friend of sinners and outcasts, yet He speaks to the "faithful" in such terms as "hypocrite, blind guide, white-washed tombs, snake pits, blind pharisees."
If we were to start a "movement" we would go after the influential by flattering them somehow. After all, we need those centers of influence to bring the masses to us. Not Jesus, he seemed to go out of his way to alienate them from himself. Why? Why would He destroy what could have been a very profitable relationship? The most obvious reason is that He probably knew He did not need them. After all, He was the Son of God. But there was another reason that needs mentioning. He knew that the legalists had the potential to lead the masses away from God. After all, they looked so "together" in the eyes of the people. Legalists make up little "rules" and put them in bundles on the backs of those over whom they already have assumed authority'. Legalists always rise to positions of authority and control. It is the only way that legalism can survive; it's leaders must have someone whose performance does not measure up to their own. We might call that little game "comparative poverty". "I may be poor, but I'm not as poor as you!" Jesus condemned it all. The doing of good things in order to be seen by other men, the love of public recognition, the title signifying religious order, Jesus hated with passion greater than adultery, drunkenness and the other "bad" sins because it's trap is so sinister and deceiving.
Yes, legalism hates grace, because grace forgives on the basis of love and not performance. Grace will not allow men to impose their own teachings on others and convince them that it is the will of God (Matt. 15:1-15). Love will compel you to look at others on an equal plane.
Can you accept it? God is love. Love is His nature, it's what He is all about. Everything else that God is, relates to Him BEING love. There are only two reasons for not accepting God's forgiveness: 1) it's just too good to be true, 2) it conflicts with our legalistic standard of performance.
"My son," the father said, "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we HAD to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."