Tear Down This Wall

Are You Preaching "Performance" instead of "Promises"?

by Scott Hagan

The year was 1987. He stood larger than life at Brandenburg Gate. He said, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Within 2 years of President Ronald Reagan’s bold declaration, the Revolution of 1989 brought about the collapse of the Berlin Wall. A reunited Germany soon followed. In many ways, this finally severed the Goliath head of Hitler’s lingering ghost.

Looking down from well above the earth’s atmosphere, the human eye can trace a thin vein coursing through the nation of China. That vein is the Great Wall of China, which is roughly 4,154 miles long — greater than the distance between Miami and Seattle.

I’m on a quest to understand how walls get built and why they last — not so I can build one, but so I can destroy one.

Walls of all kinds exist. Racism walls and denominational walls are just two of the walls I am surveying. But one wall seems to stand above the rest when it comes to division and separation.

This wall excludes and condemns like no other. It is the “Great Wall of Legalism.” I am convinced God can see it coursing through the body of Christ from His vantage point in heaven.

Raised my whole life in the church, I have danced between the world of authentic biblical holiness and a world of prescribed human restrictions. I am chronicling the characteristics of that world.

You will not find the term legalism, or legalist specifically mentioned in the Scriptures. But Jesus and Paul clearly denounce the idea. They use terms such as dogs and the circumcised to describe the harsh opposition of legalism to the kingdom of God. Pharisee, religion, and traditions of men are a few more terms Jesus uses to define this tormentor of grace.

Legalism, in its basic form, is the art of mixing personal achievement and unconditional acceptance into a single belief system. When you discover the nature of grace, you realize this is an impossible proposition.

The foundation for all legalism and false religion is competitive fear as opposed to servant love — the basis for the kingdom of God. I now realize that not becoming something will only motivate my behavior for so long. I must gain a vision for what God wants me to become if I am going to thrive over the long haul in faith and leadership. Legalism as a way of life is problematic because it focuses on avoiding failure and not on the pursuit of joy.

Our pursuit as leaders and believers is not to keep from failure, but to enjoy and enter into the life God has for us. In Christ we are dead to sin, but it must become more than a message of death. We are alive to God. Pastors and teachers cannot continue presenting a performance-based message but expecting the kind of miracles and sacrificial love that only a promise-based community can produce.

Holiness to the legalist is the result of separating from a world he considers fallen and dirty. Holiness for the Kingdom child is entirely the opposite. It comes from his attachment to God that is holy. It is the goodness and virtue of God that is creating the transformation in our lives, not the mere absence of evil. Legalism sees evil as its focus. The Kingdom keeps love as the goal.

There are a myriad of contrasts between the religion of man and the kingdom of God. Here are a few that top my list:

  • Years of service are more valuable than grace to a legalist.
  • A legalist views repetitious behaviors and faithfulness as equal.
  • A legalist pursues form without substance.
  • A legalist cannot stand delayed rewards from an invisible God; hhis performance of deeds must have an immediate audience.
  • Legalism uses the fear of rejection as the control tool; the Kingdom motivates people with the hope of a coming reward.
  • Legalism tries to mandate attitudes; the Kingdom produces new attitudes.

The Holy Spirit seems to be saying to the church what Ronald Reagan said to Gorbachev that pivotal day in 1987. It is time once and for all to “tear down that wall” and to start living as free people — people who have experienced the freedom of Christ and who can proclaim that freedom to others.

SCOTT HAGAN is senior pastor, Mars Hill Community Church of the Assemblies of God, Sacramento, California.