Of Legalism and Liberalism: A Pendulum Swing

History is fascinating. While events come and go and shape the direction of our textbooks, people themselves change very little. Even within Christianity, there’s a steady tick-tock, tick-tock, the same patterns repeating themselves every generation–back and forth, like the swing of a pendulum–and we wonder why our faith looks and feels (and is, often) powerless.

My grandparents’ generation was marked by legalism. They had their Bible, and then they had all their extra rules around it, which was probably thicker than the Bible itself. No movies, no cards, no dancing, no Sunday events. Jesus’ grace wasn’t sufficient: you had to do more. You weren’t all in, because part of you still needed to work harder just in case you messed up–because, you know, there might be part of your sinfulness that Jesus missed on the cross. If it’s still up to you to save your soul, Jesus was never enough.

My parents’ generation was known for their liberalism. The sexual revolution gave freedom and hope to the kids who had walked away from the powerless Jesus-who-wasn’t-enough. The freedom and excitement and creativity and passion that should be found in a vibrant, Holy-Spirit-filled life was squelched by the Jesus-less gospel these “rebels” had been spoon-fed. So if Jesus wasn’t enough, the drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll might be. And again we’re left with Jesus not being enough, so it’s up to us to seek and save our lost souls. Tick…tock.

But Jesus finds His children in every generation, and He found my parents and their friends, too. So they knew Jesus, and they knew what having too much personal freedom looks like, but they didn’t want to raise their kids the same way. And for many in my circles, that began to look like Jesus plus “don’t do all these things”…and we’re back to Jesus isn’t actually enough, it’s still up to you to preserve and protect your soul. Tick…tock.

Here’s the thing: if Jesus isn’t enough, you have to avoid mercy and grace by playing by your own rules (either in piling up lifestyle laws that God didn’t give, or ignoring the few commands He actually made)…if Jesus isn’t enough, then you never will be, either.

So now my friends walk away, to the neverending chagrin of our quasi-religious culture who “tsk-tsks” at the news, while sipping their joyless coffee. And while I want to shake my fist at the generations behind me and scream, “It’s your own damned fault! You never gave them Jesus. Why the HECK do you think they’re walking away, when they never had anything worth holding on to in the first place? Do YOU know Jesus? Do you truly, truly know Him? If so, you’d be loving these kids and encouraging their questions and reassuring them that God is big enough for their fears, strong enough for their doubts, and powerful enough to give them confidence in Him. Stop proclaiming condemnation over these kids; God has great plans for them and He hasn’t stopped pursuing them.”

…while I want to say these things, I can’t. Because for all the fingers we’d like to flip or point, it’s not our parents’ fault. It’s not our grandparents’ fault. And if you’re old enough, it’s not your childrens’ fault either. 

My relationship with God is my response to the seeds of faith God has planted within me. It’s my job to respond, it’s His job to make growth happen. When I am surrounded by godly friends and family and church family, that growth is definitely easier–but it’s still my job to be obedient. There’s grace when I fail. There’s mercy when I screw it up. There’s power in my repentance; when I say, “God, change my heart.” He changes it. He always does. And I grow. 

The book of Psalms implores us to “taste and see that the LORD is good.” This implies experiencing God. This means faith in practice, trusting God that He will be to you who He’s proclaimed Himself to His people from the beginning. He is a good God and He is trustworthy. He is that regardless of how much we believe it to be true–but oh how we change when we believe this to our core. When we taste and see, we say “no” to the pendulum swing that pulls us away from mercy on this side, and away from grace on the other.

God is merciful and gracious, abounding in faithful love. He is all these things whether we know it or not–and we’re invited to know it deeply and intimately. That is our choice. That is up to us. He is still these things whether we embrace Him or not.

God forgives and God restores. Jesus’ work on the cross was for us, whether we claim it or not. That freedom is ours, we only need to receive it and believe in faith that Jesus is enough.

Jesus is always enough.

So when I hear the stats or read the stories about the next generation turning away from their faith, or leaving their churches in droves, I always want to ask: 

…but did you know Jesus?

Because if you only knew man-made rules and the religious extras, or you only knew Satan’s lies that God is harsh and cruel, you never knew Jesus. And you should walk away from the steaming pile of crap you had dished on your plate. I’d walk away from that, too.

But Jesus is enough. 

When you taste and see that the Lord is good, when you find all the good things and the treasures you thought were just for the “super-spiritual” and realize they are freely given to you, too, you’ll know that Jesus is enough. When you learn to abide in Him, to let Him plant the roots, let Him prune off the dead branches and dying limbs so you can be healthy, when you seek Him for growth and see the good fruit He can produce in you, you’ll know Jesus is enough. 

When you realize that God walked away from Jesus on the cross, so that He would never have to walk away from you…when you suddenly understand that Jesus was forsaken for your sins, abandoned by His Father, because God wanted you to have His love and forgiveness and didn’t want you to pay for it… He just wanted your faith. He just wanted your obedience. He never wanted more from you than simply claiming Jesus. When you know that, you’ll know Jesus is enough.

And when you know the Jesus-who-is-enough, you’ll have a Jesus who is worth telling others about, too.  

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