How to Have Personal Standards Without Being a Legalist

Reposted from Pursuing the Pursuer, with permission.

“Your skirt length is a heart problem.”
“Music with a 2-4 beat is demonic.”
“Christians should never step foot in a movie theater.”

Maybe you remember hearing things like this in your church.

Some young Christians, when they look back on their upbringing, only remember a Christianity of “dos and donts.” They only remember their pastors preaching against rock music, clothing standards and movie theaters and the guilt they felt when they violated these commands. And the first chance they get, they flee.

Searching for an “authentic” Christianity outside of the realm in which they were raised, they find something else—something freeing. They find a message of hope that says, Stop focusing on the dos and don’ts. Focus on loving Jesus and loving others. Break free from the chains of legalism. Upon hearing this refreshing message, many young Christians proceed to appropriately toss out the legalistic bathwater…but tragically toss the baby right along with it:

“God isn’t concerned with what I watch or listen to.”
“God looks on the heart. He doesn’t care about outward appearance.”
“I’m accepted by him, I don’t have to worry about ever displeasing him.”

This is just as dangerous, if not more so, as the legalism you’re reacting against. The proper response to legalistic standards is not the absence of standards. So, if you find yourself reacting against a legalistic past, be careful not to overreact to the point of reckless, careless living. Having standards is not the problem. As you seek to honor the Lord with your life, here are a couple observations that might help you form standards without becoming a legalist.

Don’t be afraid of standards — you need them

I recognize that some of you might come from a legalistic background where personal standards were the sole measure of spirituality and pastors were “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt 15:9). Please don’t let your experience sour your attitude toward the value of having personal standards. You desperately need to set standards in your life. Why? Because your heart is deceitful. You need guardrails in your life because you like to sin. The presence of standards doesn’t mean that you’re a good person; it means you recognize that you’re a sinful person (Phil 1:10, 27; 2:15; Titus 2:12; 1 Cor 9:27; Col 1:10).

You can’t please God without discernment

Did you know that God can be displeased with behavior that isn’t explicitly condemned in Scripture? Believe it or not, personal discernment is actually a thing. In fact, it’simpossible to please God without discernment. Sometimes Scripture is so clear that discernment isn’t as necessary (you don’t need to discern whether or not you should move in with your girlfriend), but don’t fall prey to the “chapter and verse” excuse. Not everything in life is crystal clear. God expects his children to have their “powers of discernment trained by constant practice” in the Word of God (Heb 5:14) and apply Biblical principles to difficult situations so that they can “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:10). Because, contrary to what some preachers might tell you, God can be displeased with you. Don’t confuse God’s favor with God’s pleasure. Just as a parent who unconditionally loves his child can be displeased with disobedience, your right standing in Christ does not make you immune to God’s fatherly displeasure (2 Sam 11:27; Rom 12:1; 14:17-18; 1 Thess 4:1)

The Christian life isn’t a joyride, and it’s not always black and white — it requires careful thought and deliberate decisions, governed by the Word of God and empowered by the Spirit. If you haven’t thought through your own personal standards, there’s a good chance you aren’t living a life that pleases God.

Don’t sever outward actions from inward choices

Many Christians think that their actions, choices, words, habits, clothes, and hobbies aren’t at all indicative of their heart, and they will probably call you a judgmental pharisee if you suggest otherwise. I know you’re probably tired of people labeling every insignificant choice as a “heart problem,” but let’s be honest: every outward action springs from the inside. Inward desires and beliefs influenced your decision to wear that outfit today. You told that joke because you had already been thinking about it in your head.

Even your most insignificant decisions are directly connected to who you are as a person. What you wear, the music you listen to, the movies you watch, the food you eat — they all matter because they are directly connected to heart choices. Spend time examining the heart motive behind even the little decisions you make throughout the day.

Hold Scriptural truth firmly; hold cultural application loosely

It is entirely appropriate and necessary for the Church to apply Scriptural truth to its surrounding culture; it is entirely inappropriate and hurtful when the Church blindly clings to a cultural application without regard to the changing culture. When this happens, the foundational truth is forgotten and the application elevated as the truth itself. Our knee-jerk reaction to this error is to completely disconnect Scripture from our culture, immersing ourselves in the culture without considering how Scripture might speak to it. After all, it would be legalistic to apply Scripture too narrowly to culture, right? Wrong.

Scripture must influence your interaction with culture. As you form your personal standards, you must ask questions like, “what does worldliness look like in my culture?” “How would the Scriptural command to live blamelessly apply to my specific setting?” Sometimes, faithful application of Scripture will look the same across all cultures; other times, it will look different in San Francisco than it does in Tanzania. As you make cultural applications, don’t ever lose sight of the Scriptural foundations for those applications, and be willing to revisit your applications as the culture changes.

Do everything “to the Lord”

Why do you do what you do? If I were to ask you the reason behind any given standard in your life, be it music, movies, hobbies, or leisure, what reason would you give? Have you even thought it through? Have you even searched the Scriptures for biblical principles? Could you honestly answer, “because I love God”? In Romans 14, Paul states that those who disagreed on the observance of certain days and eating of certain foods all came to their specific conclusions “in honor of the Lord” (Rom 14:6).

Don’t point to Christian liberty or preference or personal piety as the rationale behind your decisions - point to your love for Christ! Sadly, not many of us can honestly do this. Yet, every single one of us will “stand before the judgment seat of God” and “give an account of himself to God” (Rom 14:10, 12). If you can’t honestly point your loving devotion to God as the “why” behind the “what,” remind yourself of the day when you’ll have explain it to God himself.

Thank God that he has equipped us with his Word and has given us everything we need to live a life that is pleasing to him! Personal standards are simply a practical outgrowth of Scripture’s influence in our hearts. Do you have standards? Do you have Scriptural reasons for your standards? Are your standards motivated by your devotion for your Savior?

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There are 8 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

Great to see this kind of thinking from a new generation.

Applying principles to a rapidly changing culture is challenging, but we don't get to say "it's just culture" and just ride the tide.

Bert Perry's picture

Given that one of the definitions of "standard" is that it is universally or widely accepted, it's probably inappropriate to use the word "standards" to describe our attempts to apply Biblical principles.  It's simply too rigid to describe what Aaron Berry is trying to say, which is really that it's OK and good to apply Scriptural principles.  I'd suggest using "applications" instead.    

Aaron Blumer's picture

A standard is also something you measure things by, or a set of specifications. Our infallible standard is the Bible; our personal standards are applications of it. The "personal" part clarifies that they may not necessarily be shared by anyone else. 

Andrew K's picture

The author makes some good points, but he's not really answering the question assumed by his title. His actual subject is "Why having personal standards isn't legalistic."

I would be interested to read more of his thought focused on the subject suggested in the actual title. For the greatest danger with having standards, necessary or no, is the temptation to become legalistic about them. He only hints at that here.

Aaron Berry's picture

Andrew, I like your suggested title change! The purpose of my article was two-fold: 1) to convince young Christians that they can have personal standards without being legalists, which was the focus of points 1 and 2, and 2) to help young Christians navigate how to have personal standards without being legalistic, which was the focus of points 3 and 4. 

There is definitely more to be said on the how question (e.g. When/when not to impose your standards on others, etc), but my discussion on holding tightly to the biblical truth and loosely to the cultural application (point 3), as well as the heart motivation of pleasing Christ (point 4), was meant to point young Christians in the right direction. 

True, the title "How to Have Personal Standards without Being a Legalist" isn't clearly communicated in points 1 and 2, but at the same time, "Why having personal standards isn't legalistic" isn't clearly communicated in points 3 and 4. ...perhaps I was just going for a "click bait" title :) 

Andrew K's picture

Aaron Berry wrote:

Andrew, I like your suggested title change! The purpose of my article was two-fold: 1) to convince young Christians that they can have personal standards without being legalists, which was the focus of points 1 and 2, and 2) to help young Christians navigate how to have personal standards without being legalistic, which was the focus of points 3 and 4. 

There is definitely more to be said on the how question (e.g. When/when not to impose your standards on others, etc), but my discussion on holding tightly to the biblical truth and loosely to the cultural application (point 3), as well as the heart motivation of pleasing Christ (point 4), was meant to point young Christians in the right direction. 

True, the title "How to Have Personal Standards without Being a Legalist" isn't clearly communicated in points 1 and 2, but at the same time, "Why having personal standards isn't legalistic" isn't clearly communicated in points 3 and 4. ...perhaps I was just going for a "click bait" title :) 

Fair enough. Don't mind me, I'm an English teacher; I nitpick for a living. ;) 

Mike Harding's picture

Aaron,

Thank you for your article.

 

Pastor Mike Harding

Richard Brunt's picture

I would also be interested in reading more on his thoughts on this subject.

Richard E Brunt

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