After my exodus from legalistic fundamentalism several years ago, someone, appalled at our “compromise,” asked my wife, “So what’s he going to preach about now, love?” They were sure that if I wasn’t going to preach about women in pants, going to the movies, listening to “ungodly music,” how terrible Southern Baptists were, and the rest of fundamentalism’s hot buttons, then I must be abandoning the faith and would just preach a bunch of “sloppy agape.”
Preaching about love, well, that was what “liberal compromisers” do. That’s all they’re worried about, because, I mean, they don’t have anything else to say, right? If you don’t preach against sin, what else is there to preach about?
That’s one of the main reasons legalists attend church (I mean, “the preaching hour”) – to hear the preacher preach against their sin. The hope is to have some sin pointed out to their life that they can go to work on. Weep at the altar, add a new rule, or find some other form of penance. Everything else is peripheral, secondary. If you can’t find a reason to feel convicted from the sermon, then the preacher didn’t do his job.
This is also why legalists are always on the lookout for new rules. The Christian life is meant to be harder and harder, stricter and stricter. Because sin always finds new ways to overcome us, it needs to be met with newer, better, tougher rules.
And yet again, this serves to perpetuate the vicious cycle of legalism. It takes a major intervention of grace to break free – and then only over time. It takes time to decompress from this mentality. You’ve lived under so much pressure for so long, that it feels strange to come out from under it.
This is why so many stay locked in. It’s too insecure of a feeling to walk away from all those rules you’ve been convinced so long were so right, and by which you measured your spirituality before God. It feels like you’re sinning when you stop keeping a few of those man-made rules, so you immediately run back to the place where you feel comfortable, back where you felt “godly,” back to the pressure that “kept you in line” for so long.
It’s like a slave not knowing how to feel or act when he’s set free. That’s why so many slaves to legalism stay in it. It feels safer. So they pile up the standards like a fortress of emotional safety. Too afraid to break free. That’s why I would encourage you to pray for your brothers in bondage (Heb. 13:2).