I pictured myself staying awake all night with Jesus. Everyone else was asleep, like the faithless disciples slumbering in the garden of prayer.

You guessed it; that old demon of spiritual pride had overtaken me again. Soon I became a first-class Pharisee. Although I secretly hated myself for being self righteous, I couldn’t stop feeling smug. There was no denying the fact that I lived on a stricter and sterner spiritual level than anyone around me.

I had fallen into the trap of legalism by faith.

Why couldn’t everyone see that sleeplessness is the secret of perfection? It seemed so simple. Carnal Christians were sleeping away precious hours of spiritual refreshing, while I continually drank from the well of spiritual refreshment, quite literally praying without ceasing. At the end of time I imagined there would be 144,000 perfect saints hiding in the mountains praying all the time. And I would be one of them. Maybe even the first one of them.

Number one for Jesus. Why not?

Legalism, you say. Yes indeed, legalism at its worst. But remember it was Christ centered legalism. Legalism by “faith.”

Recently I’ve been fascinated by the history of the medieval church. I was startled to see that everything I used to do, the Catholic priests in their monasteries also did during the dark ages.

I forsook family and friends, and so did they. I felt forced into celibacy, and so did they. I lived in poverty like they did. I was obedient to my superiors as they were. I fasted, and they did too. I maintained the same sleepless vigils they did. And it was all for the same purpose as theirs was: to attain a perfect union with Christ by faith.

Consider the Catholic devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ. Written by a German monk in 1427, a full century before Luther’s Reformation, this medieval manual on legalism by faith advocates the same lifestyle I used to follow. Notice this:

“St. Lawrence, through the love of God overcame mightily the love of the world and of himself. He despised all that was pleasant and delectable in the world. . . . Instead of man’s comfort he chose to follow the will of God. Do in like manner, and learn to forsake some necessary and some well beloved friend for the love of God.”

You see, it was to get close to God that monks and nuns abandoned their friends and families. They were pursuing the same purifying relationship with Christ that I was:

“My son, says our Saviour Christ, I must be the end of all your works, if you desire to be happy and blessed. If you refer all goodness to Me, from whom all goodness comes, then all your inward affections will be purified and made clean.”

Did you know that the medieval church believed this way about Jesus? Here’s an interesting quotation supposedly from Christ:

“Offer yourself to Me and give yourself all for God, and your oblation [offering] will be acceptable. . . . But if you have trust in yourself and do not freely offer yourself to My will, your oblation is not pleasing and there will not be between us a perfect union.”

A perfect union with Jesus: this was the cherished goal of the medieval monks. Their obsession with perfection through a relationship with Jesus is a trademark of ancient and modern Catholic writings. Martin Luther thundered against this Christ centered legalism by faith.

Luther had to learn the hard way, as I did. After spending much time in the monastery in search of perfection, he finally accepted the perfect record of Jesus Christ as His own accomplishment.

Back when he entered the monastery, he determined to become holy. He pursued purity by depriving himself of life’s comforts, even its necessities. Some nights, kneeling on the old stone floor, he would console his conscience, “I have done nothing wrong today.” Then doubts would arise: “Am I really pure enough to qualify as a child of God?”

Nothing he could do brought him peace. He could never be certain of satisfying God. But finally he discovered that the peace he was trying so hard to obtain was waiting for him at Calvary’s cross. Jesus took the punishment that we sinners deserve, so we could be freely forgiven.

Luther could hardly believe this good news. Despite his guilt he could be counted as perfect, since Jesus, who really was holy, suffered his penalty. Of course, the Catholic Church had always taught that only through the power of Christ can sinners be saved. Luther came up with a challenging new discovery: Believers, though imperfect, can at the same time be counted righteous. God considers sinners to be saints as soon as they trust in Jesus—even before their lives reveal good works (which of course will be forthcoming in the life set free at Calvary).

Notice Romans 4:5: “To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”

So the ungodly who surrender to Jesus are justified, forgiven. Forgiveness comes not because we are holy. Not by works, Luther now realized, but because sinners trust in Jesus.

All his life Luther had thought it unfair to reward imperfect people with eternal life. He believed in purgatory, a place where imperfections could be purged after death to make Christians fit for heaven. But now he learned that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

Even the saints fall short of God’s perfect ideal. Our only hope is the blood of Jesus Christ, the basis of our new life in Him.

Luther came to realize that because Christ is our Savior, the representative of redeemed humanity, every Christian is already worthy for heaven in Him. On the cross Jesus “qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints” (Col. 1:12). No need for purgatory! Joy filled Luther’s heart. Finally his troubled conscience found peace through the gospel and he escaped monastic bondage.

Obedient unto death

Like Martin Luther, my burning yearning for perfection might have ended my life. You see, after having just a couple hours of sleep, or no sleep at all, I almost died while driving to Bible studies. Dozens of times I fell asleep at the wheel, only to wake up just in time to avoid a head on collision with a giant coal truck. Often I jolted awake just as my wheels hit the gravel off the shoulder of the road, about to plunge over the embankment into the river. Were it not for the mercy of God, surely I would have died in my blind fanaticism regarding the Testimonies.

Yes, my foolish legalism almost killed me. But really, I wouldn’t have cared. What did I have to live for?

No, suicide was never a consideration. I wouldn’t dare take my life into my own hands after committing it to God. It would have been fine with me, though, if He ended my life. I think I secretly hoped that would happen.

What a pity! I had gone from being a thriving theology student to a sleep-starved skeleton. The devil had ruined my life, not through the allurements of the world but through my sincere desire to obey God.

“Demons of Righteousness”

Can you see why, for the sincere Christian, legalism is a far more dangerous deception than worldliness? Every honest heart knows it’s wrong to play around with sin; there’s not much deception there for true believers. Legalism, however, appeals not to the lusts of sin but to the desire to obey God. It robs our spiritual life by hijacking our purest motives.

A new song

I’ve shared this part of my testimony so others might avoid similar bondage. If you want the full story of my safari into the dark jungle of legalism and how God’s mercy airlifted me to safety, you’ll find it in the book My Tortured Conscience.
I waited patiently for the Lord;
He turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and the mire;
He set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
(Psalm 40:1 3, NIV)