Father of Lies Part 5: The Trap of Rule-Oriented Righteousness

Have you ever felt angry or ashamed when someone or circumstances kept you from meeting your standards? Your spouse made you late. Your child forgot her manners with your pastor. And your cheeks burned.

I never considered myself to be a legalist, but failing to meet some of my personal standards showed me otherwise. Let’s look at another arrow in the enemy’s arsenal—Rule-oriented righteousness.

We’ve been unpacking the acronym DARTS to help us recognize and resist the father of lies. Today we begin looking at the difference between Rule-oriented righteousness and the righteousness that comes by faith in Jesus Christ. This dart appears good and godly. But it’s evil.

I never considered myself to be a legalist, but failing to meet some of my personal standards showed me otherwise. Let’s look at the trap of Rule-oriented righteousness. #hope, #JesusPaidItAll Share on X

Rule-Oriented Righteousness

I joined an international ministry out of college. Each week we turned in weekly reports on how we invested our time. When I married Larry, I traveled with him to the out-of-state ministries he oversaw. I enjoyed meeting and encouraging the staff—until I filled out my weekly forms.

There were no columns to check for encouraging staff. I felt like the zeros I filled in. I didn’t think I drew any sense of worth from my work—until my performance failed to meet my previous levels. Thankfully, I was reading Galatians at the time.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? …After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? (Gal. 3:1-3 NIV)

Like the Galatians, I’d begun my Christian life by grace through faith in what my Savior had done for me. But I had unknowingly slipped into trusting my performance for acceptance and sanctification.

Rule-oriented thoughts tell us our worth and acceptance depend on how well we follow human standards and/or religious rules. They pressure us to conform to certain standards instead of relying on Christ’s righteousness.

The Backlash

When we break our rules, or those of our peers, family, or religious group, we feel guilt and shame. Our worth and acceptance are put on trial and found lacking. We may not realize we have these rules until we feel the sting of falling short. And because the guilty deserve punishment, we punish ourselves, and perhaps others, with blame and shame.

Paul said keeping rules, even ancient religious ones like circumcision, doesn’t make us more acceptable to God. What matters is whether we are new creations in Christ. That comes from Christ’s work on the cross, not from anything we do.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephes. 2:8-9 NIV)

“But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14 NASB 1995)

Spiritual Disciplines Versus Rules

Spiritual disciplines provide an excellent means to spiritual growth. But they are a method, not the end. We’re called into a relationship of faith and love, not performance. We don’t fail God or become less loved if we miss church, our Bible reading, or don’t work in the nursery.

Rule-oriented righteousness says that what Jesus did wasn’t enough to change me into a new creation. I need rules to finish what Christ began.

“If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” (Col. 2:20-23 NASB 1995)

Rule-oriented righteousness thrives even among many Bible-believing Christians. Jesus offers something better. We’ll look at Christ as our righteousness next time.

Strength Finder

There is nothing wrong with adopting rules to make a family or group run smoothly. But tying our worth and acceptance before God to our performance negates faith and Jesus’s finished work on the cross. When you feel angry, condemned, or oppressed, consider whether you’ve failed to meet somebody’s rule. Ask God to make you aware of when you punish yourself or others for not living up to certain standards. Thank God that as a new creation you now have the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).

Next time we look at Jesus, our Righteousness.

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  1. Michele Morin

    Whoa! You have put your finger on the idolatry that turns spiritual disciplines and Christian service into a barrier to our love of Christ! I am thankful for this heart check!

    • Debbie W. Wilson

      Michele, I appreciate how succinctly you relayed the message.

      • Connie Jo Earls

        Thank you Debbie! This was very helpful and something I needed to read. Thank you for encouraging me and others with the TRUTH of God’s word!

        • Debbie W. Wilson

          Thank you, Connie Jo. God’s grace is so amazing we have trouble believing and practicing it.

  2. Ann Musico

    Such an important distinction!!

    • Debbie W. Wilson

      Thank you, Ann.

  3. Barbara Harper

    This is so easy to slip into. I like the distinction between spiritual disciplines and rules. Too often we let guidelines and standards become law.

    • Debbie W. Wilson

      Barbara, I agree. Those disciplines are great servants, but they aren’t meant to be our masters. Only Christ can fill that role.

  4. Marilyn Nutter

    The point of “no space to encourage” was excellent.

    • Debbie W. Wilson

      God knows how to get our attention, doesn’t He? Thanks, Marilyn.

  5. Jeannie Waters

    Debbie, thank you for reminding us we are new creations in Christ, and that’s what matters most. I appreciate this truth: “But tying our worth and acceptance before God to our performance negates faith and Jesus’s finished work on the cross. ” Sometimes God leads us to minister in ways that have no boxes to check but matter in His kingdom’s work.

    • Debbie Wilson

      Jeannie, checking those boxes can feel good in the moment, but they don’t add to what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. Thanks so much for adding your thoughts..

  6. Katherine Pasour

    You explain this so well, Debbie. Thank you for your transparency in letting us know that even long-time Christians struggle with this distinction at times. Jesus is our pathway to salvation–He is what we need and all we need. His precious love and sacrifice displace legalism. Thank you for this insightful message.

    • Debbie W. Wilson

      He is our everything. Thank you, Katherine!

  7. J.D. Wininger

    Yes! It’s when I fail to live up to the standards I’ve set for myself, or one of my family members fails to live up to my expectations/standards expected of them, I first get upset at myself. Still learning to allow myself to partake of God’s grace when I mess up. I have to remind myself that He loves me and gives me grace, even though He knows what a mess I am.

    • Debbie W. Wilson

      J.D., it’s a process! Thankfully, He holds our hands and gently reminds us that He knew all about us before He chose us and took care of our mess on the cross. Faith may be the hardest work we’re called to.

  8. Donna

    Excellent Debbie! As a recovering legalist, I am too often tempted into making my spiritual disciplines into rules of righteousness. But this is so true, “Rule-oriented righteousness says that what Jesus did wasn’t enough to change me into a new creation. I need rules to finish what Christ began.”
    Once I grasped this truth, I experienced the true freedom of relationship with Christ that He intended.

    • Debbie W. Wilson

      Donna, thank you for sharing your story! Amen. Faith in Christ’s finished work sets us free to enjoy Him and abide in Him!

  9. Yvonne Morgan

    Many love the rules just so they can hold them over people’s head. I fall into that trap but trying to work on it. Thank you for the conviction and call to action Debbie

    • Debbie Wilson

      Yvonne, I think our flesh is drawn to rules. It just doesn’t want to let go of self-righteousness or, as you mention, the control we feel we can have over others. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  10. Martin Johnson

    Great post, it is humbling to know we too can make mistakes and turn to legalism. Pride blinds us all at times.

    • Debbie Wilson

      Martin, it is humbling. We need each other on this journey of faith to point out truth, as Paul did with Peter, if we’re being wrongly influenced.

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