They’re not, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” (That’s seven words.)
No, the words I’m thinking of are, to some degree, as equally terrifying as these ones, though. These are words that, in the right context, can be life giving. They’re an invitation, a call to respond. But when they’re used wrongly, they have the stench of death upon them:
“Here is what you must do.”
Encouraging action is a good thing, obviously. James makes it very clear that faith will lead to works, as does virtually every other letter in the New Testament. And the Old Testament law itself is built upon the same relationship as the commands of the New: we are always acting in response to who God is, what he has done and through his enablement.
And yet, you’d never know it to be so based on what some of us who claim the name of Jesus write and speak. Far too many books have been written and far too many messages have been delivered that forget a basic truth of Christianity—the contrast between legalism and spirituality. Rather than emphasizing true spirituality—rather than recognizing that we live supernatural lives as those brought to life by the Spirit of Christ—the focus turns, and we’re encouraged to live by our own effort, under our own strength.
But the problem with this is it doesn’t work. And it never has, as Ray Ortlund reminds us in Supernatural Living for Natural People:
Legalism is externalized holiness, while spirituality is internalized holiness. And spirituality produces the kind of people the law had in mind all along. The ‘law of sin and death’, as Paul calls it [in Romans 8:2], is human virtue confined to legalism. It is trying to meet the challenge of God’s holy law through our own self-mastery. Really, it only reinforces sin, concealed under a veneer of self-righteousness. But still, legalism is attractive to the human heart, because it reduces righteousness to humanly manageable dimensions. It reduces holiness to sin management, behavior modification. Lacking God’s Spirit, however, it only produces death. It hollows a person out. It turns righteousness into a role play, and make-believe moral character is unsustainable.… [B]oot-strapping ourselves up by God’s law does not deliver us. It only intensifies our frustration. It binds us to our sinful patterns, even as it makes us pretend to be something we really aren’t.
Legalism’s hollow promise leads to hollow people. We don’t need to hear, again, how we can pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps. And when you are weary of trying, when you are ready to cry out and ask who will rescue you “from this body of death” (Romans 7:24), remember that God has given us the answer—Jesus Christ! He has paid it all, he has given all, and he sustains all—but he doesn’t expect us to do it all. Not alone, not ever.