Legalism: The Trap of Hopelessness

This is a continuation of a discussion on the Call to Obedience.  In the past few posts, I have discussed legalism and two of its traps: brinksmanship and rigorism.  Today, I am writing about a third: the trap of hopelessness.

While brinksmanship attempts to define the borders of unrighteousness so as to approach it, and rigorism fences them so as to assure righteousness by our own deeds, the third trap of legalism is found when we are overwhelmed with our insufficiency to overcome sin, without trusting the sufficiency of our Savior.  We see the insurmountable mountain of God’s commands and know we cannot climb it.  Having come to that realization, we collapse into helplessness and hopelessness and by doing so, we swallow a half-truth.  We are indeed helpless – wretched as we are, we are unable to save ourselves from sin (Romans 7:24) – but we need not be hopeless because Jesus Christ our Lord can and will deliver us (Romans 7:25).

Let me repeat this to be clear: though they can exist together, helplessness is not the same as hopelessness.  On our farm this year, we had 17 baby goats born.  When they are born, they are often helpless even to breathe on their own, as their faces are covered with mucous.  Left alone, they will suffocate.  But they are not helpless, because God has given their mothers the instinctual drive to lick their babies clean, starting with the face.  What’s more, that licking stimulates the babies’ nursing reflexes.

Declaring ourselves helpless is a prerequisite for true and full repentance from our pursuit of sin.  Like Paul, we declare ourselves unable to save ourselves from sin:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. – Romans 7:21-23

Like Paul, even when God has revealed to us both the right and honorable things we should pursue, and the base and dishonorable things from which to abstain, we are driven by our sinful flesh to neglect the former and grasp the latter.  Like the newborn goat kid, we may know that we desperately need oxygen, but we are unable to breathe it in.  We are slaves to sin, and thus captive to a body of death (Romans 6:23).  And so, also like Paul, we must accept our helplessness and allow our Savior to save!

Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! – Romans 7:24-25a

Confessing our helplessness frees us from the trap of works-based salvation, that blasphemy that claims the ability to achieve our own holiness.  But hopelessness is yet another form of blasphemy because we are speaking against Jesus’ assertion that he has overcome the world (John 16:33), against God’s promised provision in temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), and against his promise of the hope in which we have been saved (Romans 8:24).  It is its own form of blasphemy – against God’s sufficiency and love.

There are many reasons we are ensnared by hopelessness.  As stated earlier, often it is the aftermath of the previous two traps.  Having played the game of brinksmanship, we slip and fall into sin’s chasm.  Filled with prideful delusion, we are next ensnared by the trap of rigorism and works-based salvation, trying to fly out of our free-fall.  At some point, we come to the realization of our helplessness.

Our next action is crucial.  If we recognize the truth of our helplessness and turn away from our own efforts, but refuse to turn toward God’s outstretched arm, we will indeed find ourselves trapped in hopelessness, and what a win for the enemy if we do!  He need do nothing else but let us wallow in despair, struggling to breathe as we writhe on the floor unable to help ourselves and unwilling to allow God to save us.  But if it seems likely we might indeed embrace the hope our Lord offers, Satan has another trap to set: Hypocrisy.

I will write about the trap of hypocrisy in a future post, but in the meantime, please join in the discussion!  What are common ways in which you have found yourself in the jaws of the trap of hopelessness, and how have you escaped?

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