The Law of the Spirit or the Law of Self-effort Part One
By Fred Pruitt
I truly do love the Bible. Sometimes I just like to hold it. I didn’t always treasure it so much, but from the moment the Lord revealed Himself in my life, He has spoken directly in me through the Book,* as He lovingly does each of us. It is very dear and precious to me. These days after years it still brings inner tears of joy and a greater certitude of faith every time I open it and read even a little bit. In fact, I can hardly read more than a little bit sometimes, because I am so overwhelmed of the Spirit I cannot take it and have to put it down. But prior to the Lord’s revelation, it was all mysterious, something to debate its meaning with others. The blind debating the blind. (*I don’t mean that He speaks in me ONLY through the Book. Of course He speaks in everything when we see it and hear it, but for me and for many others, the foundation of the expressed knowledge of Christ is in the Hebrew Scriptures and the writings of the Apostles in the New Testament. )
Those first days of new life were filled with nuggets coming out of scripture into my infant understanding. I would see something wonderful in the Spirit and joy would just fill me up and bowl me over. Some passage would finally make sense in the new light of God’s Spirit within me, and I would be astounded at the wisdom and love of God! We were not in a strong church environment at the time, so I never heard a sermon on how I “should” read the Bible every day. No one had to tell me to do it. I LOVED reading it and basked in it constantly in those early times!
But then, as things went on, and we became involved in a “strong” church, the Bible became something I HAD to read. I still loved it, still heard wonderful things of God in it by the Spirit, but the little taint of law that entered then (Gal 3:2,3) – living by self-effort and not by the Spirit – made it less glorious than before, when it seemed God had been just speaking to me directly out of it, with no plan, no rhyme or reason. Just little bits of Christ-gold here and there, every day. (In later days I realized those, “here and there bits of Christ-gold,” had formed the Spirit’s building of Christ in me, though I could not conceive of that then.)
However, as this, “I’ve got to read the Bible to get closer to God and be a spiritual person and have the POWER of the Spirit,” attitude took over, it became more about how much I could read in such and such a time frame. That was when I came up with my personal reading plans. The one that lasted the longest had me reading a good number of chapters in the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs, every day. And I did that fairly successfully for quite a while. (That didn’t count “prayer time.” Had a plan for that, too!) It was all about “doing your best for Christ.”
Also, as the Bible was taught to us initially, I came under the belief that it is a “life manual.” Now, it truly IS the “Life Manual,” but not primarily or necessarily a manual for a “successful” life according to this world’s goods and outer appearances, as many people think of it. It is a Spirit book, first and foremost, and its issues are the issues of the Spirit and not the flesh. The “treasures” it speaks of are primarily the treasures of Christ, rather than the treasures of this world. In fact, if there is a message in the book about the treasures of this world, it says, “Let not your treasure be upon the earth …” (Matthew 6:19-21). This is not speaking of waiting until we cross over to get the treasure. It just means that we live by daily partaking of the most glorious treasure in the universe, the “Divine Treasure” that lives in us, though only seen in the world as our “earthen vessel.”
Back to this “life manual” subject, let me explain what I mean, and hopefully, give something of a contrast between living by the Spirit or living by the law of self-effort, or, the “mind set on the flesh.”
First of all, I want to mention our understanding of “legalism” as it is in our time. Paul faced what we might call “literal” legalism, in the sense that those who harassed Paul and his churches, were not simply wanting them to follow rules, but the specific “rules” of the “Law of Moses.” They wanted the men circumcised, which was a lot worse than adult baptism, as well as full adherence to Moses and the customs and traditions of the fathers, as would any religious Jew of the time. They wanted to make the Greeks etc., into Jews!
Though there are a few splinter groups here and there who still advocate Christian adherence to aspects of the true “Law of Moses,” there are a very small number of Christian denominations or sects that would ever admit to such a thing, no matter how “legalistic” others might perceive them. Their “legalism” is not the “literal” legalism Paul encountered, but it IS the same spirit! However, there is one caveat to that. The caveat is that the legalism spirit has made itself part of the accepted “mixture,” pretty much in the whole Christian church.
My own testimony is that I found, or was found of, Christ, purely by and through grace. It happened as a culmination of a “search.” It sounds a bit trite, but in my own mind I had a real drive to find “truth.” At the time I did not know that I did not originate the search, God did. Still, once the grace of God overwhelmed me in the beginning, I could barely conceive anything else! Five seconds of His joys exceeded all the pleasures of this world for all time!
Later, when I began my “self-effort” phase (which I discuss below), I was still walking in the Lord by faith, walking in the light I knew at the time, and received in the Lord above my knowledge or understanding through grace, yet still under the delusion of having to “work” to get God’s blessings. God was not double in me, yet in my understanding, knowledge and consciousness, I was still “double.” And as James says:
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.”(James 1:5-8).
In James’ terms, a “double minded man” is the same as the man who bounces between flesh and spirit, Paul’s Romans 7 man, who (he perceives) lives one day according to the spirit, another according to the flesh, in a constant “battle” where there is at best a draw. He is a man who believes he has a “sin nature” or a wicked heart or something just like it, as part and parcel of himself, not recognizing that the scripture says the old is dead and we owe it no allegiance anymore. For some, this “sin nature” concept becomes an excuse to continue in sin, since, after all, one cannot help it. Why fight it? God will forgive us and include it all “under grace.” We just “do the best we can,” and God knows we’re trying and that’s good enough for Him.
Frankly, that mind is presumptuous! As well as double minded, and eventually it will not stand.
The “legalism” that comes to us in our time, is for the most part not coming from people who are consciously promoting legalism as the way to approach and live in God, but more from misinformed brethren walking in faith and the zeal of the Lord, who have not yet found their deliverance from self-effort, which is the both the parent and child of legalism. In my days under that delusion, I promoted our law/grace mixture to the uttermost. It made the most sense, that grace must be “balanced” with a healthy dose of law, right? How else do we keep the people from running amok? We were Bible people to the core, but lacked total trust in the GOD OF THE BIBLE. Therefore we missed it in scripture where it is made plain that is an impossibility. There is no mixture – only one or the other. Sweet and bitter water cannot flow out of the same fountain. (James 3:11).
So while we no longer live by the actual Law of Moses, in our time it is replaced in the same spirit by the “law of self-effort.” A large portion of the church unknowingly adheres to this law, simply because it is how we have always lived – by self-effort. It is the way of the entire human race.
The law of self-effort poses our lives in Christ something like this. Under this law, the scriptures are there to provide specific road-maps and behaviors expected, attitudes expected, with specific results expected for adherence. What this law then says further to us, is that to mature and get closer to God, one has to find out what all these “principles” for living this life are, such as theological principles, marriage principles, financial principles, family principles, child-rearing principles, men’s ministry principles, women’s ministry principles, head of household principles, prayer principles, evangelism principles and so on. One learns these principles, line upon line, precept upon precept, and orders one’s life around them. The more successfully one can learn and apply these principles to his daily living, the more one becomes closer to being acceptable to God.
Under the perception of this law, God is almost always just a bit displeased with us, and is always hoping we will do better and try harder. He comforts here and there and we know His love, but still His “fullness” seems always out of reach. Being almost always somewhat disappointed in ourselves, we cannot help but believe God must be disappointed in us also. We just cannot seem to ever get all the way there.
Even the “acceptance” of God as we perceive it is a mixture. On the one hand, we will hear sermons and teachings of how God loves us unconditionally, accepts us, etc., while at the same time, often in the same forum, God is also being presented with a carrot just out of reach, if only we could do this or that better – THEN we would know the full acceptance and approval of God for our lives! After a while it simply becomes madness – schizophrenia! How could the “Life more abundantly” Jesus promised, that I experienced in the beginning, have become this never-get-there-keep-trying-self-condemning life I am living? Is there nothing better than this? WHO shall deliver me?
Still, we press on, and the reason we press on regardless of this insane schizophrenic mixture, is that we are hoping that the end result under this law will be that we have built a life ordered on God’s principles, with “God’s help,” which then may be presented to Him for His approval, which we hope will result in His “blessings on us,” manifested in the things and issues of this life. (And that can only be interpreted as “good” things, respectable things, that are clear to myself as well as to others.)
It is my “outer works” I am most concerned about, because I believe that if I obey all God’s principles perfectly, then all those aspects in my life that feel broken, will all begin to work in perfect harmony. Money will flow. Our possessions will increase. Our emotions are controlled. We will be healed of any infirmities anytime we pray, and so will anyone else. Our offspring will not disappoint us, but will always be obedient, never get in trouble, and will go to Bible College or a Christian university, and then marry and have another generation of the same. (If I do it all up to snuff!)
In short, under the law of self-effort, which is also “the mind set on the flesh,” (ourselves), I try to live a life that is pleasing to God according to my own understanding and preconceived notions of His principles and precepts, so that He might reward me with all those “things” mentioned above, as the sure and certain sign of His blessing. “See, Lord, here, receive this that I have done for You as my offering to Your glory!”
In other words, like Cain.
End Part One