A recent study by the Barna Group found that the number one challenge to helping people grow spiritually is that most people equate spiritual maturity with trying hard to follow the rules in the Bible. No wonder people also said they find themselves unmotivated to pursue spiritual growth. If I think God’s aim is to produce rule-followers, spiritual growth will always be an obligation rather than a desire of my heart.

“Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith,” Paul wrote, “but only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping.” In other words, it only results in a rule-keeping, desire-smothering, Bible-reading, emotion-controlling, self-righteous person who is not like me. In the end, I cannot follow God if I don’t trust that he really has my best interests at heart.

The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. There is an enormous difference between following rules and following Jesus, because I can follow rules without cultivating the right heart.

A friend of mine recently graduated from one of the service academies where they are very serious about the “clean your room” rule. Sometimes my friend got ink marks on the wall that would not come out, so he would chip the plaster off. The inspectors would give demerits for ink marks, but they figured missing chunks of plaster was a construction problem. The “rules” ended up encouraging the slow demolition of the room.

Jesus did not say, “I have come that you might follow the rules.” He said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it with abundance.” When we cease to understand spiritual growth as moving toward God’s best version of ourselves, the question, how is your spiritual life going? frightens us. A nagging sense of guilt and a deficit of grace prompt us to say, “Not too well. Not as good as I should be doing.” People often use external behaviors and devotional practices to measure their spiritual health. They measure their spiritual life by how early they are getting up to read the Bible, or how long their quiet times are, or how often they attend church services. But that is not what spiritual formation is about.

John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).

I have just completed a series of lessons on legalism, based on the book of Galatians.  They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year. Lessons correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines as well as the International Standard Series.