Ep. 075: Legalism and Grace
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From ancient Israel, to New Testament Pharisees, to priests and monks in the Medieval Church, to modern day North American Christians – legalism can definitely spread its roots in the church. Legalism can make it seem as though godliness is a super disciplined life. Marci Preheim, our guest this week, felt this way growing up in her strict, fundamentalist church. But after coming back to the faith as a young adult, she began to see how the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus plays a massive role in the believer’s life. This is what this week is all about: how the grace in the gospel can free a person from thinking that they need to do in order to be in.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Marci Preheim. Marci is the author of a book called Grace is Free: One Woman’s Journey from Fundamentalism to Failure to Faith. That’s an interesting title. She’s also active in doing different formal ministry events like teaching at women’s conferences, and Bible studies, and so on and so forth. Anyways, it’s great to be chatting with you today, Marci.
Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Let’s just start with this. How did you meet Jesus, and where are you at now?
I was raised in a very strict fundamentalist church. It was non-denominational but very similar to maybe the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists. From a very early age, our behaviour was tracked to understand whether or not we were saved or not. There were multiple prayers of salvation just to make sure, Bible verse memory from a very early age, all kinds of spiritual activities.
We lived at church. My mother was the women’s ministries director, and my dad was an elder. We were at church three, four times a week. I knew the gospel but also came away with the understanding that you had to fit into a certain mold. I was a girl so I had to look, and dress, and act a certain way. I had to have certain gifts. Certain spiritual gifts were for men, and certain spiritual gifts were for women. That was hard for me because I have this great big personality. It turns out I love theology. I love to study. I love to teach. I love to write – so ironic to me that that’s not really a girl gift.
Also, I’m a sinner. The teenage years were hard for me or hard for my parents. We had a process of sin management at our church where you put forth a façade of good behaviour, and then if you’re a sinner, well, you do that where nobody can see you where you won’t ruin your testimony for Jesus, blah, blah, blah.
Anyways, so I moved to Hollywood at 19 to pursue my dreams of becoming a famous model and actress. Ironically, I met Jesus there through a series of extremely painful circumstances which drove me back to what I knew, back to a fundamentalist church. Just through a series of … which you can read about in the book.
I met Jesus for real. The difference between my salvation prayer at that time was that I wasn’t promising to do better,
I was finally admitting I can’t do better and I need a Saviour.
Where are you at now? That was obviously the point where you sort of felt a greater, I don’t know, I don’t want to use the word “connection.” It’s kind of cheesy. But, you were able to connect with the grace of Jesus then and that began a journey, I’m guessing, to where you are now.
Yeah, of course. I mean, I took a, I don’t know, five, six year break from church life to sow my wild oats, but I’ve been in church ever since. I live in Nashville, Tennessee now. I’ve been in a similar non-denominational church for about 20 years. I’ve been teaching the women there. I led a ministry to drug addicts in the inner city for about 14 years. That was very good for me, actually, probably better for me than it was for the addicts that had to bear with me while I worked out my theology.
I spent a lot of time trying to make moralism and the gospel fit together. Turns out, that doesn’t work so well.
We need people like you to be able to share about those things, and who know it and have experienced the struggle. That’s very cool.
Now, for those listening who might not know, Marci’s book was published under Cruciform Press. That is a publisher, I should say, connected with Tim Challies, that publish really short books on very specific topics. There’s not a lot of fluff. It just kind of gets to the point. It’s really good for many people, 20s, 30-somethings that maybe don’t have huge attentions spans, just to read it and get it.
Anyways, Marci, my question is how you got involved with Cruciform Press, and how that whole process started? It seems interesting to me.
Yeah. Well, actually, my book was quite a bit longer before I came in touch with Cruciform Press. I self-published the book. It was originally called Super Free Woman. Tim Challies came and spoke at our church. My pastor, who wrote the forward, gave him a copy of my book. Then Tim reached out to me and said, “Hey, what are the odds that you would want to republish through us?” Of course, I jumped at the chance.
Well, let’s jump into this. When I first read the title of your book, I was intrigued, obviously. You say, “Grace is free,” and then, “One woman’s journey from fundamentalism to failure to faith.” I’m wondering if you can briefly explain this title. I’m guessing that your testimony already shared a little bit about that. Then also, how would you just describe the main point of your book in a few sentences?
Okay. Well, I think that would be best described by first reading Galatians 3:2-3 where Paul is exhorting the Galatians. He says, “I would like to learn just one thing from you. Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish, after beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” The answer in my book is “yes.”
We are so foolish, and here are all the ways that we do that. Here are all the ways that we try to control the Holy Spirit by defining gifts, and defining genders, and parenting each other, and making sure we don’t get too out of control, or making sure women are doing what women are supposed to do and men are doing what men are supposed to do. Then we end up robbing each other of intimacy because, instead of being able to be transparent even with our sin and struggles, we’re hiding from each other.
We’re putting forth this façade of godliness that isn’t even real, and we’re doing it for the sake of our testimony.
Then, that’s not a very good testimony when you go, “Hey, world. You need to clean yourself up and be super righteous like I am, even though I’m really not, but you don’t know that.”
You say grace is free, then. What are you trying to promote in this book,?
Well, I’m trying to remind Christians of the gospel and saying, “Listen, the gospel is not about what you do for Jesus. The gospel’s about what Jesus did for you. It’s because you’re not righteous that you need a Saviour. And then, after you receive your Saviour, after you receive the free gift of grace, it’s not you who’s cleaning yourself up. That’s just propping up the old Adam. That’s just faking it. It’s still God who is at work in you, and He’s calling you to rest, and let Him do it.”
Now, you touched on this, but I just want to ask it plainly, and then you can answer it. You said that growing up you had this idea that the more disciplined you were, the more you were godly.
I’m wondering, though, I think a lot of us can fall into that mentality without actually cognitively thinking about it. I’m not going to get up in the morning and say, “I’m gonna do this, this, this, and this so I’m more godly.” Can you sort of unpack this and explain how both men and women can fall into this trap today.
Yeah. This is what happens when we turn the gospel … we turn back to the law to make ourselves holy. This is what the Israelites did. They’re like, “Oh, yeah. We will obey the law,” when the whole point of the law is to inform you what sin is and then to condemn you when you can’t do it.
When we try to make ourselves righteous by law, we’re denying the gospel.
We do the same thing the Jews in Jesus’s day did, too, is that we add laws to God’s law in order to “help us obey the law.”
When the New Testament says, “Be hospitable,” we … This is what women do. We go, “Okay. Well, this is what hospitality looks like. You have to do it like Martha Stewart,” to the point where we’ve added all of these laws to where people like me are in the fetal position like, “I don’t know. Do we want tablecloths that touch the floor or not? I don’t know. You know? I don’t care.”
Somehow, all of this is a measure of our godliness, all of these things that Jesus told Martha to stop fussing about, “You are fussing and worried about many things, Martha, that don’t matter.”
In evangelicalism, we have taught women that it is godly to fuss about all these things that don’t matter.
Then we just end up competing with each other. I think men do the same thing. There’s a list of things that a godly man is supposed to look like. Then it becomes a competition for who’s the manliest man, or the godliest man, or the godliest woman. Then where’s intimacy? We can’t be intimate with people that we’re competing with.
As you say that Marci, I’m totally tracking with you. It’s hard because we’re in the age of, obviously, social media, the Internet, all that kind of stuff. A lot of my peers, being 20s and 30s, we grew up with that, so it’s our second nature to be on Instagram, and Facebook, and all these different things …
I feel like that only, obviously, increases that competition because now we start to see pastors, and church leaders, and worship leaders, and all these different people showing what they do, and what they wear, and all that kind of stuff, online. Now we’re looking at them and saying, “Well, that’s what godliness is.” It’s not just rules, it’s style now too and the things that you say. I don’t know if you wanted to reflect on that.
I mean, there’s just an endless list of hoops to jump through, and then you jump through them all and you realize there’s 10 more.
The entire New Testament, even the imperatives, are impossible to … “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Guess what? That is impossible. This is why we need a Saviour.
I think Christians have lost the understanding of what it is to live in freedom. The gospel doesn’t turn you into a robot. It sets you free.
Your parents, they love you no matter what, right? That’s how God is. He’s not like, “Oh, I love you. Oh, now I don’t because you messed up. Now I love you. Now I don’t. Now I love you.” It’s a free gift. He doesn’t give it and take it away based on our behaviour. So many of us grew up with this idea that Jesus has a checklist and he’s looking at you and disappointed like, “Mm, Mm, Mm.” That’s not it.
Our Christian life is supposed to be a joy not a drudgery.
When we define it with all of these rules, it becomes a drudgery. Even marriage is supposed to be joyful, partnership, and love, and let’s share our lives together, but all these rules have infected our marriages and turned them into a drudgery. That’s not at all what the gospel was supposed to do.
The gospel is supposed to reverse the curse not preach the curse.
Now, you mentioned this idea a few minutes ago, but I want to bring it up again. You say in your book “we deny God’s power when we claim Christianity but only put on an outward appearance of obedience.” That sentence is powerful. We kind of unpacked that a little bit, but that’s a very true thing that many of us can fall into.
I guess another way, instead of just unpacking that, instead of denying God’s power by doing that, how can we actually live through the gospel and live through God’s power and sort of … I guess the question is how do we become free of trying so hard on our own and just allowing the power of God to work in our lives?
Well, God’s power is going to work in our lives despite all of our efforts to control it.
You know what the hardest thing is for Christians to do? Rest.
What does it mean to live by faith? It means that you’re trusting in someone else’s righteousness on your behalf, not trying to work up your own. Just live. Just live your life.
99.9% of ministry is not stuff you sign up for.
We’re always trying to quantify, “Oh, what’s my spiritual gift?” so that I can sign up for ministries that are along with my spiritual gift. Guess what? You have received a gift. You will use it.
Despite what all of your efforts, your gift is going to be used as you just live your life. Go live your life in community with people. We spend so much time in the church with all of our million ministries that we have created that we don’t even have time to be in the world because we’re so busy making casseroles for church events.
Just live. Just live. The beauty of faith is that you don’t have to nitpick yourself to death. You don’t have to analyze, “Was that sin? Should I apologize for that? Should I confess? Should I …” You know?
We spend so much time gazing at our navel that we wake up one day and we realize, “I haven’t lived.”
Now, obviously, as you’re saying that, I want to just bring in the last question, the question about what it is to abide in Christ, because you say that all we really need to do as saved sons and daughters of God is to abide in Christ. That’s it.
The question is you’re saying now to me that, instead of trying to do all these things, just live. Go live your life of faith relying on the character of God and the promises of God. Just go and do that. How does abiding in Christ change your Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and so on and so forth?
Yeah, yeah. I mean this is a pretty new concept for me, actually, being told my whole life what a Christian … My mother just left and she was like, “Hold your stomach in. Stand up straight. People need to know you’re a Christian.”
Abiding in Christ is the same as living by faith. I just think about, as you go and you live your life, how is it a good testimony to be fake? I use an example in the book of the fact that we’ve become this whole generation of Stepford Wives, where we think that we’re going to preach Jesus by our clean houses and our Martha Stewart parties.
Really, the best opportunities I’ve had to talk about Jesus are when I’m at work and someone’s struggling in their marriage and I say, “Yeah. I’ve been through that. My marriage was in a shambles.”
We share Jesus when we are real people. It’s our weakness that attracts the world, not our fake strength.
To abide in Jesus is just to always … just be genuine. Pray without ceasing doesn’t mean you get up at five in the morning and you recite off a whole bunch of junk that Jesus already knows. Praying without ceasing is being cognizant of His presence and just saying … In this conversation with this woman, saying, “Lord Jesus, help me to just love her, and listen to her, and not just jump in and make this about me.” You know?
“Help me to be real. Help me to be kind. Help me to … ” Somehow, we Christians think that, by being angry and demanding that the world be moral and godly like us, that somehow they’re going to repent and they’re going to just be like, “Oh, I want to be like that angry person over there.” You know?
They don’t. They don’t want to be like us when we’re angry.
As we’re talking now, I’m thinking there are people listening who have had in their mindset, whether it was preached to them at their church or their family, for instance like you, where a good discipline, good obedience, right obedience, that was godliness, and that’s what they really feel like Christianity is.
There’s a lot of people that grow up, they’re getting out of high school, they’re starting to go to college, and they grew up in that household. Now it’s like they feel free from that, and then they actually leave the church and leave their faith.
My last question for you would just be to ask, and you’ve been through it, what were the things that you did, or what were the things that you saw or experienced, that enabled you to make that 180 change where you’re now just relying on Christ?
How do we go from relying on ourselves to relying on Christ? What could you encourage people with?
I didn’t do anything. R.C. Sproul tells a story about a father holding a little child by the hand at the train station and saying, “Now hold on to my hand and don’t let go, because it’s not safe.” Well, he’s given the command to the child to hold on, but who’s holding on really? It’s the father who is holding on to the child even though the child has been commanded to hold on.
We all fear that our kids are going to go off. I mean, I’m an empty-nester now myself. We all fear that our kids are going to go off the rails. I can’t keep that from happening by putting my kids under the law.
Love must release. Guess what, parents? We can trust the Holy Spirit. Our kids’ salvation is not up to us.
Even if you are are going off into the world and you’re going to experience a little bit of freedom, well, guess what? I experienced a lot of freedom, okay? I lived in Hollywood. The Lord never let me go. In fact, there were a couple of times when I should have died. I was given a date rape drug one night, and I went and passed out in the women’s bathroom where my attacker couldn’t get to me.
Parents, live on your knees, yes, but the Holy Spirit can be trusted. I didn’t do anything to hold on to my own faith. The Lord held on to me.
Marci, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to share your story, which I think is very powerful, obviously, and then also taking us through some important principles that you go into a little bit more detail in in your book Grace is Free: One Woman’s Journey from Fundamentalism to Failure to Faith.
To anyone listening that’s interested, that maybe you’re sort of in a place where you would like to experience this ability to just abide in Christ and rest in Christ, that’s sort of what Marci’s been talking about. I’m going to put the links to where you can get her book and find out more on the episode page as well.
Once again, Marci, I just want to say thank you so much for sharing your story, sharing the gospel. I hope to have you back on the show again soon.
Great. Thank you.