Category Archives: Legalist
Thomas Schreiner, Galatians (Zondervan, 2010), 392:
The cross plays a bookends role in the letter [of Galatians], for just as Paul begins the letter by featuring the freedom won in the cross, so too he closes the letter by underlining the significance of the cross.
Paul’s only boast is in Christ’s cross, by which he is crucified to the world and the world is crucified to him (6:14). The cross and eschatology are inseparable. Just as the cross liberated believers from the present evil age (1:4), so too it crucifies attachment to this world (6:14). The opponents boasted in circumcising converts and took pleasure in external accomplishments because they lived to win the applause of others (6:12–13). They lived for comfort in order to avoid persecution.
The cross severs a love affair with the world and grants a person (by grace!) a desire to boast only in the cross. A new reality—a new age—has begun through the cross, and Paul summons the Galatians and all believers to find their joy only in the cross and to renounce any boasting in human accomplishments.
Paul in Galatians 6:12–15:
12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to boast nexcept in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.
Thomas Schreiner comments on 6:15 in his Galatians commentary [(Zondervan, 2010), pages 379–380; my emphasis]:
Since the world has been crucified to Paul (and by extension to all Christians), whether one is circumcised or not is utterly irrelevant. What is remarkable is that circumcision is assigned to the old world order, to the old creation rather than the new creation. The law is part of the old age, while the cross inaugurates the new age.
The centrality of the new creation functions as an envelope with the introduction to the letter, where the death of Christ delivers from the present evil age (1:4). The new creation has dawned, in other words, through the cross of Christ.
We see the same dynamic in 2 Cor 5:14-21. There Paul also features the new creation, and again it is tied inextricably to the cross of Christ. The new creation has been inaugurated in Christ and will be consummated at the eschaton, when the groaning that characterizes the old creation will pass away (Rom 8:18-22).
Remarkably, in the midst of a great conflict over circumcision, Paul does not elevate uncircumcision either. Those who find significance in uncircumcision belong to the old world order as well. There is no particular virtue in uncircumcision, which explains why Paul was willing to circumcise Timothy (Acts 16:3). If circumcision is practiced for cultural reasons and not to achieve salvation, observing it is up to one’s individual conscience.
Verse 15 parallels both 5:6 and 1 Cor 7:19. The faith that expresses itself in love (5:6) is now a reality because the new creation has dawned. The ability to keep God’s commands is a reality in the new creation (1 Cor 7:19). Eschatology, then, plays a vital role in Galatians, for the Judaizers were attached to the old age and failed to see that the new has come. Their error, however, was not merely eschatological; there were anthropological corollaries and causes, for those who are attached to the old age cling to it because they desire to establish their own righteousness instead of receiving the righteousness from God (cf. Rom 10:3).
This is one way that eschatology reframes the personal struggle with self-righteousess and legalism (but without in any way diminishing the priority of personal obedience).
If you find it difficult to release your grip on your own self-righteous before God, you’re not alone, it is a problem we all face as sinners. The solution is found in turning away from the old age and living in light of the new age that began in the death and resurrection of the Savior. The eschatology of the New Testament, here in Galatians, will serve us well in our struggle to release our grip on self-righteousness.
Yesterday I spent the day researching in the main reading room at the Library of Congress. Reading there is really one of the coolest experiences a nerd could ever blog about. Mainly I was there to kick around some ideas I have for a potential book project and the purpose of my trip was really not much more than acclimating myself to a number of 18th century writers that I am only vaguely familiar. One of those writers is Ralph Erskine. Erskine wrote a book, indecisively titled Gospel Sonnets, Or, Spiritual Songs (Edinburgh: 1755). One of the chapters in the book is comprised of several sonnets that slap legalistic preachers around. This sonnet was too good not to post (pp. 49-51):
Hell cares not how crude holiness be preach’d,
If sinners match with Christ be never reach’d;
Knowing their holiness is but a sham,
Who ne’er are marry’d to the holy Lamb.
They mar true holiness with tickling chat,
To breed a bastard Pharisaic brat.
They woefully the gospel-message broke,
Make fearful havoc of the Master’s flock;
Yet please themselves and the blind multitude,
By whom the gospel’s little understood.
Rude souls perhaps imagine little odds
Between the legal and the gospel roads:
But vainly men attempt to blend the two. …
The fiery law, as ’tis a covenant,
Schools men to see the gospel-aid they want;
Then gospel-aid does sweetly them incline
Back to the law as ’tis a rule divine.
Heav’n's healing work is oft commenc’d with wounds,
Terror begins what loving-kindness crowns.
Preachers may therefore press the fiery law,
To strike the Christless man with dreadful awe.
Law-threats which for his sins to hell depress,
Yes, damn him for his rotten righteousness;
That, while he view the law exceeding broad,
He fain may wed the righteousness of God.
But ah! to press law-works as terms of life,
Was ne’er the way to court the Lamb a wife.
To urge conditions in the legal frame,
Is to renew the vain old cov’nant game.
The law is good when lawfully ’tis us’d,
But most destructive then it is abus’d.
They set not duties in the proper sphere,
Who duly law and gospel don’t sever;
But under lassy chains let sinners lie,
As tributaries, or to DO or DIE.
Nor make the law a squaring rule of life,
But in the gospel-throat a bloody knife.
Ah the ole “L” word. Many of us use the word in our vocab. But what is it and what does it mean? That’s a question I’m asked on a frequent basis and one I like to revisit annually on this blog.
I can distinctly remember the time when this question begged for clarification in my own life. At one time three events collided (and all took place in the same week). I think each event reveals why clarifying the dangers of legalism are necessary and worthy of revisiting frequently.
First was a conversation with a woman who had decided to permit her daughter to skip church in order to participate in soccer games. “I don’t want to be legalistic about church,” she said. Another encounter was with a man who defined legalism as “living by lots of rules.” And the third encounter was with a man who labeled Christians who abstained from alcohol as legalists.
Let me say from the start that I’m not saying these people are right or wrong in their convictions. What is important to see is that each statement (I believe) reveals a superficial and fundamentally flawed view of legalism.
Let me explain.
Rules are not the problem
Almost 900 passages in the Bible contain the phrase “do not.” Which is to say that the Bible contains quite a lot of prohibitions. Jesus condensed some chief prohibitions for us: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother’” (Luke 18:20). There are a lot of rules in the Bible.
Which is to say that if you apply the entire Bible to the Christian life, you can end up with a long list of helpful rules and reminders (i.e. the “one anothers”). Doesn’t this fact explain why Jonathan Edwards was compelled to compose his long list of resolutions?
See the fundamental danger of legalism is not living with rules or not living by rules—whether you attend church every week or not, whether you drink wine or not. Legalism points to a much deeper heart issue.
A false gospel
At its most dangerous level, legalism is a soteriological problem. That is, legalism is a false gospel and a false hope. Legalism is the lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my performance rather than the finished work of Christ.
It is legalism that causes the Pharisee to look proudly into the sky in the presence of a tax collector. It is legalism that causes a poor missionary in Africa to think God is more pleased with him than an American Christian businessman driving a Mercedes. It is legalism that causes the preacher behind the pulpit to think God is more pleased with him than the tatooed Christian teenager sitting in the back row.
Legalism is the lie that God will find more pleasure in me because my obedience is greater than others or that God looks at me with disgust because I am not living up to His expectations. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us (in the finished work of Christ). Legalism causes the heart to forget that God sings over us because of the work He has done, not because of what we have done (Zeph. 3:15-17).
Believers equally bring pleasure to God because the pleasure He receives in us is the purchased pleasure of the substitution of Jesus Christ. Any imagined superiority to other Christians (not rules or a lack of rules) is the sure sign of the legalist.
The irony of legalism
The great irony (and danger) of legalism is this: If you think God is more pleased with you because you take your child to a soccer game instead of church, if you think God is more pleased with you because you do not live by rules, and if you think God is more pleased with you because you do drink alcohol—you are just as legalistic as the man who thinks that perfect church attendance, lists of rules, and abstaining from alcohol makes him more pleasing to God.
Rules are not the problem.
And whether our convictions are biblical or unbiblical is another issue altogether. Legalism is not so much objective (are my convictions biblical or not?) but subjective (what do my convictions get me?). And this is what makes legalism dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not.
From what I hear, often what is labeled as legalistic too often focuses primarily upon rules or a lack thereof rather than the gospel.
As I’ve seen in my own heart, what sustains self-righteous legalism is a failure to boast only in the righteousness of the Cross of Christ. Once I take my eyes off the Cross I begin boasting in my list of rules or boasting in my lack of rules. Either way, I know I have fallen into legalism.
The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
by John Piper
N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. He’s become known for his controversial teaching on justification and for his statements like: “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.”
Enter pastor and scholar John Piper.
Piper’s highly anticipated new book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway: 2007) is framed around eight fundamental questions raised in the theology of Wright:
- The gospel is not about how to get saved? (ch. 5)
- Justification is not how you become a Christian? (ch. 6)
- Justification is not the gospel? (ch. 6)
- We are not justified by believing in justification? (ch. 5)
- The imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense at all? (ch. 8 )
- Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived? (ch. 7)
- First-century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism? (chs. 9, 10)
- God’s righteousness is the same as His covenant faithfulness? (ch. 11)
Obviously these are monumental questions, bearing heavy consequences for the Church.
As expected, Piper walks slowly through these questions raised in Wright’s theology and returns frequently to biblical exegesis for his responses. Piper remarks in the intro that he dialogued with Wright during the process of writing the volume, even receiving an 11,000-word response on the first draft to clarify and prevent distortions (p. 10).
But before jumping into the debate, Piper opens the book with very humble words. He is too close to glory to waste his time winning debates and scoring publicity points. It’s a beginning that we can all learn from (see p. 13). This humble introduction is followed by an entire chapter – “On Controversy” – to explain why true Christian unity is not to be found in avoiding disagreements. Taking his cue from Machen, the Church has risen to new heights when celebrating truth within the context of controversy (p. 29).
Where Wright is right
Piper is clear and quick to point out areas of agreement. These include mutual convictions of Scriptural authority, the resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the opposition to homosexuality, and a big-picture understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant (pp. 15-16). And even in elements more closely related to the Gospel, Piper points out continuity. Piper writes, “There is nothing unclear about Wright’s commitment to penal substitution” (p. 48). And later, “Wright’s own words concerning penal substitution seem clear and strong” (p. 52).
Where Wright is wrong
The debate may appear to some as a trifle between one pastor/scholar and another pastor/scholar. But the implications run deep for all Christians. “This book took its origin from the countless conversations and e-mails with those who are losing their grip in this great gospel” (p. 10). Piper’s overriding argument is not that the gospel is being lost by outright dismissal, but in a gradual, incremental relaxing of the gospel due to a blurring of the biblical understanding of justification. So dangerous is this blurring, according to Piper, that at the end of the day, Wright may in fact be reinforcing Roman Catholic soteriology (p. 183)!
Piper is concerned that Wright’s biblical theology has become a grid that brings in too many extra-biblical resources to make interpretive decisions. Piper believes this approach, when it comes to understanding justification, “has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing” (p. 38).
Wright’s removal of justification from the gospel is also a big problem. Piper writes, “I find it perplexing that Wright is so eager not to let the message of justification be part of the gospel” (p. 82) and “Wright’s zeal to remove justification from the event of becoming a Christian” is “remarkable” (p. 95). Later, Piper highlights the missing element of Christ’s imputed righteousness in Wright’s theology.
Piper takes time clarifying the nature of legalism and the careful distinction of works and justification, a distinction not easily seen in Wright’s writings. In the end, Piper is forced to make the following clarification:
“If we make the mistake of thinking that our works of love (the fruit of God’s Spirit) secure or increase God’s commitment to be completely for us, now and in the last judgment, we compromise the very reason that these works of love exist, namely, to display the infinite worth of Christ and his work as our all-sufficient obedience and all-sufficient sacrifice.
Our mind-set toward our own good works must always be: these works depend on God being totally for us. That’s what the blood and righteousness of Christ have secured and guaranteed forever. Therefore, we must resist every tendency to think of our works as establishing or securing the fact that God is for us forever. It is always the other way around. Because he is for us, he sustains our faith. And through that faith-sustaining work, the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of love” (p. 186).
Piper devotes many pages to the Law-Court theme in justification, where great disparity between Piper and Wright becomes obvious. The book gives the reader a great overview of the most important features of the biblical gospel. A series of six related and helpful appendices conclude the book (pp. 189-225).
I’m thankful for the care taken by Piper to stay close to the issues that directly impact the clarity of the gospel message.
The overriding concern for Piper is not that Wright has evil intentions or is viciously dangerous. The problem is that Wright’s message confuses the gospel and breeds confusion where the Church needs to be strongest.
“I am not optimistic that the biblical doctrine of justification will flourish where N. T. Wright’s portrayal holds sway. I do not see his vision as a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said. And I think, as it stands now, it will bring great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity. I don’t think this confusion is the necessary dust that must settle when great new discoveries have been made. Instead, if I read the situation correctly, the confusion is owing to the ambiguities in Wright’s own expressions, and to the fact that, unlike his treatment of some subjects, his paradigm for justification does not fit well with the ordinary reading of many texts and leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (p. 24).
Later Piper writes, “This book exists because of my own concern that, specifically in the matter of justification by faith, Wright’s approach has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing.” (p. 38). Even the most straightforward passages on imputation (like 2 Corinthians 5:21) are “shrouded in Wright’s misleading comments” (p. 178).
And most notably, the gospel in its application to sinners becomes vague.
“But there is a misleading ambiguity in Wright’s statement that we are saved not by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ambiguity is that it leaves undefined what we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for. It is not saving faith to believe in Jesus merely for prosperity or health or a better marriage. In Wright’s passion to liberate the gospel from mere individualism and to make it historical and global, he leaves it vague for individual sinners” (pp. 85-86).
Piper is rightly concerned that this vagueness will spread into the pulpit. “Following N.T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church” (p. 165).
A fitting summary of Piper’s entire case is found early in the book.
“My conviction concerning N.T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that is becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful. It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the gospel of Christ and the biblical meaning of justification. But in my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God” (p. 15).
It’s right for the Church to jealously guard the clear and biblical understanding of how sinners are brought into a right relationship with God. And it’s at this critical place, over the battle for our understanding of justification as the personal application of Christ’s work to a sinner’s soul, where Wright’s theology simply falls apart. This is an error the Church cannot afford to entertain.
Whether Piper has clearly and fairly represented Wright at every detail is a conclusion I’ll leave for those more connected to the discussion. What is certain is that The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright is a book thoroughly centered on clear exegesis of Scripture on the topic of justification. You don’t need a background in the Wright/Piper debate to gain a better appreciation of – and a firmer hold on – the biblical message of the gospel.
Title: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
Author: John Piper
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > moderately difficult at times
Dust jacket: no
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Price USD: $11.99 from Monergism
ISBN: 9781581349641, 1581349645
Last night 60 Minutes aired a segment on popular pastor and author Joel Osteen. Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, appeared briefly. Horton has spoken out with concern over Osteen’s message. Here’s one concern that strikes me:
“There is no condemnation in Osteen’s message for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law. On the other hand, there is no justification. Instead of either message, there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: ‘Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful.’ …
Instead of accepting God’s just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification, Osteen counsels readers simply to reject guilt and condemnation. Yet it is hard to do that successfully when God’s favor and blessing on my life depend entirely on how well I can put his commands to work. ‘If you will simply obey his commands, He will change things in your favor.’ That’s all: ‘…simply obey his commands.’
Everything depends on us, but it’s easy. … Osteen seems to think that we are basically good people and God has a very easy way for us to save ourselves — not from his judgment, but from our lack of success in life — with his help. ‘God is keeping a record of every good deed you’ve ever done,’ he says — as if this is good news. ‘In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you are taken care of.’
It may be ‘Law Lite,’ but make no mistake about it: behind a smiling Boomer Evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God’s wrath, there is a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, good news to good advice. The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the good news is just a softer version of the bad news: Do more. But this time, it’s easy! And if you fail, don’t worry. God just wants you to do your best. He’ll take care of the rest.
So who needs Christ? At least, who needs Christ as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29)? The sting of the law may be taken out of the message, but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy, not to measure us against God’s holiness.
So while many supporters offer testimonials to his kinder, gentler version of Christianity than the legalistic scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that God’s rules or principles are easier and it’s all about happiness here and now, not being reconciled to a holy God who saves us from ourselves. In its therapeutic milieu, sin is failing to live up to our potential, not falling short of God’s glory. We need to believe in ourselves and the wages of such ‘sins’ is missing out on our best life now. But it’s still a constant stream of exhortation, demands, and burdens: follow my steps and I guarantee your life will be blessed.”
- Michael S. Horton article, Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study
Horton’s comments are reminiscent of J. Gresham Machen’s view that the theological liberalism of his own day was not a new path of freedom but a “sublimated form of legalism” [see Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 143-156].
Instead of preaching that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” the popular trend says, “God blesses you with all physical blessing because you have asked enough and obeyed a certain way to unleash the blessing.”
Horton and Machen both recognize that while contemporary shifts in preaching may seem to liberate the believer, the opposite happens — God’s promised blessing becomes contingent on personal obedience. This is the very bondage to the Law Christ frees us from!
So why has God blessed your life? Why do you have life? A job? Money? Food? Clothes? Are your successes expected because God likes you more than others? Are you blessed because your obedience is superior? The proper answer is that all of God’s blessing comes to us in Christ. We don’t get what we deserve (His wrath), we get what we don’t deserve (grace, forgiveness and blessing from God through the death of Christ).
At the end of the day the prosperity gospel is a radical break from Scripture that tells us we have already received everything necessary from God in Christ.
The Gospel – the message that sinners are justified by faith alone in the perfect life and work of Christ alone – is the true path to eternal blessing and freedom. When this Gospel is clouded (or even forgotten), we no longer get a clear view of God or eternal reality by which we interpret our world, our job, our pain, our successfulness.
In the end, to presume God’s blessing is an award for obedience is bondage to age-old legalism, albeit with a kinder and gentler face.
RELATED POST: A short essay answering the question, What is legalism? (5/22/07)
RELATED POST: “Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism (3/19/07)
RELATED POST: Cross-centered obedience (08/16/07)
RELATED POST: Deeper into the Glories of Calvary (09/03/07)
RELATED POST: Sinclair Ferguson on supporting the imperatives to holiness (07/23/07)
RELATED: What constitutes ‘relevant preaching’? … “The Christian is in the midst of a sore battle. And as for the condition of the world at large — nothing but the coldest heartlessness could be satisfied with that. It is certainly true that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. Even in the Christian life there are things that we should like to see removed; there are fears within as well as fightings without; even within the Christian life there are sad evidences of sin. But according to the hope which Christ has given us, there will be final victory, and the struggle of this world will be followed by the glories of heaven. That hope runs all through the Christian life; Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.” Machen in Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 147, 149.
At the conclusion of Sunday celebration – after a sermon on 1 Timothy 1:15-17 — pastor Rick Gamache pondered the question: How does God take us deeper into the glories of the Cross?
In this text, Paul acknowledges himself the worst sinner he knows (v. 15). And God, he exclaimed, is glorious in holiness and majesty (v. 17).
It’s here, between a deepening understanding of personal sin – that I am the worst sinner I know – and a growing understanding of God’s holiness, that we grow deeper into the glories of Calvary. When we grow up into God’s holiness, and grow down in properly understanding the depth of our personal sin, we better see the wrath of God that was appeased in the Cross, the emptiness of our self-righteousness and the magnitude of the glorious, reconciling Cross!
A great image of the Cross-centered life!
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:14-19)
The sermon, titled “A Functional Doctrine of Sin,” is perhaps the best message on sin I have heard. Amazing! (Listen here).
Related: The song “The Glories of Calvary” was written by Steve & Vikki Cook and available for a paltry buck.
Super-athlete Michael Vick has pled guilty to dog fighting. Possibly his NFL career is over, certainly it’s on ‘hold.’
It’s his post-guilty plea statements I find curious. In part he said …
“… I’m upset with myself, and, you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. And I think that’s the right thing to do as of right now.
Like I said, for this — for this entire situation I never pointed the finger at anybody else, I accepted responsibility for my actions of what I did and now I have to pay the consequences for it. But in a sense, I think it will help, you know, me as a person. I got a lot to think about in the next year or so.
I offer my deepest apologies to everybody out in there in the world who was affected by this whole situation. And if I’m more disappointed with myself than anything it’s because of all the young people, young kids that I’ve let down, who look at Michael Vick as a role model. And to have to go through this and put myself in this situation, you know, I hope that every young kid out there in the world watching this interview right now who’s been following the case will use me as an example to using better judgment and making better decisions.
Once again, I offer my deepest apologies to everyone. And I will redeem myself. I have to.”
I pray that Vick has found his Savior! This would be amazing grace covering a violence-addicted heart. But we’re also aware now is a great time to publicly “find Christ” in the hopes of swaying more lenient sentencing. May Vick truly find his peace in the Cross and find wise counsel from pastors in his life. We can pray to this end.
But there is a deeper lesson in these words for us all. We want to “find Jesus” and, at the same time, want to redeem ourselves. We don’t say it like this, but it’s a real struggle. We struggle against legalism because we struggle to rest our full eternal redemption into the hands of another.
Trusting in the gospel is to be eternally redeemed in Christ, relinquishing all hope of becoming redeem-able. It means crying for mercy in light of the impossible demands of self-redemption. We have seen the sin in our hearts, the holy standards of God, and cannot be redeemed today or tomorrow or in a year by our self-improvements.
In Scripture it’s one sinful tax collector and one bloody criminal hanging next to Christ that both find redemption by relinquishing self-improvement. This is hard for us to grasp in a society bent on self-improvement and image and perception. We are repulsed from the idea that our souls cannot be improved to God’s approval. We don’t want to be helpless. We need Jesus for an initial push of momentum in the right direction.
Recall what Mark Lauterbach recently wrote: “I have wondered for a couple of years where the Gospel intersects modern American life — and I think it is here. The Gospel calls us to stop trying to improve ourselves.”
At some level the words of Vick are the words of us all: ‘Redeem me so I can redeem myself.’ This prideful contradiction energizes legalism, undermines the humbling power of the gospel, undermines the grace-sustained Cross-centered life, undermines our Cross-purchased eternal security, and undermines honesty over personal sin in small group meetings.
At the least, these words reveal a false dichotomy between private, spiritual ‘redemption’ and public, PR ‘redemption.’ At the worst, Vick’s words reveal a misunderstanding of the gospel, a gospel so confused in popular culture that to “find Jesus” may now be the first step towards self-redemption.
photo (c) 2007 Doug Mills/The New York Times
How do we define legalism? Because the term legalism is a very serious one (and because my heart is especially susceptible to it) I frequently think about how the roots of legalism sprout in our lives. So today I want to work towards a definition.
Three events from last year (that all took place back in Omaha in the same week) reveal why clarification on the dangers of legalism are necessary. First was a conversation with a woman who had decided it was okay that her daughter skip church for soccer games. “I don’t want to be legalistic about church,” she said. Another encounter was with a man who defined legalism as “living by lots of rules.” And the third encounter was over an issue concerning alcohol and how those who say Christians should not drink are legalists.
I’m not saying these people are right or wrong in their convictions. What I am saying is that each statement sadly reveals a misunderstanding about legalism. What we commonly forget is that legalism is dangerous whether your biblical convictions are right or wrong. Holding biblically accurate convictions does not automatically protect from legalism.
Rules are not the problem
The danger of legalism does not seem to be found primarily by living with rules or not living by rules — whether you attend church every week or not, whether you drink wine or not.
Jesus says, ‘take every precaution you need to prevent your heart from sinning.’ “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29).
If you apply the entire bible to the Christian life, you can end up with a long list of helpful rules and reminders (like the “one anothers”). Count how many times the phrase “do not” occurs in the Proverbs. It’s no wonder that Jonathan Edwards came up with his long list of resolutions.
Rules are not the central problem in legalism.
A false gospel
Legalism is (most dangerously) a soteriological problem. That is, legalism is a false gospel. Legalism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my obedience.
It is legalism that causes the Pharisee to look proudly into the sky in the presence of a tax collector. It is legalism that causes a missionary in Africa to think God is more pleased with him than the Christian businessman in America. And it is legalism that causes the preacher behind the pulpit to think God is more pleased with him than the tatooed Christian teenager sitting in the back row.
The common salvation (Jude 3)
Legalism is the lie that God will find more pleasure in me because my obedience is greater than others or that God looks at me with disgust because I am not growing in grace as quickly as my friends. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us (in Christ). Legalism causes the heart to forget that God sings over us because of the work He has done, not because of what we have done (Zeph. 3:15-17).
Believers equally bring pleasure to God because the pleasure He receives in us is the purchased pleasure of the substitution of Jesus Christ. Any imagined superiority to other Christians (not rules or a lack of rules) is the sure sign of the legalist.
The irony of legalism
The great irony (and danger) of legalism is this … If you think God is more pleased with you because you take your child to a soccer game instead of church, if you think God is more pleased with you because you do not live by rules, and if you think God is more pleased with you because you do drink alcohol – you are just as legalistic as the man who thinks that perfect church attendance, lists of rules and abstaining from alcohol makes him more pleasing to God.
Whether our convictions are biblical or unbiblical is another issue altogether. Legalism is not so much objective (are my convictions biblical or not?) but subjective (what do my convictions get me?). So legalism is just as dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not. From what I hear, this is not the common definition floating around the broad Evangelical landscape.
Sadly, churches that do not train their sheep to boast only in the righteousness of the Cross of Christ, but are frequently carried into other controversies and debates, or pride themselves in a lack of rules and regulations, can equally create a breeding ground for self-righteous legalism. And this is true even if the church is biblically correct every time on every debate.
Related: Living the Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney