Results tagged “Legalism” from Reformation21 Blog

Legalism, Lawlessness and Pastoral Ministry

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In recent years, many have enthusiastically welcomed the resurgence of interest in the Marrow Controversy for the simple reason that there is no greater need that any of us have at any given time in our Christian lives than the need to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of legalism and lawlessness. The Gospel keeps us on the straight and narrow path of grace unto holiness in Christ alone. We are not received by God on the basis of anything that we do; neither are we left in a state of sin and rebellion once we have been made the recipients of God's grace in Christ crucified and risen. This is not something that we learn once in our Christian life; rather, it is something that we are always needing to be reminded of as we make our pilgrimage to glory. 

Yesterday, I took time to read through the pastoral epistles. As I made my way from 1 and 2 Timothy into Titus, I noticed something that I don't think that I've ever noticed before in these portions of God's word. In giving his final words of instruction to Timothy and Titus--for the strengthening of the hands of these young ministers and for the equipping of future generations of pastors--the Apostle everywhere presses the need that the pastor has to guard against both legalism and lawlessness in doctrine and life. 

The pastoral epistles open somewhat abruptly, with Paul charging Timothy to understand that everything he is writing is meant to encourage "love that issues in a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." He then warned his young protégé about those who have "swerved from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions." The rejection of teachers of the law then resurfaces throughout Paul's first and second letters to Timothy, shedding light on some of the features of this particular brand of legalism. 

In 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Paul exposed legalism for what it is in fact--nothing less than the "teachings of demons" (1 Tim. 4:2). He then explained that those teaching it were "forbidding marriage and requiring abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth." Paul reminds Timothy at this junction--as he does elsewhere in the pastorals--that "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer" (1 Tim. 4:4-5). So serious was Paul about the evils of legalism that while warning against the rich trusting in their wealth (a warning against the lawless love of money), the Apostle shifted gears to ensure that no one would then fall into the opposite ditch of legalistic aestheticism. He wrote: "As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy" (1 Tim. 6:17). 

Of course, the foundation of our freedom from legalism is the saving work of our mediator and Savior, Jesus Christ. Paul constantly returns to this throughout these letters. Paul never took one step forward in Christian and pastoral imperatives without ensuring that we are clear about the nature of God's unmerited grace in Christ. In the introductory section of 1 Timothy, he laid the groundwork for understanding the importance of the free grace of God in Christ when he gave that biographical summary of his own conversion and calling into ministry:

"Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life" (1 Tim. 1:13-16).

Then, at the outset of 2 Timothy, Paul wrote:

"Share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:8-10). 

Finally, in Titus, we get that great statement about salvation by grace alone in Christ alone, when the Apostle captured it in the following way:

"When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:4-7). 

An atomistic consideration of those three passages, could lead us to the faulty conclusion that because our salvation is entirely by grace alone in Christ alone, it doesn't matter how we live or what we do. However, a contextual consideration of them leads us to a very different conclusion. 

In all three pastoral letters, Paul impresses the need ministers have to pursue personal godliness and to call the people of God to pursue true, Gospel-motivated holiness and good works. Pastoral ministry demands that the minister "take heed to himself and to his teaching" (1 Tim. 4:16). Sound living and sound doctrine are mutual prerequisites for a faithful and fruitful pastoral ministry. In fact, Paul insisted that the example that the minister sets is one that will necessarily be watched and emulated by the people of God under his charge. While some despised Timothy for his youthfulness, Paul charged him with the following admonition: "Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12). Additionally, Paul told Titus, "Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us" (Titus 2:7-8). 

When he came to explain the error of apostate ministers who had made shipwreck of their faith, Paul not only highlighted their doctrine, he put a sobering spotlight on the lawlessness of their lives:

"Those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear...Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure...The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden" (1 Tim. 5:20-25). 

Four times in 1 Timothy (e.g. 1 Tim. 2:10; 5:10; 5:25: 6:18) and five times in Titus (e.g. Titus 1:16; 2:7; 2:14; 3:8; 3:14), Paul explained the important place that "good works" should have in the lives of those who have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. While good works are not the basis of our salvation, the are the unmistakeable characteristics of those who have been redeemed freely by the grace of God in Christ. 

The Apostle gives very specific applications about how a minister is to conduct himself in the house of God, the pillar and ground of truth, and about how the members of God's house should conduct themselves within that house. Whether it is in instructions about sound doctrine, prayer, modesty, self-control, mercy ministry, work, leadership qualifications, gender roles, single-mindedness or zeal for good works, the pastoral epistles place a strong emphasis on the call to personal and pastoral godliness. 

Just as the grace of God in the Gospel safeguards against legalism and lawlessness, so God has appointed ministers to wield the Gospel of God's grace in Christ, in their lives and doctrine, in such a way as to help the people of God avoid these two perilous ditches. We must, at all costs, be vigilant to avoid embracing legalism in a cloak of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5) and lawlessness in the cloak of grace (Titus 2:11-14). God has given us the Gospel and ministers of the Gospel to help keep us on the straight and narrow. 

Legalism in the Southern Baptist Convention (Alcohol)

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If there's one thing I dislike a lot more than antinomianism, it is legalism. Legalism has many forms, and very often can come across as sanctimonious, which is why it is so lethal. 

Legalism often rears its ugly head in American churches concerning the matter of alcohol. This article here (getting close to 1 million shares) is probably the worst I've ever read on why one doesn't drink alcohol.  

However, it is one thing for a female pastor on Charisma News to give dozens of silly reasons why she doesn't drink alcohol, but quite another thing for the Southern Baptist Convention to be legalistic about alcohol. With so many bright theologians, you'd think they could do better than this:  

WHEREAS, Years of research confirm biblical warnings that alcohol use leads to physical, mental, and emotional damage (e.g., Proverbs 23:29-35); and

WHEREAS, Alcohol use has led to countless injuries and deaths on our nation's highways; and

WHEREAS, The breakup of families and homes can be directly and indirectly attributed to alcohol use by one or more members of a family; and

WHEREAS, The use of alcohol as a recreational beverage has been shown to lead individuals down a path of addiction to alcohol and toward the use of other kinds of drugs, both legal and illegal; and

WHEREAS, There are some religious leaders who are now advocating the consumption of alcoholic beverages based on a misinterpretation of the doctrine of "our freedom in Christ"; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, June 13-14, 2006, express our total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we urge that no one be elected to serve as a trustee or member of any entity or committee of the Southern Baptist Convention that is a user of alcoholic beverages.
.....

See also the SBTS website on alcohol: "In accordance with the irreproachable standards of moral conduct as well as denominational expectations for all members of the seminary community, the use of alcoholic beverages, intoxicants such as marijuana, and illicit/illegal drugs are prohibited..."

This is what happens when the Bible is jettisoned for something else (e.g., worldly wisdom, pragmatism). And when one abandons the Scriptures, you necessarily end up with a form of legalism, which has no power to restrain the flesh.

I would say that their resolutions have the "appearance of wisdom" (Col. 2:23), but I'm not even sure I can say that much. 

In Galatians 5 Paul contrasts the work of the flesh versus the work of the Spirit (Gal. 5:19-23). Notice that in Gal. 5:22 that "fruit" is singular.    

Thus the graces of the Spirit (e.g., love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, ... self control...) are all interconnected (see also 1 Cor. 13:4,7 - love is patient and kind). Having the fruit of the Spirit means that we exhibit these graces in their interconnectedness, never one grace without the other. There is no such thing as Christian joy that isn't also Christian self-control. There is no such thing as love that isn't also patient love. Grumpy patience is not Christian patience. 

For example, consider Moses (Heb. 11:23-28). 

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God [love] than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin [self-control]. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt [joy], for he was looking to the reward [faithfulness]. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible [patience]. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood [peace], so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them [kindness].

The SBC arguments that highlight the fact that alcohol can be abused (i.e., "leads to" reasoning) are arguments that treat Christians like those described in Gal. 5:19-21 rather than those described in Gal. 5:22-23. That may be the worst thing about the so-called wisdom of commanding total abstinence. It treats Christians like pagans. The SBC seems to have a low view of self-control in the life of the Christian. These studies of how worldly people act are affecting theological practice rather than allowing good theology to affect worldly practice. 

And when you treat Christians like pagans, you're not only entering into the legalistic realm that Paul and Christ so strongly rail against, but you're also breaking the first commandment by denying the power of God (see 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 3:16). 

Now if you want to read an article that deals well with the blessing and use of alcohol in the Scriptures, see this piece. 

But I highlighted a few specific points above that sometimes gets lost in the discussions on whether Christians should drink, namely: just what do we believe about the power of God at work in his people? The SBC view on this matter is a pneumatological error, among other things. 

Strong language is required when legalism is involved, especially against those who should know better (per biblical example). Sex is not necessarily fornication; eating is not necessarily gluttony; sleeping is not necessarily laziness; and drinking alcohol is not necessarily drunkenness. 

In the end, this isn't even so much about alcohol as it is about the principle of binding consciences, jettisoning biblical ethics, and denying the power of the Spirit to enable us to make a good use of God's gracious gifts. 

WHEREAS God has given wine to gladden the heart of man (Ps. 104:15), be it

RESOLVED to exercise the fruit of the Spirit, with joy and self-control, when drinking God's good gift of alcohol. 

I highlight self-control because some Christians, especially in Reformed circles, do flaunt their liberty a little too much and seem to show a lack of self-control in this area. Just as you aren't a better Christian because you don't drink, don't be deceived that you're somehow more holy because you have a gift for showing others just how free you are in Christ when it comes to your consumption of alcohol. 

Legalism(s)

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Legalism is a tricky topic. There isn't a Christian alive on earth who doesn't struggle with legalistic tendencies. To diagnose this problem, we need to look at the various types of legalisms that we encounter in the church and in our hearts to understand the concept. Neat definitions aren't always helpful (as in the case of antinomianism). While there is a form of legalism that is soul-damning, there are other types of legalistic ideas whereby Christians may not necessarily be in danger of hell, but they are nevertheless in error. 

I think it is important to distinguish different types of legalisms. No doubt, some of the categories below overlap with each other, but we should make the point that Christians, who are going to heaven, still struggle with legalism. In other words, we are not de facto legalists (in terms of our identity), but we still have legalistic tendencies (because of indwelling sin). 

At the same time, we must never forget that there is a vicious type of soul-damning legalism that will send people to hell. We need to speak about that ("capital L") Legalism the way the NT authors do. Faith-alone and Christ-alone, are Reformation principles we cannot afford to be tentative about.

Thus there are two major forms of legalism: soul-damning legalism and soul-harming legalism. The former always includes the latter, but the latter does not necessarily include the former.

1. Soul-damning legalism

You need to do something, besides believe on Christ, to be saved. See the book of Galatians (e.g, Gal. 5:2). This type of legalism sends people to hell (Matt. 23:15).

Connected to this is "soteriological legalism" whereby even something good - i.e., God's law - is used improperly, and people believe, for example, that they need their good deeds to outweigh their bad deeds to be saved. They believe they are justified by works. All religions, except the true religion (i.e., Christianity), advocate for this idea.

These types of people, some of whom belong to the church (e.g., Pharisees), are generally good at keeping their own man-made laws, but not so good at keeping God's law (Matt. 23).

2. Soul-harming legalism

A) Time "heals" legalism

This form of legalism will not send you to hell, but it will harm your soul. As a Christian, you sin, and sin often. But when you confront the guilt of your sin and you put something between your guilty soul and Christ's free forgiveness, you have fallen into the trap of soul-harming legalism.  

Some Christians will let time elapse before they think they can go to God. Others will indulge in forms of penance to help God out with forgiveness. And the list goes on. When we sin, the first and best thing we can do is repent and accept God's free forgiveness.

B) Well-intentioned legalism

Closely connected to soul-harming, works-salvation legalism is well-intentioned legalism. You know that God requires that you obey him, and you know you must have the fruit of the Spirit, and you long for righteousness, but you end up pursuing these things in your own strength, not because you are evil, but because you haven't tasted fully God's grace or even asked for his grace.

John Owen's treatise on Romans 8:13 is not a "must-read" (see below). But I do think he has some very perceptive things to say about ways in which Christians improperly try to deal with sin. He also has some very good advice on how Christians must depend on the Holy Spirit to deal with sin. 

C) Mystical Legalism

Believers can place themselves and others under a law that God never placed them under. They say, "God told me...", not because the Scriptures have given a command, but because of some nebulous feeling or "voice". 

Imagine God told a young man to marry a certain young woman. If that indeed is the case, is the young woman not obliged to then obey the Lord because the young man was told from the Lord that he was to marry her? 

People unwittingly can make God a legalist when they claim he told them to do something specific.

D) Parenting legalism

How we view the way others parent, even our own spouse, can be legalistic. The high expectations we have for our children when our own example is so pitiful at times reveals a legalistic spirit.  

We want obedient children (rightly so), but we produce moralism in our children. They can have cold, stony hearts because we never actually get to the heart of the issue. And they don't know what repentance looks like because we don't repent publicly enough for our own failings.

In addition, get a bunch of moms together in a room who either have small children or are about to have a child and you'll quickly find as many views (perhaps more?) on proper parenting as you will mothers in the room. 

E) Adiaphora legalism

This is where God has granted us Christian liberty on a certain matter. There is no clear command given in God's word regarding certain things we may do or not do. The WCF has an excellent section on this in chapter 20:1-3 (see also 1 Cor. 8-11:1; Rom. 14).

The person may still go to heaven (i.e., it is not soul-damning), but they have made a rule where God has not. There are things indifferent (adiaphora), but even in these indifferent matters we are still bound to the principle found in 1 Cor. 10:31 and Rom. 14:23.

So there are Christians who believe it is necessarily sinful to listen to rock music or rap music. There are others who think it is sinful to not home-school. Still there are others who decry Christmas as a pagan holiday, which should not be celebrated in any way by Christians. And others think it is wrong to drink alcohol. There are even Christian seminaries that take this view, which is rather odd because seminaries are places where people go to learn good theology, not bad theology!

To suggest, then, that Christians must home-school is a form of Christian legalism. Those who make these claims are not those who are saying home-schooling is best for our family, but they are people who think it is wrong (sinful) to send your children to a public school. 

F) Theologically-misinformed legalism

Here we have to acknowledge that we may have a fairly solid biblical argument, as far as we are concerned, but we may still be wrong. Take, for example, head-coverings (1 Cor. 11:2-16). If requiring women to wear head-coverings is not commanded by Paul, then commanding women to wear head-coverings is legalistic. It is commanding what God has not commanded. Of course, those who argue for this are not saying that a woman needs to wear a head-covering in order to be saved, but to require women to wear head-coverings may be, if Paul has not commanded the practice, legalistic. 

The same could be argued for the Sabbath. I hold to the Lord's Day as a Sabbath day, but if God's word does not in fact teach the continuation of the Sabbath-day principle then I am, in this particular area, being legalistic. It will not damn me to Hell, of course, but I have commanded people in my church to do or not do things without warrant from God's word.

We all make mistakes in our theology and believe God is commanding something when perhaps he isn't, but we have a wrong view of what the Scriptures teach and require. 

G) Ecclesiastical-pride legalism

"We are the only true church" mentality. I know of many churches where their ecclesiology effectively excommunicates the vast majority of Christians. They believe there are only a handful of true, faithful churches - and, shock of all shocks, they are one of those churches. It can be a denominational thing, too. Unless you marry someone from our denomination, you've basically sinned. 

Or, our churches are big and continually growing, so we are therefore doing things right and how dare you question us about our methods or ecclesiology. 

Or, our churches are small and shrinking, so we are therefore being faithful when everyone else is not. 

H) Self-appointed authority legalism

This is quite subtle, and sometimes the intentions are clearly harmless. Here a person says something like: "Tweet this" or "You must read this." In effect, I am being told by someone to do something that God hasn't commanded me to do. 

This self-appointed authority legalism flows out of an attitude of "I'm someone you should listen to." And if you don't read this article/book you have missed out on what I think is something you need, and, worse, you have ignored me.

I don't like to feel guilty about not reading things you think are important.

I) Tattletale legalism

These children are letter of the law types, as in LETTER of the law. They are always holding other children to rules that few children on earth can bear. They love to tell on other children, and have a graceless spirit. The problem is likely a parenting problem.

Conclusion

There are many more categories and types of legalistic tendencies among Christians. Most church disunity flows out of legalistic ideas.  

Besides what I have spoken of above, we have youth-group legalism, Facebook legalism (share this if you love Jesus), political legalism (Christians vote for this party), women's retreats legalism, cultural legalism, conference legalism, birthday party legalism, etc. 

If antinomianism is tricky to identify, define, and diagnose - and I have tried to argue that there are subtle forms of antinomianism, as opposed to the crass "against God's law" form of antinomianism - I think legalism may be even trickier. I have both antinomian and legalistic tendencies. The only problem is: identifying my legalistic tendencies is a lot harder than identifying my antinomian tendencies. Why? Because we love to wrap our legalisms up in a cloak of self-righteousness. 

And, yes, keeping God's law is not legalistic. And we shouldn't ever call obedience, done in faith by the power of the Spirit , legalistic. But at the same time, we shouldn't be unaware that the easiest law-keeping in the world are the laws we make up instead of what God requires of us in his Word.

Remember, too, Christ died for our legalisms.