Legalism, Lawlessness and Pastoral Ministry
June 28, 2018
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.