I’ve wanted to write an encouragement for many of my readers whom I know seek to live out the Gospel in the midst of a legalistic time and place. I pray this is a gift for you if you find yourself in such a place.
Galatians 3:1 Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christâ€™s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. 2 Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. 3 How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own a human effort? 4 Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it? 5 I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ. 6 In the same way, â€œAbraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.â€ 7 The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God.
I am not a legalist. I am a New Covenant Christian. This is a crucial distinction for me, one on which I pray I never compromise.
As a Christian, I am staking my all on the Gospel. I am staking nothing on the law. As a minister, I am called and ordained by the church to proclaim the Gospel, not the law. When I can no longer speak, I pray that all I have spoken will be Gospel, Gospel and again, Gospel.
I respect and appreciate the law of God, but as one who embraces the Good News of being embraced by the Gospel of God’s gracious embrace of sinners in his Son, I believe the primary purpose of the law of God is to lead us to Jesus Christ. The law shows us God, it shows us his righteousness, and it shows us that we need a savior. Under the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the law of God has useful work to do in the life of the Christian, but the new birth and the life we have in Christ is not a life empowered by the law. The law can be a guide, but it can never produce in our lives or in the lives of any other person the work of the Holy Spirit.
Legalism, however, goes beyond the wrong use of the law as revealed in scripture. Legalism as I observe it in the lives and thinking of my fellow Christians consists primarily of using legal means as a way to produce immediate results, particularly in the restraint of evil and the creation of external obedience. These legal means are traditions, religious and cultural expectations, human-created rules, uses of power to produce conformity to some external standard and well-intentioned, but ultimately powerless, crusades of moral enforcement.
This kind of legalism is everywhere in conservative evangelicalism. Fundamentalism is drowning in it. My Baptist tradition is deeply involved in it. Many well-meaning persons in evangelical ministry are far more committed to legalism than to the Gospel, despite their nods and amens when the Gospel is proclaimed. Again and again, legalistic “Christians” go back to the law and its power to make a dent in the flesh. For the Gospel-believing Christian, this is as wrong a road as one can be on, and it must be avoided and clearly marked out as the way that must be avoided.
The kind of legalism that is eating away at the very soul of evangelicalism comes from several sources.
First, legalism is often a manifestation of being deprived of preaching and teaching that clearly explains the Gospel. Millions of evangelicals sit under largely Gospel-less preaching, and hear thousands of sermons on legalism and moralism in their lifetimes. As a result, they have an actual aversion to the Gospel, and are offended when the Bible’s actual teaching about legalism is proclaimed. As scripture says, these persons stumble in offense at the preaching of Christ, but eagerly embrace the categories and works of law. Law is simply easier to understand and makes sense when you have not been taught that the Gospel is for all of life and is the engine of everything Christians do. Preachers who starve a flock from eating the feast of the Gospel, but feed them the gruel of legalism, are particularly to be avoided. Pity the starving flocks, and fear for the shepherds who would not feed them.
(This is true, by the way, even if the legalism is delivered by the coolest, most successful and attractive pastor you’ve ever heard, or from a beloved old pastor at your home church or the rip-snorting young evangelist that just blew through town. A diet of legalism is a desertion of a minister’s calling. Where is Christ and the Gospel? Front and center and constant? Or buried under a mountain of lessons, principles and moralism?)
Secondly, legalism is embraced by those who have rejected the Great Commission (“Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name….”) and have embraced the culture war in America as their primary agenda. Legalism is the standard response of those who believe the Christian mission is to fight against bad people and bad things in society, to win elections, to pass laws, work for the appointments of judges and protect children and families from any exposure to the sinful world. Legalists misuse scripture, such as being the “salt of the earth,” to say that the Dobson agenda is the primary mission of Christians. In fact, the Bible could not be clearer that we are called to proclaim and bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom, not moralize the pagan cultures we live in. We are not involved in the political and moral renovation of this world apart from placing the Gospel at the center of our lives. We are not seeking to protect or promote America, conservatism or Dobson’s views on legislatively enacting moral values. Christians are discipling those they are evangelizing. Christians are not trying to enforce Christian morality on unbelieving society.
(Christians can and should work for justice and righteousness in society, but that is not our Great Commission from Jesus. It is being just and merciful people and good citizens as God commands us to be. This adorns the Gospel, but it is not the Gospel.)
Thirdly, legalism is appealing in situations where power and control must be, in some way, exercised as part of Christian stewardship. Parents and pastors, for example, have responsibilities in their spheres to exert a certain amount of power. There is no avoiding the use of the law in situations where some conformity is necessary for order and peace. But those exercising power and control must be the first to know the limits of the law and the limits of legalism. Power and external control can shape external behavior. They cannot produce spiritual fruit. They cannot convert. They cannot bring a person to faith in Christ. Legalism cannot produce love. Legalism fits in well when power and control are exercised apart from the priority of the Gospel, because more immediate results are possible. But legal results, whether in a person, group or culture, will never bring about faith in Jesus that is real, love and obedience that are real or genuine discipleship.
Legalism is always attractive to those who cling to what THEY are doing to be “good Christians” for assurance. The Gospel offers spiritual means, God’s promised power to accomplish his ends and the assurance that God is more glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
When legalism dominates, and the Gospel is neglected, the results will be obvious almost as soon as the legal controls are removed. Of course, legalists usually learn that they must ignore the actual results of legal means as compared to Gospel means. If legalism’s results are ever compared to the genuine work of the Spirit, the difference will be obvious, but by that time, the legalist will be blaming someone else for not using enough legalism, and they will be contemplating how to use even more tomorrow.
What is a Gospel-centered, Gospel-believing person to do when legalism prevails all around them?
First of all, return to the scriptures and renew your personal vision of the Gospel. Read the mercy of God in Genesis. Read the gracious deliverance of God in Exodus. Read the many examples of God’s love for sinners in the old covenant Bible. Then read the glories of the Gospel in the new covenant scriptures. Luke. Galatians. Ephesians. Romans. Saturate yourself in the grace of God. Rejoice in it. Breath it in. Go with the Shepherds and kneel before your salvation. Go with the prodigal and weep. Then stay there. Do not follow the siren song of legalistic righteousness. Your righteousness is a gift entire, from that infant, from that father.
Secondly, prepare to be told you are not concerned with morality, righteousness and the battle for the culture. It will not be easy to be faithful to the Gospel when you are accused of being absent from the fight to save our country, etc. But we are clearly told by scripture what we are here to do: We proclaim not ourselves, not the law, not legalism, but Jesus and the Good News of his kingdom. We evangelize and plant churches. We preach, teach, pray and serve. We are to make disciples. We are to be ambassadors of reconciliation, seeking to persuade others not to be moral, but to repent, be reconciled and believe. We are never called to promote or establish legalism.
Third, root out legalism in your own life. Where you have proclaimed Jesus, then go with Jesus all the way. Determine that no one will ever hear from you that Jesus is the mediator and the one who provides a perfect salvation, yet see in you a heart that is filled with legal righteousness and a life of external obedience. Have no compartments where legalism is allowed because it gets results. Be a Gospel Christian, a good news bearer, a witness of the Gospel invitation, a servant of others for Jesus’ sake.
Fourth, be kind to legalists. Teach them the Good News. Give them books like The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges. Don’t legalistically condemn legalists. No, let the Gospel condemn legalism by the joy and true obedience it produces, and start with how you treat the legalist who is accusing you of being soft on….whatever. Thank God that your journey has not taken you to the empty cisterns, but to the over-flowing streams. Pray that the Gospel will be seen, heard, loved, believed and honored among those who name Jesus Christ as Lord.
Finally, boldly announce the message that Christ is the end of the law to all who believe. Announce that God does his transforming work through hearing the message of faith, not by associating himself with well-intentioned legal means. Be an obnoxious Protestant. Let the Reformation bells ring. If you err, err on the side of grace and Gospel, and not on the side of law and legalism. If you are to suffer or be rejected, may it be because you tenaciously refused to know anything but Christ and him crucified in the midst of a generation that prefers the works of the law to the perfect work of the cross.
Be prepared, in this culture war obsessed, legalism addicted, Gospel ignorant time, to be told you are everything but a Christian when you stand on the one thing that makes you one.
Honor the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. Enjoy the kind of life that legalists can’t enjoy. Read, celebrate, embrace, seek peace, be reconciled and above all live the joyous Christmas Gospel! Thanks be to God for his incredible GIFT.