Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our Legalistic Definition of Legalism

First, a clarification. I am not among those who think that legalism is the worst bugbear out there in the culture or in the church. I think it's a pretty big one, but it's not the only one. I don't think every sermon we preach ought to be against legalism. There's a lot of antinomianism out there, too.

That said, legalism is fresh on my mind because I am preaching through Matthew 23 and 24.

So, the legalistic syllogism goes something like this: Legalists believe in salvation by works. I don't believe in salvation by works. Therefore, I am not a legalist.

I would argue that is a legalistically narrow definition of legalism. It appears to me to be a far narrower definition than Jesus himself gives.

And, I would argue, it is not an accurate understanding of the scribes and Pharisees at all. It is misleading. Almost nobody fits that definition precisely. Therefore, I am safe in my semi-legalism.

As Sinclair Ferguson once pointed out, the Pharisees were not Pelagians. They did not believe they were saved by unaided good works. They were, rather semi-Pelagians --the God helps those who help themselves crowd. Want proof? What does Jesus' parable Pharisee say? Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men are..." He credits God, then credits himself. How savvy of him. God made him who he was. It was God who spared him from being like that publican. There, but for the grace of God, go I. I know better. I obey, by the grace of God. You don't...

Jesus' definition of legalism is straining at gnats and swallowing camels. It is hypocrisy. It is tithing without mercy and faithfulness. It is loving long flowing robes and greeting in the marketplaces. It is long public prayers. It is the seat of honor at banquets. It is a love of titles. It is phylacteries and tassels.

It is putting burdens on people that are too heavy to be borne.

In short, legalism is robbing people of the joy of relationship with God by the imposing of rules. Rules that take Scripture's grand principles and convert them into minute expectations. Rules that convince me that I am doing a better job at living this Christian life than you are. Rules that show me how good I am, and, incidentally, how bad you are. Legalists did not so much add to Scripture whole new lists of requirements as they did take the spare Law of God and codify it into a bazillion provisos, caveats, whereases and heretofores. We can grant that they did it with the best of intentions --they were serious about obedience to God. They were so serious they couldn't keep their own rules, so they made loopholes to ease the burden of them.

Before long, the rules became stuff that, if I do, makes me one of the "in," and you, if you don't, one of the "out."

Conservative evangelicalism of the Reformed type seems rife with these sorts of well-intentioned unwritten rules. Rules about education, about holidays, about childrearing, etc etc. Often we confuse the wise choices with the iron-clad right choices. We deny mitigating circumstances; we deny Christian liberty. We substitute legislation for counsel. Wisdom, however, takes into account mitigating circumstances --that there is not always one "right" answer, for everyone at all times, about all matters. Wisdom skillfully takes God's truth and applies it to one's own life.

Let me give you an example. My children go to public school. At one time, I thought I would never send my children to public school. I knew there were good Christian teachers in public schools, but I wanted my children in fine Christian schools or home schooled. God gave us an eldest daughter with special needs. Christian schools can't meet all her needs. In our judgment, at this point in her life, home school couldn't meet all her needs.

Public schools here aren't hostile to Christianity. God broke my legalism about public school, and it has been a blessing. I still commend Christian schooling and home schooling to parents. They can be very wise choices, sometimes the wisest choices. But they aren't "Thou shalt" obedience issues. They are wisdom issues, and liberty issues. I don't feel superior to parents who make other choices. Yet, there are churches in our own denomination I could not pastor because I choose to let my children go to public school. There are people in our denomination that think I have made an evil choice; I've met some and they've told me.

Legalism kills joy. Legalism kills community. Legalism is excessively concerned with the business of other people. God, show us our lingering legalisms, and help us to put it to death.


  1. Totally agree that the legalism label belongs not only to a rule-based gaining of salvation but also applies to a rule-based sense of personal spiritual status.

    Smugness, condescension, despising, and condemning have no place on issues that are a case of believers having worked out the gospel more or less consistently or completely in life application.

    But don't you think that there is another, unhelpful reflex that is also at work--that of assuming that another brother is being smug, condescending, despising, or condemning, if he challenges you to bring something that you have "been ok with" under more scrutiny of the Word of God?

    FWIW, these issues have also been on my heart/mind having just finished spending several months preaching through Romans 14-15. And I'm convinced that Paul wanted hearty Scriptural debate, by individuals who refused to denigrate their brothers even in their own heart attitudes, and who were willing to enjoy their liberty by *refusing* to exercise it for as long as other brothers remained unconvinced.

  2. James,

    As to your second paragraph, sure. This can break two ways, though. I think the whole category of wisdom is fairly neglected in modern Reformed writing --especially compared to, say, a'Brakel. Wisdom would apply to areas of life and thought that are not clear-cut in the Word of God. A choice can be unwise and still not sinful.

    The other way it can break is to stick to issues that are clear cut in the Word of God. I think some of our applications are where we get into trouble. I cringe when I think about some of the immature applications I have made in preaching, when I've presented them as absolutes and not "something to think about."

  3. Right.

    Would you agree, though, that although there are matters that are indifferent with respect to there being a legislated choice, the believer is not to consider any of his choices whatsoever as "indifferent" with respect to the need to make the choice under the counsel of the Word of God and ultimately unto the glory of God?

    That's a convoluted sentence I know. What I'm trying to get at is that there is a difference between saying, "the Bible doesn't legislate this specifically" and saying, "we can all just do whatever we feel like in this area." I actually spent 9 weeks trying to unpack the question "what is sin" when we got to 14:23 this summer, and I still don't think I did an adequate job.

  4. oh... and have you read Brakel on man-made holy days" :)

  5. I regard Brakel on Holy Days the way I might regard Kuyper on games, the theatre and dancing --quaint, well-intentioned, but misguided! Let each be firmly convinced in his own mind.

    What you are saying is part of what I am getting at in my comments about wisdom. We need to work for well-formed Christian consciences. Legislation, written or unwritten, is a shortcut around that process, which ultimately results in legalism and pride: I don't do these things, and you do, or vice versa. You could have a church full of people who think public education is a sin, are convinced they are righteous because they (among other things) home school, and are therefore better than those benighted Christians in "government indoctrination centers."

    If you help people develop Christian presuppositions, and help them think through consequences and logical choices based on those presuppositions that are suited to their own situations, then you avoid legalism. They don't think then, that what is best for them must ipso facto be true for everyone else.

    For instance, I struggle with Christian school advocates who cannot seem to see that it goes completely against the model of Christ to cater to the wealthy, to the best and the brightest, but not reach down to help the strugglers and the poor. In what sense is such an education Christian? Yet, many people think, "Christian education is the right thing," and "If the sign says 'Christian,' and they teach worldview, that is what it means to be a Christian." That's legalism, I think.

    Anyway, I'm being less than lucid and rambling, so I'll stop.

  6. No, I understand what you're saying. I'm in Christian school mecca. Or maybe this is medina. But there are people here who do the same with public schools, and with home schools. And with green lawns. Etc.

    I think you're onto something about our being unwilling to roll up our sleeves and do hard work.

    I think we're also terribly unwilling to give up our felt superiority over others who have drawn different conclusions than we have.

  7. Hi Ken --

    I learned from Richard Lovelace (and I've seen in my experience) that legalism and antinomianism mutually stimulate each other into growth. You can see it today--in response to growing moral laxity some Christians respond with legalism, and the legalism makes more people feel justified to throw out Christianity altogether.

    Lovelace also thought he could work this out historically. Often legalistic denominations produce liberal younger generations of leaders. Once he said "the monster of liberalism arises out of the lagoon of dead orthodoxy."

    Sorry to ramble. Anyway, my point is that it is also hard for me to think of legalism as the biggest problem in the church. When legalism is a problem, its part of an inter-connected nexus of other problems that feed off one another.

    Tim Keller

  8. Okay, it is really late, and I may not be completely rational, but is it not with a lot of legalism and particularly if it involves our precious children that others have to affirm our decisions or something is wrong with us and we are less committed to the Christian faith than they. I learned a long time ago that things are not always as they appear on the surface and the reasons a person choses homeschool or public school or private school can all be equally sinful. All of these things are really matters of the heart and our hearts lead us to make the decisions that we make and some of it is sinful and some of it is for the glory of God. Whatever decision I make if I feel the need to impose that decision onto someone else as the only Biblical decision to be made then I have demonstrated rights of autonomy and the right to influence you to follow after me. And yet when I look at the vast array of personalities, streghths, weaknesses,sins, that God used it all for a reason to accomplish his purposes. As Tim indicates this is just a symptom of the problem and that being at least in part a group of people that want control or to be right in their choices. We all want to have folks affirm us and our choices and years ago we did not ave access t o that means of communication, so mybe we just need to talk it through for what it is and nothing more.

  9. Now, I'm in a real dilemma. Just as I was going to post a certain comment, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector popped into my mind. It seems that the comment I was forming in my mind may have brought me dangerously close to taking the stance of the Pharisee. Let's see how this works...

    I used to be one of those legalists who relished the insufficient syllogism you provide above. I believed in eternal security, therefore I didn't believe in salvation by works (which, of course, despite all my traditionally institutionalized "standards" --not works! of course not), therefore I was not a legalist, in my own mind (I only lived, in some ways, as if I were). I thank thee, Lord, that I am no longer like this Pharisee..." ;-)It was also fun to accuse proponents of "Lordship Salvation" of being legalists.

    Yeah, right. Legalism can be like a Whac-A-Mole game, don't you think. As soon as you liberate one area of your life, you find that you've fallen prey to legalism in some other aspect of your life.

    What wretched men we are...Who will deliver us from this body of death?