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Christian Apologetics (7): Legalism (1)

D Vallance, Detroit

Background: A Culture without Restraint

"They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity" (Eph 4.19).1

Christian apologetics has traditionally wrestled with modernists — people who believe that truth can be found only through reason and science. Increasingly, however, the world is populated by postmodernists — people who believe that we should stop seeking for absolute truth or objective virtue, because they do not exist. Instead, they say, every person is entitled to create his own brand of truth, and all such private versions of reality are equally valid.

When we apply this warped thinking to theology, we get the exasperating phenomenon called the emergent church. Emergent Christians, like the culture around them, are dead against rules of any kind. According to them, God is more open-minded and tolerant than even the finest postmodern specimen on the street, and not the least bit interested in enslaving anyone to old rules. They believe that freedom in Christ means permission to be as spontaneous and authentic as possible. God, they say, has placed us on a wide platform with an open mike, and now invites us to exhibit our individuality, assert our feelings, and pursue our impulses without restraint. Proponents of this teaching even urge us to overstep the old boundaries and flaunt our naughtiness, just so no one misses the point: traditional standards no longer apply.

Emergent theologians are elitists who believe that they are the first in 2,000 years to get Christianity right. They define grace as divine tolerance, and classify anything resembling obedience as blind legalism. They mischaracterise God’s offer of freedom from sin as permission to sin. And they view devout Christians with a mixture of pity and contempt. According to them, any believer who faithfully obeys the commands of Scripture must be a repressed legalist — someone duped into thinking that God actually cares how he behaves.

By such standards, of course, the Lord Jesus Himself would be a legalist. He said through David, "I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart" (Ps 40.8, AV). He, the freest man who ever lived, willingly took the form of God’s slave and became obedient to the point of death (Phil 2.7-8). And by His death He delivered us, so that we too might be free to obey God meticulously: "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness" (Rom 6.17-18, 22; 8.2; Jn 8.31-36).

Emergent doctrine misconstrues freedom, and misunderstands grace. This is Paul’s response to those who would define grace as mere tolerance, and view it as an indulgent attitude that overlooks, permits, or even encourages sin: God forbid (Rom 6.15; Gal 2.17). God’s grace is the solution to sin, not the source of it (Rom 5.20-21). When grace works, sin’s power is broken and sins diminish (6.14). Increasing disobedience comes not from grace, but from refusing grace (2 Cor 6.1-2). Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more; where grace has abounded, sin no longer does (Rom 5.20).

Law: The Revealed Will of God

"O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day" (Ps 119.97, AV).

In order to understand what legalism really means, we need first to examine the concept of law. Although Bible students have noted as many as twelve definitions of "law" in Scripture, we will stick with the most general description: law refers to God’s moral requirements — His will. Since God is holy, He must be judicial — He must command what is good and forbid what is evil. Thus His law cannot be only a wish list, or merely an advice column. Rather, His law is an inflexible demand that people behave like Him morally: "You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Lev 19.2; Mt 5.48; 1 Pet 1.16). Holiness — separation from sin — is an obligation; without it, no one will see the Lord (Heb 12.14).

By delineating righteousness, law thereby also defines its opposite — sin. God published His law in order to confront us with our sin and thus to stop our mouths (Rom 3.19-20; 1 Tim 1.8-11; 1 Jn 3.4). As a bright washroom light exposes dirt, law exposes our defilement. Like a stern truant officer hunting for street urchins, law tracked us down and turned us in. Beyond that, law pursued us like a tireless prosecutor, indicted us for our crimes, and then called for our damnation (Rom 4.15; Gal 3.10). We stood in desperate jeopardy, guilty and condemned before God. But, to our amazement, the Judge did not carry out the sentence. Instead, He gave His only Son for us, and then adopted us as His own sons and brought us into His own house (Rom 8.3-4; Gal 3.24-25). With astounding grace, Christ delivered us from law’s curse by taking that curse on Himself (Gal 3.13). As a result, we are now free from law — we are no longer bound by its demands or subject to its condemnation (Rom 5.1-2; 6.14-15; 8.1-4; Gal 3.10).

Since the law treated us so severely prior to salvation, it is hard to imagine how we could ever come to love the old disciplinarian (Rom 7.22). But we love how law led us to seek grace and forgiveness. Now as God’s sons, we love the things our Father loves — and law continues to show us those things. We love law for bringing God’s character into sharp focus. We love how law speaks to us with such breath-taking honesty, and how this template of righteousness opens up God’s will for us.

In the end, we realise that law, far from being the enemy of grace, is itself a gift of grace. We learn that law is not freedom’s enemy either: We discover that we are only truly free when we wholeheartedly submit to God’s will, which He reveals in His Word (Jn 8.32-36). And while law can no longer do anything to us, it continues to do a great deal for us. Law cannot motivate or empower us (only grace can), but, like the headlights of a car, law illuminates the road of liberty, the path where faith walks (Ps 119.105). Law cannot help us to obey, but it can show us what obedience looks like. Law cannot set us free, but it can provide the rails on which freedom runs.

This idea of loving law sounds suspicious to believers who are too immersed in postmodernism. Taking their cue from the culture, many Christians want to phase out strict adherence to Biblical rules. They insist that Christianity is not about "do" and "don’t" — that the Bible is not a set of rules. We may ask what Bible they are reading. Christianity is certainly far more than a list of rules — it is a personal relationship with the only true God as Father, and with Jesus Christ whom He sent as Lord (Jn 17.3). However, Christianity is not less than a set of rules. Since both Testaments are full of rules, it is a huge mistake to think that rules are inherently bad. Paul tells us that the law is "holy, righteous, and good" (Rom 7.12); "spiritual" (7.14), and helpful when used properly (1 Tim 1.8).

Some Christians want to soften all of this by proposing that the New Testament teaches broad principles rather than specific rules. They say that the Holy Spirit guides us through general principles, but does not require us to submit to specific Biblical regulations. The problem with this analysis, however, is that it fails to perceive that principles are rules. In fact, principles actually require more from us than more specific laws, because principles expand the scope of precise laws and make them apply to our contemporary lives. The Lord Jesus took specific Old Testament laws against, for example, murder and adultery, and showed that the intent of these laws — their principles — far exceeded the legal particulars (Mt 5.17-48).

Further, it is a mistake to substitute the indwelling Holy Spirit for rules. God never intended that we would subjectively rely on the Spirit’s inner impulse as a substitute for the written revelation of His will. Instead, the Spirit is the Author of Biblical rules, and He generates the desire and ability to obey them (Gal 5.22-26). He will never lead us against His Word. When Paul wrote, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law" (Gal 5.18), he meant that we are not under legal contract — we are not justified by keeping the law, nor condemned for failing to keep it. But the way of the Spirit is more than rules, not less than rules, for those whom God accepts apart from rules possess a new nature that delight in them.

Others suggest that while the Bible may contain rules, it is bad strategy to preach them to a postmodern audience. People today all think that it’s cool to search for God — but not cool to find Him. They embrace doubt as the great friend of faith, and will reject anything that smacks of certainty. However, only the truth will set these people free (Jn 8.32). In order to be saved, they must come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2.4). Indeed, before they can know Christ personally, they must come to know Him propositionally — through believing the rigid doctrines of Scripture that define His Person and work.

We should only proclaim dogmatic truth, of course, with love (Eph 4.15). The Lord Jesus alluded to this when He declared, "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Mt 7.1). This verse, the perennial favourite of unbelievers everywhere, does not mean what they think it means. The phrase cannot mean, "Don’t use an objective moral code to critique the behaviour of other people", because the statement itself critiques the behaviour of other people. The aphorism cannot condemn judgments, because it is itself a judgment — and a promise that God Himself will ultimately judge everyone. The verse would logically self-destruct if it meant, "Don’t be intolerant", because the verse itself is intolerant.

Instead, this verse teaches us not to hold others to standards that we are unwilling to follow ourselves, because the standards that we apply to others God apply to us. The verse further warns us not to be mean-spirited and hypercritical. We can preach God’s judgments without being judgmental. Having first held ourselves accountable to the rules of Scripture, we should then preach God’s requirement firmly, but graciously (Eph 4.15). Aggressively hitting people with rules not only portrays a bitter spirit, but also commits a tactical error. Here is Josh McDowell’s advice about exhorting postmodern people: "Rules without relationships leads to rebellion".

In the next article, we will look more carefully at legalism, and contrast it with Christian liberty.

To be continued.

1In this series of articles, unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations from Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version.

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