I must confess that often the reason I write one of these small essays is when something ticks me off. And, you guessed it, again something has rubbed me the wrong way. Actually, it has been something percolating for a time in that part of my brain that registers frustration and irritation. A few things I have heard recently have now caused the percolation to increase to a boil. Here is what I am upset over…
I am pretty tired of any time a Christian makes a statement that a certain behavior is sinful, as defined by the Bible itself, then that person is branded as intolerant and mean-spirited. I am tired of preachers and teachers being labeled as judgmental any time they address the issue of sin, especially specific ungodly actions. I am tired of parents, teachers, and church workers being castigated as being legalistic whenever they expect Christians of any age, but especially children, to behave in ways that the Scriptures deem as righteous and godly. Bottom line: I am tired of being judged as unfair, unforgiving, and ungracious when I simply agree with what the Bible says about sin, wickedness and evil.
One of the great bugaboos of modern American Christianity is a morbid, neurotic fear of legalism (so-called). Now, don’t get me wrong, legalism truly is a horrible thing. It is a spiritual cancer that will kill any individual or any group. But it is not the only spiritual cancer that we need fear. We also need to be concerned about licentiousness, immorality, and spiritual decadence. These kill every bit as thoroughly and quickly as legalism. So let’s consider this issue of legalism for a moment.
What is legalism? Here is a snapshot…
• When you believe that your own righteousness saves you, that is legalism.
• When you think that all the do’s and don’ts of your own narrow worldview are the means to salvation, that is legalism.
• When you think that spirituality consists of nothing more than rules and regulations, that is legalism.
• When you think you are better than other people, even other Christians, because of your own “holiness,” that is legalism.
• When you proudly compare yourself with others, especially with the purpose of ascertaining how sinful they are because they do not live up to your standards, that is legalism.
• When you believe that the grace of Jesus is not sufficient means to deal with sin, but you have to add to His grace your own good deeds and righteous actions, that is legalism.
• When the Christian life is about external behavior without any regard or concern for a true change of heart, that is legalism.
Please let me assure you that legalism is a horrid thing. Jesus hated it. There was nothing He spoke against more frequently. As His followers, we also should hate it. And we should strive to root it out of our hearts and our lives.
But there are a lot of things that are critiqued as being legalism that simply are not. Allow me to enumerate a few of them…
• When you believe in absolute standards of morality as presented in the Scripture, that is not legalism.
• When you preach or teach against unrighteousness and wickedness, that is not legalism.
• When you discipline and train believers, especially children, to live morally and righteously, that is not legalism.
• When you live by high standards and according to moral principles, that is not legalism.
• When you believe that some things are just wrong, and some things are just right, and you know this because God says so, that is not legalism.
• When you think that although a person is never saved by deeds, yet at the same time once a person has accepted the grace of God he/she is expected to live according to the dictates of God as revealed in the Scriptures, that is not legalism.
• When you believe that there are certain rules and regulations in living the spiritual life that it is wise to follow, that is not legalism.
• When you believe that obedience is the key to spiritual discipleship, that is not legalism.
• When you love Jesus so much that you long to live in a way that honors and pleases him, apart and above the ways of the world, that is not legalism.
Think I’m off my moral rocker? Well, consider what the word of God says…
“Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:13-14)
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)
Remember, Paul the champion of grace and the enemy of legalism said: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:11-14)
And as for preachers and teachers who speak about these matters? “These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.” (Titus 2:15) And also, “I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” (Titus 3:8)
One final thought… I think Bonhoeffer had it right. He discussed this matter of grace and faith versus righteous living and obedience. And he emphatically declared, “Only the obedient believe.” Shocking? No, biblical. Isn’t that what James, and Paul, and John, and Peter were all saying 1900 years ago? Faith begets obedience. Grace engenders moral behavior. We should live what we say we believe. And we don’t have to apologize for it!