Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Legalism Kills

Buy a packet of cigarettes in the UK and you will find a warning message on it that says in bold letters "SMOKING KILLS." Drive down the motorway and from time to time you will see warning signs that read "SPEEDING KILLS." I have sometimes wondered whether churches should have signs that say "LEGALISM KILLS."

1. Legalism kills joyful Christian living. Paul asks the Galatians who have moved away from him and the gospel of the grace of God "What then has become of the blessing you felt?" (Gal. 4:15). There is a clear connection between the truth of justification by faith alone and healthy and vibrant Christian experience.

2. Legalism kills Christian fellowship. Legalism erects a barrier between people. That's what happened in Galatians 2:11-14 when the obedience and blood of Christ as the ground of justification was rejected as the basis of fellowship.

I once heard the story of how Christians in the Congo would sometimes greet each other by asking “Fresh milk?” (by which they meant "when did you last have your quiet time?"). And you would have to say when that was, and what it was that you had read. In itself that is not a bad thing, but there is only a short a gap between that and legalism (is it not a "how are you performing?" kind of question) . It is not hard to imagine the Pharisees asking each other that question. Perhaps those Christians should have been asking "are you repenting and trusting in Christ alone to save you?"

And of course the reason why legalism kills joyful Christian living, and kills Christian fellowship, is because:

3. Legalism kills the gospel.

The gospel is transformed from being the good news of our acceptance in Christ through faith alone, to one of our acceptance by God by relying on the works of the law. Paul emphasises this throughout the letter. Take a look at 1:6-7; and 2:15-16, 21; 3:10-11, 21; 4:21; 5:3-4.

So what is it? What is legalism?

C. J. Mahaney has a helpful definition:

Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God.

And this longer explanation from Dominic Smart is very perceptive:

It’s a way of making and keeping yourself acceptable to God. From this flows the legalism that is directed towards one another. It’s a way of scoring sanctity points in church. The need for order, structures and boundaries feeds our quest for control.

Our very ability to keep some rules feeds our pride and gives us the impression that our relationship with God is somehow founded upon this ability. It often arises out of a good motive: to be holy. It takes our faith away from Christ's sufficiency and misplaces it upon ours. We live to achieve his approval; we forget that we are already alive and accepted in Christ.

It is like the conversation that goes on every week in clothes shops all across the land. The wife tries on an outfit and says to her husband “how do I look?” and a pre-recorded message says “you look great” (the eyes are open, the mouth moves, but Mr Brain has long since been thinking about sport). Legalism makes us ask “do I look good?” and the answer we want is “yes, you look good." Legalism sets us out on the treadmill of performance.

Don't confuse legalism with obeying God's commands, or a concern to obey God's commands, the two are not the same.

Consider what Jesus says in John 15:10, 12, 14:

“If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command.”

Legalism is not the desire to obey God's commands, it is the desire to keep God's commands with the wrong motives (to earn acceptance).


chrisdat said...

More please!! I’ve read Owen’s, Mortification of Sin, I need the Mortification of Legalism. I could do a riff on St. Paul and say, I try to good, but even when I try to do good - I fall into legalism.
I look forward to more!

chrisdat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Drew Costen said...

Good stuff.

Looks like some of us heretics and heresy hunters are in agreement on some aspects of theology. :)

Martin Downes said...

Heresy kills too. In fact legalism, in its more severe strain, is the heresy of justification by works.

Drew Costen said...

I guess it comes down to how you define the words "heresy" and "orthodox." I tend to see the view of justification by works as an almost orthodox view because so many Christians seem to believe in it (despite their claims to the contrary) while appearing to see salvation by grace as heresy, which is why I lean towards some heresies as truth. :)

Martin Downes said...

Paul calls justification by works a "different gospel--not that there is another one."

Drew Costen said...

We're in complete agreement. The problem is that most other Christians aren't (even though they claim to be).

Tom said...

Awesome biblical thinking - loved every glorious joyful sentence! Here is freedom! Here is life! Brilliant!

Gareth said...

Hiya Martin. Of course I agreed with what you were saying in the post and I found it helpful as well - particularly the Mahaney quotes. It's helpful that you said it's possible to be legalistic with good motives.

However, I slightly take issue with your Congo story. We quote that all the time in our church as something to aspire to. I wish you hadn't been so down on it. There are surely many other illustrations you could have used. The reason I say that is because in a church scene in Wales and the UK where such little real fellowship is shared would it not be wonderful if we could have the confidence in our brothers and sisters that they would have had a quiet time that they can share with us. That is what was happening in Congo surely. I'm sure they didn't go up to each other and demand 'Fresh milk' in a way that said 'if you haven't got any you're not performing well enough'. Was it not revival? They loved the Lord and wanted to share what He was saying with each other. We see it as almost legalistic because we have nothing near it here in the luke warm and flabby West.
It also reminded me of the experience meetings in Wales during the revivals. The meetings where you had to have something to say even to attend them. I have a book on them that I haven't read yet. Must do that soon!

Martin Downes said...

Hi Gareth,

I qualified my use of that story with the comment that "In itself it is not a bad thing." It is more that abuse of it that is the issue. And it is not just that we have read Scripture but how we have read it too that is important.

Andrew Barnes said...

Great post!!!