Legalism defined


Rev. Nicholas Batzig writes:

If you want to demean someone in the church, you simply have to use the “L-word” when speaking to or about that person. The number of times one believer has called another believer a legalist is inestimable. Name-calling often ensues when someone in the church believes that another has said or done something that cuts across Christian liberty. Like its sister term, fundie, the label legalist has become something of a conventional religious slur in grace-oriented and gospel-centered churches. We must be extremely slow to use this word when speaking to or about others in a church fellowship. It may be that one believer simply has a weaker or softer conscience than another (Rom. 14–15). Additionally, those who love God’s law and seek to walk carefully in accord with it will always be susceptible to being called legalists.

We must guard against carelessly tossing around a charge of legalism. However, we must also recognize that legalism in various shapes and forms is alive and well in evangelical and Reformed churches. This too must be guarded against with the utmost determination. In order to avoid bringing a false charge against a believer, in order to avoid personally embracing legalism, and in order to help restore a believer who has fallen into legalism, we must know how to identify this perennial evil in both its doctrinal and practical forms.

For the rest of the essay, go here.

Addiction and the cross

Gerhard Forde in his book, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, uses the analogy of addiction to describe sinful humankind’s addiction to law-abiding self-sufficiency (a theology of glory) until the “medicine” of the cross intervenes and the sinner “bottoms out”:

The addict [addicted to drugs, booze, sex… etc.] may not be so far gone as was thought and may be able to quit.  But when we shift to the relationship with God it is another matter.  The “intervention,” the cross itself, exposes the absolute depth and hopelessness of our addiction.  Before the cross there can only be repentance.  Even when the person is able to quit, he may be dancing on the edge of the abyss of pride and its constant companion despair.

To turn from the language of analogy back to the language of theology, it must be recognized that the righteousness we are talking about that we fail to attain through the law of God is not what was later called “civil righteousness,” worldly justice, but the righteousness that enables us to stand before God.  It is sheer gift to be received only by faith, by being called into a relationship as an entirely passive receiver.  God, that is, insists on being related to us as the giver of the gift.  What God “demands” is, as Luther will put it a bit later, “naked trust,” pure receivers.  To be a receiver, to believe that the gift is complete, it be “right with God.”

This means there are two ways we can miss the mark of righteousness before God, two ways the relationship can be destroyed.  One is more or less obvious: outright sinfulness, unrighteousness, lawlessness, self-indulgence, what the Bible would call “worldliness” or, perhaps in more modern dress, carelessness or heedlessness. In other words, we can just say to God, “No thanks, I don’t want it, I’ll take my own chances.” The other is much less obvious and more subtle, one that morally earnest people have much more trouble with: turning our back on the gift and saying in effect, “I do agree with what you demand, but I don’t want charity.  That’s too demeaning.  So I prefer to do it myself. What you are offering is ‘too cheap,’ I prefer the law, thank you very much.  That seems safer to me.”  What this means, of course, is that secretly we find doing it ourselves more flattering to out self-esteem – the current circumlocution of pride.  The law, that is, even the law of God, “the most salutary doctrine of life,” is used as a defense against the gift.  Thus, the more we “succeed,” the worse off we are.  The relationship to the giver of the gift is broken.  To borrow the language of addiction again, it is the addiction that destroys the relationship.  The alcoholic can be either a drunk or a “dry drunk.”  While the latter is more socially preferable, there is little to choose between them in broader religious view.  Once can be addicted to either what is base or what is high, either to lawlessness or to lawfulness.  Theologically there is not any difference since both break the relationship to God, the giver.  (Forde, 26-27.)

To learn more about deliverance from the curse of sinful addiction to the law through the gospel of Jesus Christ, you can read this sermon on justification by faith alone from Galatians 2.