*Editor’s Note: This was #4 on our Top Posts of 2012.
I am a child of the Southern Baptist Convention. I attended my first SBC service en utero. Not only that, I am a child of the Conservative Resurgence. I am extremely grateful to men like Adrian Rogers, Paige Patterson, Judge Pressler, and others who helped pave the way for my generation. I love that the conversations I have with my peers almost always center around biblical theology and methodology. Due to the diligence of the men who came before us, we no longer even wonder about each other’s commitment to the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. For those in my circles, this is a given.
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking through our commitment to Scripture’s veracity. More specifically, I have been searching my own personal commitment to the integrity and efficacy of Scripture. As I have thought through this, it occurs to me that although the fight for the reliability of Scripture is much different in my day than it was 20 years ago, it certainly still remains. See, when I grew up, the great enemy of the gospel was almost always known as “liberalism”, or possibly, “moderate theology”. Today, however, it seems that we must equally be on guard against a different enemy. This new enemy is just as old as the first, but it is often more difficult to spot. Of course, it would be the enemy of legalism.
These two polar opposites of liberalism and legalism both stand apart from each other, in a sense, but in a very real way, they both accomplish the same goal; that of undermining God’s word. Liberalism, of course, reduces God’s word, and in doing so attempts to make a mockery of those who would dare take that word at face value. It assumes a position of great authority, in fact it could be argued that it assumes a position of greater authority than scripture itself as it attempts to “rectify” the “errors” found in the bible. Legalism, however, is also guilty of reducing the power and authority of God’s word, albeit in a much more insidious manner. While liberalism takes away from God’s word, legalism adds to it, and although it is different in practice from liberalism, it is essentially accomplishing the same goal, that of assuming authority over God’s word. While liberalism claims that scripture says too much, legalism claims that scripture does not say enough.
In all of this, however, I often find myself wondering if legalism might not be a greater danger to the Gospel, than the danger that liberalism itself poses. Liberalism is often easy to spot, and certainly within SBC circles, is easy to ridicule. Legalism is not nearly so easy to highlight, and often seems to find a more comfortable home amongst us. As I have thought through this fight that we must engage in if we love the gospel, I have noticed a few particular dangers inherent within legalism.
First, legalism is a difficult to diagnose cancer. All too often legalism is a subtle, creeping cancer that masquerades as holiness. In Matthew 23, Jesus points out that the Pharisees were guilty of adding “heavy loads” to the backs of their disciples. In Philippians 3 Paul points out that the Judaizers were “dogs” who “mutilated the flesh” in their pursuit of holiness. Both of these groups were guilty of affirming Scripture and yet adding to it in a further attempt to clarify their brand of “holiness”. When we take our personal convictions and apply them unilaterally, regardless of their clarity in Scripture, we may be guilty of this same creeping legalism. To oppose this vision of “holiness” is difficult, because to do so may cause others to paint you as a hater of all things holy. To oppose legalism can be seen as embracing the profane, which most often, could not be further from the truth. Because legalism masquerades as holiness, we can often struggle with whether or not we are right to identify it as a false gospel.
Second, legalism leads to a diminished recognition of sin. While some might find this to be a strange response to legalism, I think it is an accurate one. Notice, if you will, how many times in the New Testament we find the Pharisees trying to point out the sin of others, or even better yet, trying to “catch” Jesus in sin. A certain mark of legalism is a capacity to recognize others’ sins while failing to see our own. In his article on a topic similar to this, J.D. Greear cautions us concerning this danger. Good legalists get so busy playing watchdog for the sins of others, that they fail to see their own gross failure. As a result, personal sin is diminished, all in the name of “protecting holiness”. We often see this in our convention today as we get far more emails celebrating the latest boycott, or pointing out the moral lack of those in political leadership, than we do sharing about the hearts of broken Baptists, contrite in spirit and repentant before God regarding their sin.
Third, legalism worries more about “its reputation” than it worries about Jesus’ reputation. You could also say that legalism is uncomfortable with “go and tell” and rather enjoys “come and see” as an evangelistic strategy. As I have studied Jesus’ life, I have come across a really fascinating truth, that is that Jesus often seemed to be comfortable in places, and with people, that we often tell ourselves “good church people” would never go. Legalism worries more about whether someone else saw them talking to that “sinner” than it worries about that sinner actually being engaged with the gospel. Legalism is happy to preach to the sinner, so long as they will clean up and show up at the church on Sunday morning, but it would recoil in horror at the thought of going to the gutter with the person who is far from God. Ironically enough, at this point legalists are terrified of becoming like Jesus as we see Him in Mark 2:16. This unhealthy understanding of God and the gospel undermines the Romans 5:8 nature of the gospel and assumes a false righteousness must precede our ability to respond to the gospel, while also denying our own personal depravity and in doing so it neuters the heart of the gospel.
Fourth, legalism trumpets man’s capacity to do good, and in doing so undermines the depth of God’s grace. Legalism, in its efforts to adhere to the “holiness” code of rules and regulations, assumes man’s ability to “do good” and in doing, pulls the legs out from under the grace of God as exhibited in the gospel. Legalism loves hard work, and lots of it. The more you are able to work, the more holy you must be. Interestingly enough, this kind of pursuit will almost lead to a forced, false spirituality. Legalism judges you on behavior, not the condition of your heart, and therefore can encourage behavioral change, regardless of the heart’s condition. It is because of this that our churches are filled with unregenerate people, who still feel completely at home in our congregations. They have applied the appropriate levels of behavior modification to be found acceptable, so that their dark hearts are rarely if ever noticed.
These are just a few of the many dangers that legalism poses to the heart of the gospel. While liberalism was, is and always will be an enormous threat to the gospel, I would plead with Southern Baptists to recognize the danger that legalism also poses to the gospel. While it is easy to preach about the liberals “out there”, it is probably beyond time that we preach against the legalists who are among us; who often are us.
If we love God’s word, if we desire scriptural fidelity, we will stand equally opposed to liberalism and legalism, understanding that both attempt to stand in a position of authority over God’s word and in doing so, tear at the heart of the word, and inevitably, the gospel itself. We must oppose this kind of danger.
Cross-posted from Micah’s personal blog.