The Destruction of Legalism
Note: by Joe Cassada
Welcome to the fourth and final article in this series within a series. If I may, I’d like to preface this last post with a word of thanks to Tom Brennan for entrusting me with the important task of addressing a complicated issue – one that, within the context of independent fundamental Baptist churches, is an emotional (and even a volatile) topic. Tom has worked hard to build his readership over the years, and I know that a subject as touchy as legalism is one which carries with it the very real possibility of causing significant attrition among his readers.
To Tom’s readers, I say thank you for reading. I imagine that most of you know Tom much better than you know me, so let me invoke your graciousness towards Tom. After this post, this blog will return to Tom’s measure of normal, so hang in there with him. It would be unwise to assume that everything I’ve said is something that Tom would say.
Legalism is an intricate theological issue that doubles as a heart-sin. As such, it inherently involves nuances and perspectives that will vary from preacher to preacher, and my attempt at doctrinal precision may not match Tom’s own. We’re both mowing the same lawn with the same lawn mower, but it’s possible he will go clockwise around while I prefer a diagonal cut. Keep that in mind.
I’m sure most of you have been accused of being legalists at some point in your life. It’s not fun and many times it is unjust. But the only thing worse than enduring false accusation is tolerating our own willful ignorance of indwelling sin. Let us not be like the church of the Laodiceans who were oblivious to their own failures and deficiencies. If we find even the seminal germ of legalism in our hearts, let’s root it out.
Earlier, I gave a biblical definition of legalism based on a very brief sketch of the issues Paul addressed in Galatians and Sinclair Ferguson’s treatment of the temptation of Eve in the garden.1 I came to the conclusion that, in its most basic meaning, we can describe legalism as “an abuse of law and grace so that God’s favor becomes something that must be earned.” Having discussed legalism’s danger, definition, and detection, let’s now turn to the next task at hand: legalism’s destruction.
How can we defeat this sin? If legalism is an abuse of law and grace, then it is defeated by a proper understanding of law and grace. We should start there.
The law of God is a good thing. Paul says as much in Romans 7:12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. The Bible is replete with positive and even affectionate terms for God’s law:
I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.Psalm 40:8
97 O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day; 165 Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them; 174 I have longed for thy salvation, O LORD; and thy law is my delight.Psalm 119:97, 165, 17
The defeat of legalism is not accomplished by keeping God’s law in low esteem. We are not freed from legalism by pursuing libertine values and forsaking the commandments of God. The 1689 London Baptist Confession describes the law as something positive and good for believers because “it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against, sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience;” (chapter 19, paragraph 6)
Don’t miss this: a proper understanding of the law drives us towards Christ, not away from him. The law wasn’t a mistake; it is perfect. Paul says it is holy and just and good. But neither was it designed to give life. Only through the grace of Christ can we have life, but when we go to the law for life, we fan the flames of destructive legalism.
Neither should we abuse grace. Obedience is still important, and grace doesn’t deny this. Holiness is still something Christians ought to pursue. The verses in the Bible that deal with the Christian’s behavior, including such unpopular topics as how we dress, talk, and even entertain ourselves, actually do mean something. We may disagree as to what they mean, but we have no right to dismiss them.
Thomas Manton (1620–1677) wrote,
It is a great grief to the Spirit of God when you abuse grace. You do as it were put your miscarriages upon him, when you call licentious walking Christian liberty, and neglect of duty gospel freedom, and godly sorrow legalism, and strict walking superstitious niceness; you do as it were father your bastards upon the Spirit, and entitle the monstrous conceptions and births of your own carnal hearts to his incubation and overshadowing; you think God warranteth you in all this, and that is a high wrong to him which he will avenge in due time.”2
Manton is right. We abuse grace when we blame our sin on Christian liberty. It is a blasphemy which God will not let go unpunished. Beware of falsely thinking that, since grace abounds where sin abounds, then we can continue in sin so that grace may abound. The Apostle Paul’s response to that twisted thinking is “God forbid!”
In my opinion, no greater picture of this relationship between law and grace exists (outside of Holy Scripture) than in what we find in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” In the scene of the Interpreter’s house, Christian is shown a curious sight: a large room caked in dust that had never been swept. A man entered the dirty room and began to sweep, and “the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a damsel that stood by, ‘Bring hither water, and sprinkle the room;’ the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.
We echo Christian’s inquisitive response: “What means this?”
The Interpreter answered, “This parlor is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel. The dust is his original sin, and inward corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first, is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel.
“Now whereas thou sawest, that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou wast almost choked therewith; this is to show thee, that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it; for it doth not give power to subdue.
“Again, as thou sawest the damsel sprinkle the room with water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure, this is to show thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then, I say, even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of glory to inhabit.”3
I think if some Christians were to rewrite Bunyan’s allegory, they would cause the maiden to enter, and instead of cleansing the room of filth, she would content herself to wallow in the grime. This isn’t grace. The law cannot make your heart clean, and grace comes not to overlook the dirt, but to remove it. Does grace make obedience irrelevant? No. It makes it possible.
Tom has already written a great deal within this series about the right view of the law and its proper role in the life of the believer, so I will not try the patience of his readers by rewriting what he has already laid out for us in these past several weeks. He has also carefully addressed the nature of grace and the importance of it being rightly understood. So allow me to simply encourage you to apply these truths carefully and to remember: legalism is defeated when we understand these two concepts together: law and grace. The cure for legalism is not more sin, or even a relaxing of rules, it is more grace
As with any sin, the threat is ever with us while we remain in our earthly tabernacles. And though we know sinless perfection awaits us on the other side of the river, yet we must daily maintain vigilance in the cause against indwelling sin. The promise of full deliverance from sin’s presence should never dissuade us from fighting against sin’s power, for we fight the fight of faith, that is, we lay hold of God’s promises now though we know their entire fulfillment is yet to come. The hand of the faithful soldier is not empty, for the earnest of the promise of future deliverance from sin’s presence becomes a sword with which to battle sin’s power in the present. Don’t lose heart in the battle, for your King has conquered and he has not left you ill-equipped. Love his law, feast on his grace, and pursue his holy example.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Concerning Jesus Blog. Used by permission.