(I wrote this article for my friends over at The Resurgence a couple months ago. I know that much here might sound repetitive. But here I tie my understanding of legalism to the gospel-centeredness that is gaining ground-thank God!-in the church today. I think this is really, really important material to consider. I hope it helps!)
I'm ecstatic about the resurgence of gospel centrality taking place in the evangelical church. The idea that the gospel is not only for those outside the church but also for those inside the church; that it not only ignites the Christian life but is the fuel that keeps Christians going and growing every day, may seem like a new idea, but it's really old. I'm glad it's re-gaining traction, but as far as we've come, we need to go further.
For all the talk of gospel-centeredness, there's still some fear and trepidation fueled by a common misunderstanding regarding the radical nature of grace. Even amongst the proponents of gospel-centrality, I still hear talk about there being two equal dangers that Christians must avoid: legalism and lawlessness.
Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law, or rules. Lawlessness, they say, happens when you focus too much on grace. Therefore, in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium, you have to balance law and grace. Sometimes, legalism and lawlessness are presented as two ditches on either side of the gospel that we must avoid. If you start getting too much law, you need to balance it with grace. If you start getting too much grace, you need to balance it with law. But I've come to believe that this "balanced" way of framing the issue can unwittingly keep us from really understanding the gospel of grace in all of its radical depth and beauty.
It's more theologically accurate to say that there is one primary enemy of the gospel—legalism—but it comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to "save" themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they're told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this "front-door legalism").
Other people avoid the gospel and try to "save" themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this "back-door legalism").
In other words, there are two "laws" we can choose to live by other than Christ: the law which says "I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules" or the law which says "I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules." Either way you're still trying to "save" yourself—which means both are legalistic because both are self-salvation projects.
So, it's a mistake to identify the "two cliffs" as being legalism and lawlessness. The one "cliff" is legalism but it comes in two forms—what some call license is just another form of legalism. And if people outside the church are guilty of "break the rules" legalism, many people inside the church are still guilty of "keep the rules" legalism.
This is super important because the biggest lie about grace that Satan wants the church to buy is the idea that grace is dangerous and therefore needs to be "kept it in check." By believing this we not only prove we don't understand grace, but we violate gospel advancement in our lives and in the church. A "yes, grace…but" disposition is the kind of fearful posture that keeps moralism swirling around in our hearts and in the church.
I understand the fear of grace. As a pastor, one of my responsibilities is to disciple people into a deeper understanding of obedience—teaching them to say "no" to the things God hates and "yes" to the things God loves. But all too often I have (wrongly) concluded that the only way to keep licentious people in line is to give them more rules. The fact is, however, that the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God's radical unconditional acceptance of sinners.
The irony of gospel-based sanctification is that those who end up obeying more are those who increasingly realize that their standing with God is not based on their obedience, but Christ's.
The people who actually end up performing better are those who understand that their relationship with God doesn't depend on their performance for Jesus, but Jesus' performance for us.
People need to hear less about what we need to do for God and more about all that God has already done for us, because imperatives minus indicatives equal impossibilities. If you're a preacher and you're assuming that people understand the radical nature of gospel indicatives, so your ministry is focused primarily on gospel imperatives, you're making a huge mistake. A huge mistake!
Long-term, sustained, gospel-motivated obedience can only come from faith in what Jesus has already done, not fear of what we must do. To paraphrase Ray Ortlund, any obedience not grounded in or motivated by the gospel is unsustainable. No matter how hard you try, how "radical" you get, any engine smaller than the gospel that you're depending on for power to obey will conk out in due time.
So let's take it up a notch. Don't be afraid to preach the radical nature of the gospel of grace. For, as the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, "If your preaching of the gospel doesn't provoke the charge from some of antinomianism, you're not preaching the gospel."
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