More on how Christians from all traditions are discovering Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel. This is evident in this post from Southern Baptist pastor Micah Fries at Project TGM, who goes on to make a further point that we conservative Lutherans might sometimes overlook:
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. . . .
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. . . .
Second, legalism leads to a diminished recognition of 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”. . . .Third, legalism worries more about “its reputation” than it worries about Jesus’ reputation. . . .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.
HT: Adrian Warnock