What Legalism & Licentiousness have in common

An objection being made to Tullian Tchividjian’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post that we blogged about yesterday (and that came up in our discussion too) is that legalism just isn’t the problem in the church today.  Rather, churches are rife with licentiousness.   Too much preaching of grace and forgiveness can encourage people to keep sinning.  We need more preaching of the Law to encourage people to act morally.

Actually, though, both legalism and licentiousness are different forms of self-righteousness.  The legalist thinks to earn God’s favor by his rectitude.  The libertine does whatever he wants with no guilt to hold him back.  Both are antinomian, denying their condemnation under the Law.  Both reject the Gospel because they think they don’t need it.  Neither has faith.  (Since good works are the fruits of faith, if you don’t have good works, you need more faith, which means you need more Gospel.)

That’s the way I see it.  After the jump, read Rev. Tchividjian’s response.

From Church, We Have A Problem – Tullian Tchividjian:

In response to my Washington Post op-ed last Thursday, one commenter wrote: “Moralism in the church was a huge problem 7-10 years ago, but I honestly feel that the pendulum has swung in the other extreme full force, to a fault on the other side.” This is a pretty common objection that those of us who are committed to decrying moralism and legalism hear. The thinking goes precisely the way the commenter suggests: “Legalism and moralism is NOT the problem today; licentiousness is.”

On the surface, this seems to make a lot of sense. Just look around. One could argue that our country has never been more licentious and morally lax than it is at our present cultural moment. Is preaching the gospel of grace what we really need? Or, to put it another way, is preaching the gospel of grace really the means by which God rescues the lawless, the unethical, and the disobedient? There are at least three huge assumptions in this common line of thinking that need to be addressed.

Legalism and Lawlessness as Two Opposite Extremes?

The whole “pendulum swing” argument is one I know well. Not only because I hear it all the time but also because I used to make the same argument. What I’ve discovered, however, is that there one big problem with this (simplistic) argument: it fails to realize that since Genesis 3, legalism (self-salvation) has always been our biggest problem. And this problem does not shift with the cultural mood–it just takes one of two different forms.

Spend any time in the American church, and you’ll hear legalism and lawlessness presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid. Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law or rules, and lawlessness when you focus too much on grace. Therefore, in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium, you have to “balance” law and grace. 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. This “balanced” way of framing the issue has kept people from really understanding the Gospel of grace in all of its radical depth and beauty.

It is more theologically accurate to say that the one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—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” that we typically choose from: the law that says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules,” or the law that 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. “Make a rule” or “break a rule” really belong to the same passion for autonomy (self-rule). We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license. So it would be a mistake to identify the “two cliffs” as being legalism and lawlessness. What some call license is just another form of legalism. And there’s always and only been one solution to our self-salvation projects: God’s salvation project in Christ.

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About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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