Legalism vs. Antinomianism vs. knowing the Master

Legalism vs. Antinomianism vs. knowing the Master November 20, 2014

Last Sunday our pastor preached on the dangers of falling into either of the two ditches along the side of the road:  legalism and antinomianism.  Both, he said, leave out Jesus.  He went on to explore what that means with a reading of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) that I had never thought of before.

From Rev. James Douthwaite, St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Pentecost 23 Sermon:

Last week the parable Jesus told talked about waiting – waiting for the end, waiting for that day when Jesus returns. We noted that while many fear that day – judgment day! – Jesus described it for us as a day of joy, the start of a wedding feast that has no end. So we can look forward to that day and wait for it not in fear, but with a joyful anticipation.

But here’s the question: what do we do until then? How do we who do not like waiting, wait for that day? That’s what Jesus’ parable is about today. Because Christianity isn’t just about “getting into heaven” – it’s about life now, too.

Now, this is a really important parable to get right, because there are two equally dangerous errors people fall into about this. As many of you know, I often describe it as the two ditches along the sides of the road – we don’t want to fall into either ditch, but stay on the road. The road of the right teaching and understanding of Scripture.

So the ditch on the one side of the road is the: you have to do certain things, or enough certain things, in order to be saved ditch. That your Christian life now is about earning your way into heaven – like maybe what those first two servants in the parable today seemed to do. This is what could be called the works righteous ditch, and this can get so bad that faith and Jesus and forgiveness do not enter the picture at all. All that matters, all the focus, is what you do, your goodness, your effort. Your good works, your church attendance, your serving. Doing enough to get in. We don’t want to fall into that ditch. And we Lutherans are usually pretty good at avoiding that ditch . . . most of the time . . . except when we think we’re a little higher on the pecking order because we come to church more faithfully than the next guy, or give more, or show up and do more . . . that somehow because of those things God should be more pleased with us. So maybe we’re not all the way at the bottom of that ditch, but slip that way sometimes . . .

But the ditch on the other side of the road is just as bad. This is the ditch – called the antinomian ditch, or anti-law ditch, or anti-works ditch – which thinks that what I do doesn’t matter at all. I can do whatever I want, I can sin as much as I want, because all that matters is that you believe and so Jesus will forgive you and it’s all good. That’s maybe the side of the road we Lutherans tend to slip into a bit more. And if you think that way, I think the prophet Zephaniah would like to have a word with you later! We don’t want to be there either.

Both of these errors come, I think, from the thinking that Christianity is just about “getting into heaven” – and so you either have to be obsessed about doing enough to get yourself there, or you can live footloose and care-free because you know you’re already there. Woo-hoo! But notice – in both of those pictures, those errors, those ditches . . . where’s Jesus? Not really there, is He? Or if He is, He’s not really all that important. It’s all focused on me – what I have to do or don’t have to do.

Which is really quite a minimalist view of the Christian life. One that I think has spilled over from other parts of our life. The “what is the least I have to do to get by” thinking that we tend to have. You know that thinking. It’s: exactly how much dinner do I have to eat to get dessert? Exactly how clean do I have to get my room? Exactly how long does that school paper have to be? Exactly how much do I have to do to get that promotion? Exactly how much do I have to do to get into heaven . . . because I certainly want to make sure I don’t do more than I have to!

Is that what the Christian life is all about? Really? Is that it? Or is that: it’s my life and I want to do what I want, so let me get this out of the way? Again, where’s Jesus in all that?

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