Andrew Byers, in his very fine new book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint, claims “cyncism is a sickness” and defines it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives. One of the reasons cynicism develops is legalism, and the cynic, when abandoning legalism, often ends up with a cynical substitute, but before we get there, let’s talk about legalism.
I begin with this: I know it from experience. Legalism is not believing in the importance of law or rules or authorities; it is not rules themselves; legalism is not even following kosher laws. More often than not, this sort of definition of legalism — equating it with rules — comes from someone who has been told to do something they don’t want to do. (As a teenager telling her parents that a 10pm curfew is “legalism.”) Legalism is any practice or belief that is added to the gospel that compromises the sufficiency of Christ as Savior and jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance. Another dimension of legalism is zealotry, the uber-confidence that comes from showing one’s radical commitment to God by going beyond what the Bible says and finding new rules that express that zeal and then living by and holding others under the scrutiny of those new rules.
Many of us have either been there, or gotten very close, or are on the verge of camping among the legalists. But what Byers finds here is that many who experience legalism react, and what happens is that they become antinomian, that is, they become people who delight in their flaunted freedom out of cynicism.
What is legalism? What about the above definitions? What about zealotry? Do you see the overreaction to legalism in libertinism? Where do you think the Christian church is today in these matters? Too legalistic or too libertine?
Byers says some things wonderfully in this chp. Here is a selection: He knows a time when “Spiritual activity amounted to spirituality.” “Legalism,” he says, “is the attempt to gain spiritual standing before God by keeping religious rules.” And such a “performance-based approach to religious life spawns religiosity, moralism, ritualism.”
Here’s a zinger worth putting on your dashboard: “When we think we are most spiritual before God may actually be when we are most offensive to God” (52). Sometimes this applies to our practices, our self-awareness, our theological articulations, or our church affiliations. It’s that feeling of “I know I’m right” that might mean we are least right!
So what happens?Legalism often runs into the wall of reality and we suddenly think we are not only miserable but we’ve failed to live in the Spirit and have somehow caved in on learning to live in freedom. So we take it — zealot like once again and out of cynicism — to full bore freedom. That is, we get drunk on a cynical form of liberty. We do what we want; we do what others don’t want us to do because we can and because we are free in Christ. It’s a cynical moral posture.
Byers points out: this is rebellion against something. The legalism was a life of uber-conformity, and libertinism is the life of uber-nonconformity. The Bible is against legalism but it is also for righteous obedience and holiness and zeal for God.