There is a common canard today that our conservative churches are full of legalists. We have been called grace killers, fighting fundamentalists, Pharisees, and a host of other colorful descriptions. The charge of legalism, of course, is not only false but is a misleading and sometimes dishonest accusation. The truth is that there is no legalism in our fundamental churches, at least not in any biblical sense of the word. As in politics, however, the seriousness of the charge will always outweigh the truthfulness of the accusation. Since our culture dislikes regulations, standards, or almost any set of rules or convictions that would curb an individual’s “right” to do as he or she pleases, the accusation of legalism becomes an easy label to use.
The English term “legalist” is not in the Bible. Interestingly, the closest we might come to it is Paul’s quotation of the Corinthians who cried, “all things are lawful for me” (1 Cor. 10:23) as an excuse for their sin against the brethren. Non-biblical words (like the word “culture”) become easy to use for one’s own purposes. The problem today is that the word “legalist” has been used so often to mean anyone who has rules of conduct (for yourself, a church, or an organization) that this has become its accepted meaning. This is like googling “MySpace” as a source for research: common usage becomes an “original source.” But just because someone has said something often does not make it truthful.
A “legalist,” by any New Testament definition, would be a Judaizer, a keeper of the Mosaic Law. In the Gospels, these were the Pharisees who insisted that the Jews must keep the Law (and remain Jewish) to be saved. In the book of Acts and the time of the Epistles, these were the Jews who persecuted the Apostles, realizing that the gospel of grace alone was the enemy of salvation by the works of the Law. The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) was called because “Certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Legalism, then, would be the attempt to be saved or remain saved by the keeping of the Mosaic Law. Even if we broaden that to be the keeping of the moral law we still do not find this teaching in our conservative, fundamental churches today. Only Orthodox Jews are trying to keep the Mosaic law for salvation. We also have those denominations which teach works for salvation (Romanism, Arminianism) but I do not count them as part of our fundamental churches that preach salvation by grace. Therefore, we simply do not have legalists in our conservative churches today. Myron Houghton has written,
“A distinction must be made between lists and legalism. It is certainly true that believers differ on their lists, and we must evaluate each item on a list in light of relevant Scriptural teaching. But disagreeing with fellow believers over whether or not Scripture supports their lists has nothing to do with legalism. Legalism is related to why one should obey a list rather than to the rightness or wrongness of the list.”1
Charles Ryrie says, “The existence of a code of law cannot be legalism. The fact that there are regulations, be it those of the Mosaic Law or the law of Christ, is not legalism. Law is not legalism.”2 That is, unless one is keeping a law in order to be saved, it is not legalism. If you disagree with that person over the biblical correctness of a specific law, then you should simply say he is wrong. To call him a legalist is either to misunderstand legalism or to be dishonest.
As also in politics, the pointing of one finger at someone else is to have four fingers pointing back at oneself. The accusation of legalism toward those who desire to live godly and separated covers up the obvious problem of worldliness in the churches. The twin problem to (real) legalism in the New Testament was antinomian license. In the book of Galatians, after encouraging the believers against (real) legalism: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1), Paul wrote, “For, brethren, ye have been called to liberty; only use not your liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (Gal. 5:11). Peter did the same thing in both of his epistles: “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God” (Pet. 3:16); “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage” (2 Pet. 2:19).
The problem in our churches today is not legalism but license. The changes have not been for the better (and surely change can be for good) but for the worse. The throwing out of the elderly was also a throwing out of maturity and godliness. The bringing in of the contemporary was a bringing in of worldliness and immaturity. And, this is not new. “Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn. 3:12).
John Newton, who pastored in eighteenth century England and wrote Amazing Grace also wrote,
There are too many who would have the ministry of the Gospel restrained to the privileges of believers; and when the fruits of faith, and the tempers of the mind, which should be manifest in those who have ‘tasted that the Lord is gracious,’ are inculcated, think they sufficiently evade all that is said, by calling it legal preaching. I would be no advocate for legal preaching; but we must not be deterred, by the fear of a hard word, from declaring the whole counsel of God.3
Recently, Millard Erickson, in a book on the postmodern generation wrote,
One phenomenon that has not received a great deal of attention is the status of laws in a postmodern age. For the most part, there is a lesser concern for the fulfillment of or abiding by laws than in earlier times. To follow laws, especially in an undeviating manner, is thought to be ‘legalism,’ which is deemed a very bad thing. Freedom to deviate from such regulations is a positive virtue. Often, when pressed for a rationale for such action, the reply given is, ‘We are more interested in people than in rules.’ On the surface of it, at least, this appears to be the concern for community that is such a hallmark of postmodernism.4
Equally egregious is the misuse of the biblical word “liberty.” Rather than understanding liberty in Christ to be the freedom from sin and the ability to serve God in newness of spirit, the church is defining this word as the right to do as one wishes. Ryrie recognized this danger when he wrote, “To introduce any laws becomes to them legalism. Unfortunately, too, this doctrinal confusion sometimes becomes the basis for a loose kind of living which is justified in the name of practicing Christian liberty.”5
Charles Spurgeon, in the midst of the Down-Grade controversy, wrote,
Many good men lament the fact that liberty is, in certain instances, degenerating into license, but they solace themselves with the belief that on the whole it is a sign of health and vigour: the bough is so fruitful that it runs over the wall. . . . It is a pity that such loyalty to liberty could not be associated with an equally warm expression of resolve to be loyal to Christ and his gospel. It would be a grievous fault if the sons of the Puritans did not maintain the freedom of their consciences; but it will be no less a crime if they withdraw those consciences from under the yoke of Christ.6
As Madame Roland said of the French Revolution, “Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!” Spurgeon did not live long enough to hear and read “The Fundamentals” but he surely would have identified and agreed with the spirit of them. In them Mrs. Jesse Penn-Lewis from Leicester, England wrote an article titled, “The Warfare with Satan and the Way of Victory.” In that, she wrote,
And the adversary now does his best to counterfeit the true freedom in Christ by inciting rebellion to those in authority, and fleshly zeal under the name of the liberty of the Spirit. But the Word of God shows that the liberty wherewith Christ makes us free is really freedom from slavery to sin, and to the evil one. The freed soul passes under law to Christ, under the perfect law of liberty, which is liberty to do right, instead of seeing what is right, and doing what is wrong. Liberty to obey God instead of disobeying Him.7
Douglas Moo, in his commentary on the book of James, explains the meaning of “the law of liberty” in 2:12: “God’s gracious acceptance of us does not end our obligation to obey him; it sets it on a new footing. No longer is God’s law a threatening, confining burden. For the will of God now confronts us as a law of liberty — an obligation that is discharged in the joyful knowledge that God has both liberated us from the penalty of sin and given us, in his Spirit, the power to obey his will.”8
It is my conviction by observation, reading, and listening to many speak that because legalism and liberty have been entirely redefined, the contemporary church has lost its way in the matter of holiness and godliness. In a new book by Gordon MacDonald titled, Who Stole My Church, I thought I would find a like mind. No, the title is only a ploy so that he can explain why older people shouldn’t complain when their church changes out from under them. In the preface he writes what he intends to be a compliment to the contemporary church, “Here and there, however, are marvelous people who seem to understand that a church is not meant to be a club organized for the convenience of insiders but a cooperative where people combine together to grow spiritually, to worship the triune God, and to prepare themselves for Christian living and service in the larger world.”9 As I read the preface I didn’t know which way he was going in the book. I then realized I was reading this statement completely opposite of the way he intended. But I still believe I am correct! The contemporary church has become a club for the convenience of insiders—those who have taken over the churches and redefined Christian living as they like.
One problem that accompanies these disagreements is that of conscience. It is much more difficult to feel you are in a compromising situation than it is to merely think that someone doesn’t like what you’re doing. A conscientious Christian who understands liberty and license knows he/she is in a compromising situation when his/her church has become contemporary and worldly. But the worldly Christian looks condescendingly on the conservative brother and thinks his point of view is just old fashioned.
I have known many churches in recent years where a pastoral candidate presented himself as conservative in order to be elected as the pastor, and then, once safely in office, turned the church in a contemporary direction (in business this is called a hostile takeover!). As is typical, many long-time members of the church are forced to either become confrontive or leave. Usually they choose the latter (or are invited to leave and not “rock the boat”) because fighting in the church is not their nature—and rightly so. I know missionaries who are careful not to reveal to prospective supporting pastors how contemporary they are when presenting their field. Later, when reporting back to their supporting churches, they are careful not to show in any pictures or reports the contemporary nature of their missionary work. These situations ought not to happen in churches but they do all the time.
In the second half of this article, I want to describe why I think the conservative, traditional churches are still the best churches regardless of size or supposed lack of “success.” If the church is not the church as God intends her to be, no amount of success or popularity will fill the hungry soul. It is time to let the church be the church.