Facing Legalism and License With Truth

by Rick Shrader

Truth is incontrovertible.  Panic may resent it; ignorance may deride it; malice may distort it; but there it is. 

Winston Churchill


The German Anabaptist Hans Denck said, “Therefore, as God wills, and so much as in me is, I will not have my brother as an opponent and my Father as a judge.”1 In all of my ministry I have avoided neither exclusion inside my church nor separation outside my church. But I have often  disagreed with good men as to how either should take place.  I have never liked the terms “first degree” and “second degree” in referring to separation, “legalism” and “license” in referring to godliness, or even “personal” and “ecclesiastical” as terms dividing spiritual realms of responsibility.  Jonathan Edwards had a simpler way of putting it, “If it be made out clearly and evidently from reason and the Word of God, to be our duty so to do, this would be enough with all Christians.  Will a follower of Christ stand objecting and disputing against a thing, that is irrefragably proved and demonstrated to be his duty?”2

For purposes of this article, I will use the terms “legalism” and “license” in today’s vernacular of two extremes beyond a desired biblical norm.  Legalism describes, I think, a giving up on a consistent, biblical philosophy of life and a resultant falling back on rules for rules’ sake.  License describes a giving up on a consistent philosophy as well but with a resultant refusal to determine right and wrong at all.  It seems to me that biblical admonitions to holiness, love and evangelism would lead us in a different, and more balanced, path.

Proverbs 23:23 says, “Buy the truth and sell it not.”  In that short statement by Solomon is a balance that can be lived consistently.  Pascal said, “It is false piety to preserve peace at the expense of truth.  It is also false zeal to preserve truth at the expense of charity.”3 But I think we can preserve truth without sacrificing charity, although at times it may cost us peace.  Truth is part of God’s creation.  It is the way He made the world and the glue that holds it all together.  It is the ninth commandment, the belt of the Christian armour.  Solomon says we are to seek it at all cost to ourselves and we must never deny it for any reward.  I believe this biblical admonition can be lived out consistently in five prominent areas of the Christian life.

Personal Life

In 2 John 4, the Apostle writes, “I rejoiced greatly that I found of thy children walking in truth.”  We are each, first and foremost, individuals before God.  If there is any place on this planet where we can live out truth, it is in ourselves and within our own lives.  Paul wrote to the Romans, “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest” (Rom. 2:1).  He was pointing out that we all judge situations in many ways every day.  We decide the right and wrong of a matter, and then go one way or the other.  As believers we “desire the sincere milk of the word, that we may grow thereby” (1 Pet 2:2).  To violate what we judge the Word to say, is to lie to ourselves before God.  Spurgeon said, “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.”4

As an individual, I can make two errors concerning the handling of truth. The error of legalism would be to create a wrong where there is none.   The error of license would be to ignore a wrong where there is one. I may decide that it is wrong to eat meat and even teach against it.  But I have created an unbiblical standard and violated truth.  Or I may laugh at an inappropriate joke, or smile at another’s sin or break the law of the land that God told me to keep.  Then I have refused to abide by the rule of truth by an unbiblical and unchristian license.  In legalism or license I have loved the world system more than God by not following truth.

When error from the truth is evident in my life, I must appeal to the plain text of scripture witnessed by the Holy Spirit and follow that corrective back into the truthful way.  Otherwise I “lie and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6).

Married Life

When God said, “They two shall be one flesh (Gen. 2:24),” He meant that two together should seek to follow Him and His Word.  The blending of two individuals makes the task of following truth by conscience more difficult.  Differences of opinion as to what is right will inevitably arise.  That is why a couple needs a mutual agreement that what God says is truth, and therefore right, and when they discover what that is by study and prayer, they will follow it.

Ravi Zacharias, in discussing how love can exist consistently with morality, writes, “If love is creation’s first law, it is consistent within that framework to delineate love’s boundaries–this is the moral law.”5 Trouble comes when one partner is untrue to that moral law, or truth!  A husband can err on the legalistic side by creating household laws that are inconsistent with moral laws.  The food isn’t just right; the shirts aren’t ironed satisfactorily; the trash is too full.  He can err on the side of license by thinking it is his right to swear in the home; his right to provoke the kids to anger; his need to be unfaithful.

Neither is it right for either partner to leave conflict unresolved and pretend the discrepancy doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist.  Though we wrongfully do this in other areas of life without immediate consequences, it quickly becomes disaster in a marriage.  God’s remedy for error in the home is for the husband to be the spiritual head of the family as he follows Christ.

Church Life

Paul instructed the Corinthian church, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 5:4) to proceed to resolve conflicts over truth.    The local church is the only divine agency found in the New Testament through which we fulfill our stewardship before God.  MacArthur writes, “We need to be concerned about accountability.  That’s one reason Communion is important.  It reminds us to make sure our lives are right so that we can restore each other in love and stimulate one another to love and good deeds.  Accountability involves the ‘one anothers’ in Scripture.  We are to exhort one another, pray for one another, love one another, teach one another, edify one another and admonish one another.  Those things make up the life of the church.”6

Now the church is larger than the individual and the family and, therefore, susceptible to greater conflicts over truth.  But it is also the perfect vehicle for teaching and practicing the Word of God in a human situation. Both the individual as well as families of individuals can fellowship, bound together by a love for the truth of God.  No one can be made to say amen to that of which he is not convinced, and no one is without recourse if truth has not been found.  He has the Book, his pastor, a deacon and numerous friends to which he can go for instruction.

Legalism can arise within a church by one group creating standards of conduct not supported by Scripture and forcing those on all the others.  License often occurs when a group of believers begins violating the truth of Scripture in some particular way and yet no biblical recourse is allowed to take place.  Even on this level these two errors result from an apathetic attitude toward finding and maintaining the truth.

It is at this level of our Christian life that God tells us that exclusion may be the way in which we have to deal with error.  Paul told the Galatians to “cast out the bondwoman and her son” (4:30), and then asks them “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?  This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you.  A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (5:7-9).  This, of course, is only after seeking the truth among individuals and also having followed proper avenues of biblical authority.  It is not God’s will for moral or doctrinal error to remain in the body like leaven in a loaf of bread.  It must be removed.  A properly functioning church is one in which godly believers have the faith to exclude error rather than one from which godly believers must themselves separate.

Life In God’s Family

Not all believers are in the same local church.  As believers, we are aware that God’s children are present in varied fellowships although some Christians are not in any local assembly (a situation not assumed in the New Testament).  The love for truth is far more difficult in relation to those with whom you do not have local church accountability.  Many disagreements will never be resolved because accountability cannot be taken by Christians beyond their own local assemblies.  Correcting error within the larger family of God must be pursued by prayer, preaching, personal contact and other forms of communication.

This area of pursuing truth has become difficult due to present attitudes that see correction as bigoted or mean-spirited.  Recently, Ernest Pickering has written, “Everyone wants to be a ‘nice guy’; no one wants to be a ‘bad guy.’  ‘Bad guys’ are disruptive to cozy fellowships, are theological and ecclesiastical ‘whistle blowers’–and few want to hear the whistle.  As a result of well-meaning efforts on the part of many to be ‘nice,’ the cutting edge of Christianity is being dulled.  It is certainly correct to say that ‘evangelical courtesy has seriously watered down its witness,’ and, realizing that, ‘we must guard against civility breeding timidity.”7 Consequently, approaching a brother about error is becoming an endangered action.

Legalism and license are far more common in the larger family of God than in the smaller areas of life.  Both errors abound.  Legalism often arises when peer pressure from strong personalities forces others to adopt stringent taboos and strange excesses which cannot be supported from Scripture.  License is rampant in our day due to professing Christians using their liberty in God’s grace as an occasion to the flesh while bristling at the thought of Christ’s cross.  Neither of these people want to hear that God’s Word stands in judgment on their error from the truth.

How do you deal with another Christian on this level?  It is my opinion that nothing can be “forced” on another believer who is not in your local church.  But certainly we have deep obligations to another brother in biblical error.  Philippians 1 cannot be used to support doing nothing.  Those who opposed Paul while in prison were not said to be in doctrinal error but were selfishly motivated.  Galatians 1 gives us a startling look at Paul’s attitude toward doctrinal error and it was anything but laissez faire.

Paul often exhorts some believers to respond to other believers regarding error.  “Mark them” (Rom. 16:17, Phil. 3:17), “avoid them” (Rom. 16:17), “put away from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:13), and “note that man, and have no company with him” (2 Thes. 3:14).  These admonitions regard more than just five “fundamentals” which some use as an excuse to plead “hands off” to their other beliefs and actions.  These verses are directed at “divisions,” “those who mind earthly things,” “a man that is called a brother who is a fornicator,” and “every brother that walketh disorderly and not after the traditions (Paul’s inspired writings) which he received of us.”   Jude wanted to avoid these uncommon areas of “the faith” but was inspired of God to earnestly contend for it all (Jude 1-3).

How can this be done practically in the work place, at school, around town or even in various meetings of believers across the country?  One way in which we can be true to the truth at all times is never to allow ourselves to put our blessing or approval on biblical error.  Years ago, I knew a young man whose father was living in sin and would not repent.  How, he asked, could he be around his father at dinner or at social events and still not condone what he was doing?  The only way was (though he had to be physically around him) to never, by words, gestures or even silence, say in effect, “it’s all right, Dad, I understand.”  We, as believers, must never say to an erring brother, “it’s all right, I don’t care what you believe, it doesn’t matter.”  This is too often done over coffee cups, holding hands in Christian rallies, joining movements that have known error and such things where our sentimentality overrules our devotion to the faith.  “For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 John 11).

Life In God’s World

We share God’s world with all kinds of creatures and there is a certain worldly etiquette toward them all.  People, who are made in God’s image, are in need of truth in the most basic way.  They need to be reconciled to God and we, who know Christ, are the ambassadors to lead them out of their error (2 Cor. 5:19-21).  Legalism, at this worldly level, resorts back to its basic form:  working to obtain salvation.  License has no limits when the sinful nature is combined with the love of money and of self.

At this level we not only “buy the truth and sell it not,” but we must propagate the truth as well.  In so doing, it is fatal to the effort of evangelism for a believer to condone the works of a lost man as if he were making points with God.  Today’s society already sees churches as pragmatic service centers for doing good in the community (What else, they ask, could they be for?)  Neither can we forget that a lost man has a most basic selfish desire that in itself is keeping him from repentance.  It expresses itself in every area of his life.  We cannot, at the same time feed this desire for a human world view and simultaneously ask him to understand agape love.  What agreement, asks the apostle, can these things possibly have? (2 Cor. 6:14-17).

The Christian response to error on this level is separation.  Not leaving the world, but neither congratulating it (1 Cor. 5:9-10).  But we will never separate from something we continue to love, and we will never quit loving something until we are convinced of its error.

Alexander Pope wrote some time ago,

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,

As to be hated needs but to be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”8

Balthasar Hubmaier, the great Anabaptist, often ended his writings with the words, “Truth Is Immortal.”9 Perhaps he coined the phrase from the last living apostle who left us with the inspired words that ought to be our motivation and vision, “For the truth’s sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us for ever” (2 John 2).

1 Hans Denck quoted by Estep, The Anabaptist  Story (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996)  p. 116.
2 Quoted by Ralph Turnbull, Jonathan Edwards The Preacher (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 1958) p. 56.
3 Blaise Pascal, Pensees #949 (New York:  Penguin Books, 1966) p. 325.
4 Quoted by Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation (Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 1979) p. 84.
5 Ravi Zacharias, A Shattered Visage (Brentwood, Tenn.:  Wolgemuth & Hyatt Pub., 1990) p. 134.
6 John MacArthur, The Master’s Plan For The Church (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1991) p. 49.
7 Ernest Pickering, The Tragedy Of Compromise (Greenville:  Bob Jones U. Press, 1994) p. 25.
8 Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle II, line 1.
9 Balthasar Hubmaier, “Eighteen Dissertations”, In Lumkin’s Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge:  Judson Press, 1980) p. 21.