Having shown that our conservative, traditional churches are not guilty of legalism, it is also necessary to show that our familiar form of local church polity is still closer to the New Testament pattern. Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia was written mostly to combat (true) legalism, but it was also written to expose the antinomian license that can occur when believers fail to appreciate just how Christ has made them free from sin.
Paul told the Galatians that there is an “offense of the cross” that must not cease (5:11). The Judaizing legalists would not be offended if Paul would also preach circumcision as necessary for salvation. Paul couldn’t do that and so his gospel of salvation without the works of the law remained an offense to them. However, the Galatian libertines would not be offended if Paul would quit preaching on the sins of the flesh. But Paul said, “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (5:24). To the Roman and Colossian believers, he called this “mortifying” the flesh (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5). Therefore, the doctrine of sanctification remained a stumblingblock to the libertines. Paul would end his great epistle by saying, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (6:14).
Peter’s great error in Antioch had been that he was afraid of the Pharisees, withdrew from the other believers and sided with these Judaizers. This caused some others, including Barnabas, to “dissemble” with him. The word dissemble means “to be a hypocrite with” (sunhupokrinomai). Now if Peter can be a hypocrite by joining the Judaizers, he could also be a hypocrite by joining the libertines as Demas once did. One error is as serious as the other. Either one is to cease from the offense of the cross rather than to crucify the flesh and its desires. As Paul wrote, “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).
The Evangelical movement of the twentieth century sought to please men more than Christ and withdrew from their more conservative, fundamentalist brethren toward the world in hopes of winning the world. Though the experiment failed in comparison to the conservative movement,1 many conservative churches are now “dissembling” with them, leaving their conservative roots to join a movement that is libertine in its local church philosophy. The offense of the cross has become weary to them and they seem glad to be in the good graces of the world. They asked the world what it wanted the church to be and then changed to that end. Of course, they have tried desperately to argue that this was good change, but the praise of the world hardly qualifies as a proper evaluation of the church.
The conservative church must remain what it is convicted it should be. Not only do we have Scripture on our side but we have the history of the church and evangelism also. No one is saying that this is an easy day to be conservative and traditional. Our young people have little stomach for it and it brings little recognition or success. But these things cannot be gauged by such standards, not even by the number of converts or the size of our churches! Our success can only be determined by our allegiance to the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Somewhere God’s people have to turn from the broader way and seek those things which are strait even if it seems costly.
The Problem of the Law
Antinomian license, like true legalism, has misused the law of God. A legalist is working to earn God’s grace because he has not let the law of God thoroughly condemn him in the flesh. He is still relying on his own ability to gain favor with God. But the antinomian has misused the law of God also. He feels no conviction for his sin, his conscience only excusing but not accusing his sin.
The problem of antinomian license is a far greater problem in the churches today than legalism. The sins of the flesh can keep a lost person from coming to Christ, since he cannot come without repentance, but these sins can also draw away believers into an ungodly and backslidden life. This person has experienced the law’s conviction at salvation but has later stopped applying the Word of God to his Christian walk thinking that Christ’s further commands have nothing to say to him at all. This state of carnality is a plague to the church.
The Blessing of Holiness
A church will be conservative if it is holy. What is holiness if it is not being as God is? Jesus Christ “loved righteousness and hated iniquity” (Heb. 1:9). Holy living is the proper outcome of the gospel. Throughout the epistles we have these statements, “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him” (Col. 2:6). Though there are three aspects to sanctification (past, present, future), the great majority of its application is to the present Christian walk.
When a sinner is under the condemnation of the law of God but is still yoked to the bondage of his fleshly nature, he is not living in liberty. Neither is a Christian exercising true liberty who allows his old nature to control him through the flesh. From the moment of salvation, old things ought to begin changing and new things ought to appear. I have written often that it is the older generation who understood this and practiced it when they first came to Christ. They went through this proper Christian transformation and have never gone back. The antinomians today accuse the older saints of not changing but the fact is they have! Now they are waiting for the younger generation to take the same step and venture out into the true liberty in Christ, the liberty that frees one from the old nature. Sadly, the younger generation does not change but continues to languish in the weakness and unprofitability of the flesh. This is not Christian freedom but bondage.
The Church as the Church
The local church is God’s house made up of God’s people. The church is not the world and though worldlings may visit with us they cannot be part of the church, the body of Christ. It is futile to try to make the lost world understand this. If they really did, they would immediately repent and believe the gospel. The purity of the church is vital to its relationship to Christ. He is the Head of the body, the Shepherd of the sheep, the Foundation of the house, the High Priest of the nation, the True Vine over the branches, and the Faithful Husband waiting at the altar for the virgin bride to be presented to Him without spot or wrinkle.
Within this wonderful group of God’s saints, meeting in such privileged positions, is the command of the Head to be separate from the world. We don’t need to be reminded that this separation is not monasticism nor cultic compounds but we do need to be reminded that we must “come out” from among the things of this world (2 Cor. 6:17-18). In the space of one chapter Paul told young Timothy to “shun,” “depart,” “purge,” “flee,” “avoid,” and “turn away” (2 Tim. 2) from the world.
The purity of the church is so vital to its stewardship that it must purge the old leaven from among its midst (1 Cor. 5:7) lest the sin spread throughout the whole body. If the sin so spreads that it cannot be purged, the believer must separate. Paul removed the believers from those places where they could not remain pure (Acts 18:7; 19:9). This is not a defeatist or “holy huddle” attitude (if you think so, I feel sorry for what you have missed), but rather an inner zeal for the Lord’s house and a desire to enjoy freedom and fellowship with the brethren; to let His house be a house of prayer not a den of thieves. It is not that we don’t want lost people to attend our churches, on the contrary, it is necessary for their eternal souls that they experience our culture not that we mimic theirs.
The Church Must be Effective
The great debate of the last century or more has been over what makes the church most effective for the gospel’s sake. Fundamentalists have insisted that a compromising church cannot be as effective for God as an obedient church. Even when the so-called standards of success (usually nickels and noses) are applied by observers, the church abides by the standard of the Word of God alone. True work of God is not by might nor by power but by the Spirit of God (Zech. 4:6). The world’s preferences are not the church’s mandates.
This has been the principle and understanding of dissenters throughout the church age. Even persecution is better than compromise because the power of God can still rest upon a church that is obedient and holy. “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified” (1 Pet. 4:14). “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
The contemporary church is not more powerful because it has larger crowds. It is only large and flabby if it has compromised God’s commands for holiness in His house. Paul’s gospel was “in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (2 Thes. 1:5).
The Love of the Brethren
The love of the brethren is greater than the love of the world. Though there is a love for any believer simply because he/she is a kin to Christ, there is a vast and comprehensive love for what the brethren should be and, if you will, the ideal brother. This is a love for all that Christ asks us to be or become; for His commandments are not grievous but are as easy as His burden is light. Sin and immaturity are challenges to be overcome, not glorified and exalted in the church. Immaturity, laying hands too quickly on novices, hinders the love of the brethren.
If this be true, there is no greater joy than to be around those saints who have grown into maturity with Christ; those fathers (and mothers) who have known Christ from the beginning. Even the struggle of their older years (which is met with gracious acceptance, courage, and even humor), becomes the greatest example of all as their conversation is more and more in heaven where they look for their Savior and the changing of the corruptible into incorruption (of whom the world is not worthy!). We ought to feel sorry for the churches which have turned such saints out into the streets. Imagine young men telling the fathers they can get in or get out but they can’t exercise their influence! Shame on us for such thinking.
And So . . . .
I wonder if we are just afraid we will lose something here on earth. Will we lose our church buildings if we do not grow? Will we lose our schools if this generation doesn’t choose our campus? Will we lose our support base for missionaries if our giving doesn’t remain high? Will our children not like us and not walk in our same path? Will we (perhaps most feared of all) lose our popularity and platforms and applause, the ability to measure ourselves by ourselves and compare ourselves among ourselves? Then, brethren, we have our reward!
If we have but two or three gathered in His name who are seeking favor only with the Lord Jesus Christ, then we should be happy in church, in witness, and in fellowship. It just may be, if that is indeed what we desire, that the Lord again may give us exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, not as our motive for service, but as a result of His blessing. Then we could truly say, “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Eph. 3:21).