“Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism
by Tony Reinke
What is “legalism?” Legalism is an attempt to please God through self-righteous obedience, a counterfeit replacement to the merits and works of the perfect Son. You can be legalistic by not drinking alcohol and thinking God is more pleased with you and you can become legalistic by drinking alcohol and thinking God is more pleased with you. Legalism is not merely defined by specific rules or strictness. Legalism is all about seeking to please God with self efforts and we do that in our ‘looseness’ just as easily as our strictness. That’s the gist of a short post I wrote (“Understanding Legalism”) last September.
This past winter I heard two separate public statements to the effect that if you read a lot of Puritan literature you will grow legalistic. Certainly there is a danger in all Christian literature to do what I did before I was a Christian — highlight all the passages of books and Scripture that give a command, seek to obey and appease God in the end. That’s legalism and it doesn’t matter what you read, our hearts fall into this legalism naturally.
The criticism of the Puritans however is overall unfounded simply on the basis of the Cross-centered focus of the Puritans. You cannot exalt in the sufficient work of the Son without striking legalism at the root.
But this criticism is also unfounded because the Puritans attacked legalism directly.
This weekend I was reading through an excellent systematic theology written by John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787). On the covenant of works, Brown launched into a lengthy paragraph on the nature of legalism and why all unregenerate sinners – and even converted Christians – are lured by legalism. Listen carefully to his arguments.
“All men by nature, and even believers, in so far as they are unrenewed, desire to be under the covenant of works, and to obtain happiness by their own righteousness, or the condition of it. 1. It is natural to men, and hence men of every form or religion, station, office, education, or manner of life, agree in it (Romans 9:31,32; 10:3; Jonah 1:16; Matthew 19:16; John 6:28; Acts 2:37; Luke 15:19). 2. Our own working or suffering, in order to obtain happiness from God, is exceedingly suited to the pride of our corrupt nature, and makes us to look on God as our debtor (Romans 10:3; 7:9,13; John 5:45; Isaiah 58:3). It is like pangs of death to quit our hold of the law (Romans 7:4,9; Galatians 2:19). 3. Men’s ignorance of the extensive and high demands of the broken law, and of their own utter inability to keep it, — or their care to abridge their apprehensions of them, and to enlarge their conceit of their own ability, mightily promote their desire to be under it (Romans 7:9-13; 10:3; Galatians 4:21). 4. Men have naturally a peculiar enmity against God and his gracious method of redemption, — against Jesus Christ and his whole mediation, particularly his sacrificing work; and hence love to oppose the honor of it be cleaving to legal methods of obtaining happiness (Romans 8:7; John 15:24; Romans 10:3; 9:32; 5:21; Galatians 2:21; 5:2,4).”
– The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington [Reformation Heritage Books: 2002] p. 212 (updated spellings and formatting).
Not only were the Puritans aware of the dangers of legalism, they understood legalism to be a false understanding of the appeasement of God. That is, they rightly understood legalism to be a false gospel. And what’s more, the Puritans were fully aware of the battle waging in the soul of the Christian that “it is like pangs of death to quit our hold of the law.” We must die to the Law, not because the Law is bad, but because all sinners are naturally inclined to think appeasing God is possible through Legal obedience. We think that we will find life in obedience to the Law when in fact the Law is really only eternally useful after it kills us in our self-righteousness. “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7:10).
The Puritans were fully aware of the heart’s addiction to self-righteousness and they responded by attacking legalism directly and indirectly (by rejoicing in the perfect work of Jesus Christ). To conclude that Puritan literature births legalism is very clearly a broad statement without foundation.
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My take on the puritans is that like Augustine, they were not legalists. They believed in salvation by grace through faith.
With regard to holiness they pursued it the way they felt God wanted them to do. That said they judged others that chose to pursue holiness in a different manner and in this the puritans erred. I have no doubt that Martin Luther would have spoken about puritan holiness the same way that he spoke of anabaptist holiness. Luther would encourage christians to pursue holiness on their vocation, and less on moralistic personal introspection.
For Luther assurance of salvation was of the essence, without it there is no faith. The puritans and the Westminster confession made assurance of salvation optional, thus denying an essential element of christian faith. They also were legalistic about sabbath keeping. Many puritans doubted their salvation, that means they lacked faith. This is a result of puritan preaching. The puritans focused on man, what can man do for God, Martin Luther focused on God ALONE, what God has done for man. The puritans looked within themselves for assurance of salvation, Martin Luther looked at Jesus Christ ALONE for assurance of salvagtion because he understood that if we look at ourselves as christians we will see nothing but sin. For Luther the purpose of the Law was almost exclusively knowledge of sin, which is the only purpose that the apostle Paul teaches. For the puritans the law’s main purpose was to whip the believer into shape and force him to examine himself. Luther’s approach to holiness was by preaching justification by grace through faith alone, which is the essence of the christian faith. Works are the fruit of justification and should never be the main focus of preaching. The puritans preached works as if they were an end in itself. For Luther the Gospel, the work of Christ was the ultimate goal, and when preached correctly will produce works (but works are a fruit of the Gospel and they don’t gain points in the eyes of the Lord). For the puritans works were the end goal, with faith being an instrument to produce good works.
Luther and the puritans are like Paul and James. And there is no doubt when it comes to the gospel and salvation that Paul’s writings are superior to James.
I believe the puritans were saved since they believed in salvation by grace through faith. Their legalism was in areas like sabbath keeping, where Paul cautions all of us to respect the bellevers that disagree with us on what days we need to observe or food we can eat. The puritan faith is a saving faith, albeit a weak faith. They overemphisized works, even when they said that they were a result of faith. Whenever we over-emphasize holiness we become self righteous, no matter how much we talk about faith. The New Testament doesn’t talk as much about individual lives, but the Old Testament does in a historic way where the deeds and sins of the saints are exposed. With David I say blessed is the man whom God does not impute his sin, there is no blessedness for the man that doesn’t sin (because we all do sin). In Proverbs or Eclesiastes, it is written that we ought to be holy but not excessively holy. Why would it be written? Because we become self righteous or feel guilty any time we pursue €holiness with too much zeal. The pursuit of holiness is a biblical command, but holiness can only be found in the Lord, not in ourselves.
ok, I found the verse, it’s Eclesiastes verse 16 that cautions against being overly righteous (pious, holy). I’ve added verses 15 and 17 which provide good context. This is practical advice and it may be interpreted in various ways, but I do think that it mainly relates to admitting our inability to reach perfect holyness and we should cccept the mercy of Christ to pardon our sin. Like Paul, we christians have a thorn in the flesh from Satan, and we should content ourselves with Christ’s grace for the forgiveness of sins as sufficient.
From the ESV version of the bible (Eclesiates 7:15 to 7:17)
15 In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?
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