“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.