A kinder, gentler path to legalism

tsslogo.jpgLast night 60 Minutes aired a segment on popular pastor and author Joel Osteen. Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, appeared briefly. Horton has spoken out with concern over Osteen’s message. Here’s one concern that strikes me:

“There is no condemnation in Osteen’s message for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law. On the other hand, there is no justification. Instead of either message, there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: ‘Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful.’ …

Instead of accepting God’s just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification, Osteen counsels readers simply to reject guilt and condemnation. Yet it is hard to do that successfully when God’s favor and blessing on my life depend entirely on how well I can put his commands to work. ‘If you will simply obey his commands, He will change things in your favor.’ That’s all: ‘…simply obey his commands.’

Everything depends on us, but it’s easy. … Osteen seems to think that we are basically good people and God has a very easy way for us to save ourselves — not from his judgment, but from our lack of success in life — with his help. ‘God is keeping a record of every good deed you’ve ever done,’ he says — as if this is good news. ‘In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you are taken care of.’

It may be ‘Law Lite,’ but make no mistake about it: behind a smiling Boomer Evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God’s wrath, there is a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, good news to good advice. The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the good news is just a softer version of the bad news: Do more. But this time, it’s easy! And if you fail, don’t worry. God just wants you to do your best. He’ll take care of the rest.

So who needs Christ? At least, who needs Christ as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29)? The sting of the law may be taken out of the message, but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy, not to measure us against God’s holiness.

So while many supporters offer testimonials to his kinder, gentler version of Christianity than the legalistic scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that God’s rules or principles are easier and it’s all about happiness here and now, not being reconciled to a holy God who saves us from ourselves. In its therapeutic milieu, sin is failing to live up to our potential, not falling short of God’s glory. We need to believe in ourselves and the wages of such ‘sins’ is missing out on our best life now. But it’s still a constant stream of exhortation, demands, and burdens: follow my steps and I guarantee your life will be blessed.”

– Michael S. Horton article, Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study

Horton’s comments are reminiscent of J. Gresham Machen’s view that the theological liberalism of his own day was not a new path of freedom but a “sublimated form of legalism” [see Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 143-156].

Instead of preaching that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” the popular trend says, “God blesses you with all physical blessing because you have asked enough and obeyed a certain way to unleash the blessing.”

Horton and Machen both recognize that while contemporary shifts in preaching may seem to liberate the believer, the opposite happens — God’s promised blessing becomes contingent on personal obedience. This is the very bondage to the Law Christ frees us from!

So why has God blessed your life? Why do you have life? A job? Money? Food? Clothes? Are your successes expected because God likes you more than others? Are you blessed because your obedience is superior? The proper answer is that all of God’s blessing comes to us in Christ. We don’t get what we deserve (His wrath), we get what we don’t deserve (grace, forgiveness and blessing from God through the death of Christ).

At the end of the day the prosperity gospel is a radical break from Scripture that tells us we have already received everything necessary from God in Christ.

The Gospel – the message that sinners are justified by faith alone in the perfect life and work of Christ alone – is the true path to eternal blessing and freedom. When this Gospel is clouded (or even forgotten), we no longer get a clear view of God or eternal reality by which we interpret our world, our job, our pain, our successfulness.

In the end, to presume God’s blessing is an award for obedience is bondage to age-old legalism, albeit with a kinder and gentler face.

———–

RELATED POST: A short essay answering the question, What is legalism? (5/22/07)

RELATED POST: “Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism (3/19/07)

RELATED POST: Cross-centered obedience (08/16/07)

RELATED POST: Deeper into the Glories of Calvary (09/03/07)

RELATED POST: Sinclair Ferguson on supporting the imperatives to holiness (07/23/07)

RELATED: What constitutes ‘relevant preaching’? … “The Christian is in the midst of a sore battle. And as for the condition of the world at large — nothing but the coldest heartlessness could be satisfied with that. It is certainly true that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. Even in the Christian life there are things that we should like to see removed; there are fears within as well as fightings without; even within the Christian life there are sad evidences of sin. But according to the hope which Christ has given us, there will be final victory, and the struggle of this world will be followed by the glories of heaven. That hope runs all through the Christian life; Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.” Machen in Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 147, 149.

Deeper into the Glories of Calvary

tssgloriescalvary.jpg

At the conclusion of Sunday celebration – after a sermon on 1 Timothy 1:15-17 — pastor Rick Gamache pondered the question: How does God take us deeper into the glories of the Cross?

In this text, Paul acknowledges himself the worst sinner he knows (v. 15). And God, he exclaimed, is glorious in holiness and majesty (v. 17).

It’s here, between a deepening understanding of personal sin – that I am the worst sinner I know – and a growing understanding of God’s holiness, that we grow deeper into the glories of Calvary. When we grow up into God’s holiness, and grow down in properly understanding the depth of our personal sin, we better see the wrath of God that was appeased in the Cross, the emptiness of our self-righteousness and the magnitude of the glorious, reconciling Cross!

A great image of the Cross-centered life!

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:14-19)

The sermon, titled “A Functional Doctrine of Sin,” is perhaps the best message on sin I have heard. Amazing! (Listen here).


———–

Related: The song “The Glories of Calvary” was written by Steve & Vikki Cook and available for a paltry buck.

Finding Jesus for self-redemption

vick.jpgSuper-athlete Michael Vick has pled guilty to dog fighting. Possibly his NFL career is over, certainly it’s on ‘hold.’

It’s his post-guilty plea statements I find curious. In part he said …

“… I’m upset with myself, and, you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. And I think that’s the right thing to do as of right now.

Like I said, for this — for this entire situation I never pointed the finger at anybody else, I accepted responsibility for my actions of what I did and now I have to pay the consequences for it. But in a sense, I think it will help, you know, me as a person. I got a lot to think about in the next year or so.

I offer my deepest apologies to everybody out in there in the world who was affected by this whole situation. And if I’m more disappointed with myself than anything it’s because of all the young people, young kids that I’ve let down, who look at Michael Vick as a role model. And to have to go through this and put myself in this situation, you know, I hope that every young kid out there in the world watching this interview right now who’s been following the case will use me as an example to using better judgment and making better decisions.

Once again, I offer my deepest apologies to everyone. And I will redeem myself. I have to.”

I pray that Vick has found his Savior! This would be amazing grace covering a violence-addicted heart. But we’re also aware now is a great time to publicly “find Christ” in the hopes of swaying more lenient sentencing. May Vick truly find his peace in the Cross and find wise counsel from pastors in his life. We can pray to this end.

But there is a deeper lesson in these words for us all. We want to “find Jesus” and, at the same time, want to redeem ourselves. We don’t say it like this, but it’s a real struggle. We struggle against legalism because we struggle to rest our full eternal redemption into the hands of another.

Trusting in the gospel is to be eternally redeemed in Christ, relinquishing all hope of becoming redeem-able. It means crying for mercy in light of the impossible demands of self-redemption. We have seen the sin in our hearts, the holy standards of God, and cannot be redeemed today or tomorrow or in a year by our self-improvements.

In Scripture it’s one sinful tax collector and one bloody criminal hanging next to Christ that both find redemption by relinquishing self-improvement. This is hard for us to grasp in a society bent on self-improvement and image and perception. We are repulsed from the idea that our souls cannot be improved to God’s approval. We don’t want to be helpless. We need Jesus for an initial push of momentum in the right direction.

Recall what Mark Lauterbach recently wrote: “I have wondered for a couple of years where the Gospel intersects modern American life — and I think it is here. The Gospel calls us to stop trying to improve ourselves.”

At some level the words of Vick are the words of us all: ‘Redeem me so I can redeem myself.’ This prideful contradiction energizes legalism, undermines the humbling power of the gospel, undermines the grace-sustained Cross-centered life, undermines our Cross-purchased eternal security, and undermines honesty over personal sin in small group meetings.

At the least, these words reveal a false dichotomy between private, spiritual ‘redemption’ and public, PR ‘redemption.’ At the worst, Vick’s words reveal a misunderstanding of the gospel, a gospel so confused in popular culture that to “find Jesus” may now be the first step towards self-redemption.

——————–

photo (c) 2007 Doug Mills/The New York Times

Understanding Legalism

Understanding Legalism

How do we define legalism? Because the term legalism is a very serious one (and because my heart is especially susceptible to it) I frequently think about how the roots of legalism sprout in our lives. So today I want to work towards a definition.

Three events from last year (that all took place back in Omaha in the same week) reveal why clarification on the dangers of legalism are necessary. First was a conversation with a woman who had decided it was okay that her daughter skip church for soccer games. “I don’t want to be legalistic about church,” she said. Another encounter was with a man who defined legalism as “living by lots of rules.” And the third encounter was over an issue concerning alcohol and how those who say Christians should not drink are legalists.

I’m not saying these people are right or wrong in their convictions. What I am saying is that each statement sadly reveals a misunderstanding about legalism. What we commonly forget is that legalism is dangerous whether your biblical convictions are right or wrong. Holding biblically accurate convictions does not automatically protect from legalism.

Rules are not the problem

The danger of legalism does not seem to be found primarily by living with rules or not living by rules — whether you attend church every week or not, whether you drink wine or not.

Jesus says, ‘take every precaution you need to prevent your heart from sinning.’ “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29).

If you apply the entire bible to the Christian life, you can end up with a long list of helpful rules and reminders (like the “one anothers”). Count how many times the phrase “do not” occurs in the Proverbs. It’s no wonder that Jonathan Edwards came up with his long list of resolutions.

Rules are not the central problem in legalism.

A false gospel

Legalism is (most dangerously) a soteriological problem. That is, legalism is a false gospel. Legalism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my obedience.

It is legalism that causes the Pharisee to look proudly into the sky in the presence of a tax collector. It is legalism that causes a missionary in Africa to think God is more pleased with him than the Christian businessman in America. And it is legalism that causes the preacher behind the pulpit to think God is more pleased with him than the tatooed Christian teenager sitting in the back row.

The common salvation (Jude 3)

Legalism is the lie that God will find more pleasure in me because my obedience is greater than others or that God looks at me with disgust because I am not growing in grace as quickly as my friends. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us (in Christ). Legalism causes the heart to forget that God sings over us because of the work He has done, not because of what we have done (Zeph. 3:15-17).

Believers equally bring pleasure to God because the pleasure He receives in us is the purchased pleasure of the substitution of Jesus Christ. Any imagined superiority to other Christians (not rules or a lack of rules) is the sure sign of the legalist.

The irony of legalism

The great irony (and danger) of legalism is this … If you think God is more pleased with you because you take your child to a soccer game instead of church, if you think God is more pleased with you because you do not live by rules, and if you think God is more pleased with you because you do drink alcohol – you are just as legalistic as the man who thinks that perfect church attendance, lists of rules and abstaining from alcohol makes him more pleasing to God.

Whether our convictions are biblical or unbiblical is another issue altogether. Legalism is not so much objective (are my convictions biblical or not?) but subjective (what do my convictions get me?). So legalism is just as dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not. From what I hear, this is not the common definition floating around the broad Evangelical landscape.

Sadly, churches that do not train their sheep to boast only in the righteousness of the Cross of Christ, but are frequently carried into other controversies and debates, or pride themselves in a lack of rules and regulations, can equally create a breeding ground for self-righteous legalism. And this is true even if the church is biblically correct every time on every debate.

———————-

Related: Living the Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney

Understanding Legalism

tsslogo.jpgI am growing increasingly alarmed by the ways I hear the term ‘legalism’ defined. And since the term ‘legalism’ is a very serious one, I want to take time to look at this growing and serious concern.

The term ‘legalism’ is on my mind because of several recent events. The first was conversation with a woman who had decided it was okay that her daughter skip church for soccer games. “I don’t want to be legalistic about church,” she said. Another encounter was with a man who defined legalism as “living by lots of rules.” And the third encounter was over an issue concerning alcohol and how those who say Christians should not drink are legalists.

I’m not saying these people are right or wrong in their convictions. What I am saying is that each statement sadly reveals a misunderstanding about legalism. Legalism is a danger whether you are biblically right or wrong.

Rules are not the problem

Legalism is not concerned primarily with living by rules or not living by rules — whether you attend church every week or not, whether you drink wine or not.

Jesus says, ‘take every precaution you need to prevent your heart from sinning.’ “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29).

If you apply the entire bible to the Christian life you can end up with a long list of helpful rules and reminders (like the “one anothers”). Count how many times the phrase “do not” occurs in the Proverbs. It’s no wonder that Jonathan Edwards came up with his long list of resolutions.

Rules are not the problem.

A false gospel

Legalism is a soteriological problem (that is, a false gospel). Legalism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure in me is dependent upon my obedience.

It is legalism that causes the Pharisee to look proudly into the sky in the presence of a tax collector. It is legalism that causes a missionary in Africa to think God is more pleased with him than the Christian businessman in America. And it is legalism that causes the preacher behind the pulpit to think God is more pleased with him than the tatooed Christian teenager sitting in the back row.

The common salvation (Jude 3)

Legalism is the lie that God will find more pleasure in me because my obedience is greater than others. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us (in Christ). Legalism causes the heart to forget that God sings over us because of the work He has done, not what we have done (Zeph. 3:15-17).

Believers are all pleasing to God because the righteousness of Christ covers us equally in the sight of God. Any imagined superiority to other Christians (not rules) is the sure sign of the legalist.

The irony of legalism

The great irony (and danger) of legalism is this … If you think God is more pleased with you because you take your child to a soccer game instead of church, if you think God is more pleased with you because you do not live by rules, and if you think God is more pleased with you because you do drink alcohol – you are just as legalistic as the man who thinks that perfect church attendance, lists of rules and abstaining from alcohol makes him more pleasing to God.

Whether our convictions are biblical or unbiblical is another issue altogether. Legalism is not so much objective (are my convictions biblical or not?) but subjective (what do my convictions get me?). So legalism is just as dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not.

Sadly, churches that do not train their sheep to boast only in the righteousness of the Cross of Christ, but are frequently carried into other controversies and debates, create a breeding ground for self-righteous legalists. And this is true even if the church is right every time on every debate.

But even more sad, legalists will never experience the joy of regarding all other Christians more highly than themselves (Phil. 2:3).
—————-

Related: The Grand Canyon of God’s Grace

—————-