Friday, July 22, 2011

Illegal Definitions of Legalism

There ought to be a law against defining legalism improperly and abusively. ;-)

In 1719 Scottish Presbyterianism erupted into open conflict over "The Marrow Controversy." At the center of the dispute was a 1645 treatise by Edward Fisher (1627-1655, authorship disputed) entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The most influential members of the Church of Scotland decried Fisher's work as antinomianism (and gave the same treatment to the person and the theology of Thomas Boston, who had reprinted The Marrow of Modern Divinity in 1718). The Marrow of Modern Divinity is not an antinomian work (this is a tough mistake for any impartial reader to make—a refutation of antinomianism occupies roughly half of the book's subject matter). The book is important for its refutation of two nefarious foes to the gospel. It is important for the historical controversy that it occasioned in the 1710s. It is perhaps most persistently influential and important for having introduced to the English language the word "legalism."

Fisher defined legalism exceedingly well, contrasting it with the gospel.

Here is the difference [between legalism and the gospel]; the one saith, "Do this and live"; and the other saith, "Live, and do this"; the one saith, Do this for life; the other saith, Do this from life…

As Fisher so cogently indicated, the differences among the gospel, antinomianism, and legalism lie in the relationship between human doing and eternal life. The legalist believes that eternal life comes at least in part as a result of what a human being does. The antinomian denies that human behavior, or the obligation to meet particular standards of human behavior, is a result of eternal life.

Let me be clear: When you call someone a legalist, you are saying that they are lost. You are denying that such a person is a Christian. If you accuse someone of teaching legalism, you are accusing them of teaching another gospel, and you assign to them Paul's anathema (Galatians 1:8), so you are necessarily saying that they are not believers and that they are destined to Hell.

To accuse someone of being an antinomian or of teaching antinomianism is far less severe, although serious. The New Testament refutes those who make God's grace an occasion for sin (Romans 6:1-2). The New Testament is filled with behavioral prohibitions and commands, perhaps given nowhere else as poignantly as they appear in the list of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit—indeed, the entire chapter of Galatians 5 is an exquisite argument against antinomianism (Galatians 5:1-26). However, the proponent of antinomianism is never placed under anathema in the New Testament, nor is antinomianism condemned as a defect in the gospel. Instead of an anathema, the Bible censures antinomianism with Paul's "May it never be!"

NOTE: The New Testament does question the validity of the faith of anyone who lives in an antinomian fashion ("faith without works," James 2:14-26), but it is important to note that a great many theoretical antinomians have been people who, themselves, lived very pious lives. In other words, it is possible to live a life of holiness while believing that it is not very important to do so.

I have accused people before of teaching antinomianism, and I believe that antinomianism poses a serious risk to twenty-first-century American Christianity. Individual liberty, defiance in the face of authority, and the rejection of absolute truth being as prevalent as they are in our society at large, Christians who exist as a part of our society are uniquely vulnerable to antinomian teaching. Indeed, in our zeitgeist it is so much more acceptable to oppose legalism than it is to accuse someone of lawlessness (antinomianism) that Tullian Tchividjian has nonsensically tried to reclassify antinomianism as a kind of legalism just to be able to decry it with a clear conscience (see here). That error which we are unwilling even to denounce by name and on its own terms is the real danger of our time. Nevertheless, I recognize that I must be very careful in speaking of antinomianism, for to apply that label is to accuse a brother of being in serious disobedience against Christ. So much the more so must we be careful when dealing with matters of heresy like legalism.

Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to delve into specifics in order to carry the overall discussion forward. In years past, many Southern Baptists have regarded the use of playing cards as sinful. Southern Baptists were not alone in this conviction; Wheaton used to prohibit students from owning playing cards. My grandfather-in-law, in order to become a deacon at a Southern Baptist church, had to promise to stop playing Pinochle—he wasn't gambling, but he was using playing cards, and this was regarded as sinful by the church.

I think that the church was wrong. I do not believe that it is inherently sinful to employ playing cards (although I can think of sinful things that one could do with playing cards). I have played Spades, Hearts, Solitaire, and a number of other card games. I have never gambled. I do not believe that I have sinned in my card-playing.

Was this legalism, this prohibition of card-playing employed in so many Southern Baptist churches? No. It was error. It was wrongful. It was not legalism, however, unless some church somewhere was teaching that abstaining from card-playing produced, at least in part, eternal life, or that card-playing could undo or block eternal life (and I know of no church that taught any such thing). Whatever these churches' ecclesiology or doctrine of the Christian life, they were not engaging in legalism unless their soteriology had become fatally implicated.

Someone will object that Paul made grace the cause of sanctification as well as the cause of justification (Galatians 3:1-3). Certainly this is true, but in the card-playing example above (and in so many of the more puerile discussions about legalism that take place), the topic in view is not the cause of sanctification, but rather the content of sanctification. both old-timey non-card-playing Southern Baptists and new-fangled card-playing Southern Baptists agree that sanctification is caused by grace; one group believes that grace will bring you to abandon card-playing while the other believes that grace will leave your card-playing ways alone. Only one of these points of view can be correct, but neither one is an example of legalism.

This is an important point. We can charge the folks who required my grandfather-in-law to put away his Pinochle cards with something, but at the most it will be something as serious as antinomianism rather than a gospel heresy like legalism. We cannot call them legalists. We cannot call them Pharisees. The Pharisees really were legalists. They were lost. To call someone a Pharisee is to say that someone is not a Christian.

What can we say of the person who would accuse Wheaton of legalism during its card-banning years? Such a person is either theologically ignorant or he is deliberately elevating the charges as a rhetorical device. I'm familiar with rhetorical devices, but damnable heresy is too serious a charge to bandy about in order to enhance rhetoric.

Fisher's The Marrow of Modern Divinity took the form of a dialogue among Neophytus (a new Christian), Nomista (a legalist), Antinomista (an antinomian), and finally Evangelista (Neophytus's pastor), the protagonist who sets them all straight. Evangelista was a Calvinist, and I am not, but I nonetheless aspire to be like him, an Evangelista of my own, avoiding the dangers of both legalism and antinomianism.

So, here is the gospel of Jesus Christ: Your attempt to earn self-justification has already failed miserably. You haven't lived up to your own standard of right and wrong, so much the less God's standard. You've well-earned a spot in Hell. Jesus Christ, not content to leave you in that state, died to provide to you eternal life. All who are saved are saved not because of their behavior but in spite of it—from it. Having been rescued from himself and from the clutches of Satan, a Christian is free from the death-sentence of sin and is released from his slavery to sin. He is the recipient of the most extravagant gift of all human history, and as the unworthy recipient of such an astounding gift, he owes to Christ and His amazing love everything: his soul, his life, and his all. By the power of the grace of God he is made able to live according to a standard that was far beyond his reach before, and because his changed heart loves God and sees the great obligation to Christ that is now his, he wants to live according to that new standard of behavior.

We can believe together all of the preceding paragraph and yet be wrong in different ways about the content of God's standard for our behavior. As we dialogue about those differences, may we do so with accuracy and charity, as well as with resolve and conviction.


Bob Cleveland said...

The older I get, the more I am thoroughly convinced that following Jesus' commands and teachings .. he said to do both, you know .. is the route to an abundant life. And He said that was the reason He came.

If He was willing to die so we could have an abundant life, I suspect He wants us to want an abundant life ... much as a parent wants to give children gifts they want. So I want one, too, and that's the only way I know to get one.

I am, however, disappointed .. gravely so .. in one aspect of your post here. You didn't mention euchre.


Jerry Corbaley said...

I enjoyed your article and think you make solid Biblical sense.

Let me see if I can apply your point to my life.

If I accuse someone of being a legalist but my definition of legalism is short of the mark then my accusation is faulty and I am, myself, a false accuser of the person I called a legalist?

Well, if that is true then I had best be real careful who I accuse of legalism.

Jonathan Melton said...

Speaking of legalism, it seems Satan has insidiously planed a false gospel among Baptists (and I understand it to be a present major controversy among SB's), that to defend against it, one is false accused of being an antinomian: Lordship salvation.

The proponents of this doctrine teach that IN ORDER TO BE SAVED, one must submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. As obedience is an inherent part of submission to His Lordship, they have in effect made works a part of the plan of salvation. Instead, our submission to Christ should be a natural RESULT of our salvation and our love for Christ, not a PREREQUISITE.

David R. Brumbelow said...

Very good article on legalism!

I pray the ones frequently calling others Legalists and Pharisees will thoughtfully and repentantly read your article.
David R. Brumbelow

Debbie Kaufman said...

Bart: Legalism is the excessive and improper use of the law. It takes on many different forms and Christ condemned it in it's many and various forms. Some us it in order to maintain their salvation, others use it as a mode to pleasing God and gaining his blessings, to gain justification which is ours through Christ Jesus and His works.

I don't disagree with your definition but feel it incomplete. As for those who are legalists not having salvation. I don't deny that in some cases that is true and yes that would include in our denomination.

Debbie Kaufman said...

I should add Paul addresses a form of legalism in Romans 14:1-12 and Romans 14:5 as well as other passages. One can be a legalist and still be born again. They just don't understand Grace. They are still in the law. Paul confronted this several times in the Epistles.

Anonymous said...

If someone tries to bind your conscience by unbiblical ethics, it too has been called legalism.

Anonymous said...

There is this type of legalism as well and Christians have always talked about two types and you are leaving out this type: Legalism is the tendency to regard as divine law things which God has neither required nor forbidden in Scripture and the corresponding inclination to look with suspicion on others for their failure or refusal to conform.

Bart Barber said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for giving everyone a link to an article that is the epitome of a misuse, an abuse, of the word legalism. It explicitly rejects the historical definition of legalism with no more evidence than the author's say-so. It then creates a straw-man: It takes other believers who disagree with the author about what the Bible teaches and blatantly misrepresents their position. The article will not conceive of the possibility that their understanding of the Bible is correct, but instead (again with not a shred of evidence laid as a foundation) tars them as people who have no biblical foundation for their arguments and who are merely asserting the commandments of men.

The result is simple: The Bible commands modesty of dress, but none of us can possibly know what the Bible means by modesty of dress, therefore it is imperative that nothing concrete ever be done about dressing modestly, teaching modest dress, and encouraging others to dress modestly.

Yes, there is a wrongful urge for certainty and finality that is present among a great many Christians. The article seems oblivious to the much more widespread wrongful desperation for vagueness and negotiation that is present among an enormous number of Christians—vagueness is the friend of the person who would rationalize away his sinfulness, and negotiation is the art of the person who would be God's peer rather than His subject. The tendency is toward antinomianism, which is a charge that the author of the article would likely embrace as a trophy and not bother to try to refute.

Anonymous said...

So, if a person said if you don't wear your best to church then you are sinning. If you wear flip flops to church you are worldly and sinning. If you sing songs with drums as an instrument in church then you are worldly and not acting like a Christian. Only those who read the KJV are godly believers who care about God’s holy WORD. IF you read the NASB, NIV or the ESV then you are nothing but a whore of the world. Is anything in here legalistic?

Bart Barber said...

Anonymous, I would say that all of that is error, but it is not legalism. It does not represent a mistaken understanding of the gospel. It represents, instead, a poor reading of scripture, a wrongful categorization of behaviors, and in some cases a wronghearted love for contentiousness.

It is possible to understand the gospel perfectly well—not just enough to be saved by it but also enough to comprehend fully all of its implications—and yet to arrive at the wrong conclusions on such questions.