Up With Legalism!

by Jack Crabtree


In the 1970s, while a pastor in California, I preached a sermon on the seventh chapter of Romans entitled “The Purpose of the Law.” My goal was to explain the divine purpose in the giving of the Law. Specifically, I wanted to explain how the Law can demonstrate to each of us the reality of our own sinfulness. Good people do not need rescue; only evil people. Hence, only those who have acknowledged their own wickedness will look to God to save them from it. Why would one trust God to rescue him from a condition that does not exist? The purpose of the Law, therefore, is to make us keenly and dramatically aware of our sinfulness–that we might turn to God to deliver us from it.

To make this point as clear as possible, I tried to put its implications in dramatic relief. I ended the sermon with this question: As a parent, what would I do if I were offered a choice between two (and only two) outcomes–(1) a daughter who, though an unwed mother, had come to thoroughly understand her own sinfulness and had thereby come to a true faith in the gospel; or (2) a daughter who was a self-righteous virgin, completely confident of her own inherent goodness and virtue? As a parent, which outcome would I prefer? In view of what is really true, I should prefer the first outcome over the second.

This illustration was, by design, artificial. Any Christian parent would, I hope, prefer a third outcome: an unmarried daughter who had preserved her virginity and yet had come to understand her own inherent sinfulness and therefore trusted God to justify her and to save her from it. But, for the sake of dramatizing my point, I had excluded that outcome as one of the options in my little thought experiment. I wanted to drive home an important point: namely, that our most critical need in this present age is to understand and to admit the depth of our own evil and thereby come to an appropriate trust in God to save us from it.

All too often Christians have made it their goal to live a spotless and blameless life. And they have pursued that goal with the sober expectation that they can reach it. As noble as it is–and it truly is a noble goal–to expect to reach it is utterly naive and self-deceived. Being the evil creatures we are, no matter how hard we might try, we cannot be blameless. To think I have achieved moral success in my life is the height of self-deception. If I think of myself as a morally good person, then I do not understand what good and evil really are, and I am totally blind to the realities of my own character.

As my understanding of the New Testament gospel has grown during the twenty intervening years, the message of that sermon has been confirmed. I have come to realize all the more keenly how right its message was. Coming to acknowledge one’s own sinfulness is a vital and essential aspect of justifying faith. One who has not admitted his own sinfulness is not justified. Hence, to just this extent, our eternal destiny hinges on our self-concept. The self-righteous person is not merely mistaken in his judgment; he is damned. He is not just spiritually immature; he lacks justifying belief altogether.

Recently I received a telephone call from a youth pastor in California. Some of the parents in his church have been reading that sermon I delivered years ago and–in his judgment–are using it as a justification for their own disregard of righteousness and a vindication of their own foolish choices. Obviously I am in no position to say whether he has rightly assessed the attitudes of these parents, but given the times, this attitude would not surprise me. Indeed, part of the inherent wickedness of our sinful humanity is that we can take even the truth and distort it to our own destruction. (See II Peter 3:16.) Because this pastor opposes the morally lax attitudes he thinks exist, he is being called a “legalist.” (Remember, I am in no position to arbitrate this dispute. Perhaps the pastor is a legalist and these parents are being badly misrepresented, but it is also distinctly possible that he is right.)

In any case, this pastor’s call reminded me of a problem I confront over and over: a tragic misunderstanding of the concept of “legalism.” When the apostle Paul opposes legalism, he is fundamentally opposing self-righteousness. This is the fatal mistake Paul sees: if I think I can save myself from evil by simply being told (in a Law) what is right and good so that I can roll up my moral sleeves and do it. Such an attitude is mistaken because it assumes I have the moral wherewithal to do it; it does not acknowledge that I am sinful and evil and morally impotent; it does not acknowledge that I am morally sick and desperately in need of a physician. The fallacy of legalism, fundamentally, is its mistaken view of one’s self.

All too often, however, what is called “legalism”–and thereby implicitly accused of being unbiblical, anti-gospel, and unbelieving–is an avid commitment to the goodness and righteousness of character described in the Law. The thought seems to be that a mature New Testament believer is supposed to be moderate and unfanatical in his commitment to righteousness: although he should be basically in favor of what is right and good, he should–at the same time–be highly tolerant, forgiving, and “soft” on evil. Otherwise, he is a “legalist.”

This is clearly not Paul’s view. I think it fair to say that, from Paul’s point of view, one could never be too fanatical about personal righteousness; one could never be too intolerant of evil. Being “hard” on personal evil is a very important aspect of the mature believer’s faith. Granted, the believer’s being “hard” on evil is not motivated by the evil and naive expectation that he can successfully root evil out of his life. Rather, it is motivated by an understanding that evil is his enemy and by a desire to have nothing whatsoever to do with evil–so far as that is possible. The believer understands that his freedom from evil is a distant hope, something he will only finally and thoroughly enjoy in the age to come. But in the meantime, if he truly hopes in the hope of the gospel, then he is unrelenting and uncompromising in his opposition to evil and his striving to be as free from it as possible in this lifetime. If he can wink at evil and comfortably permit it in his life, there is something desperately wrong. True believers cannot do that. As John writes in I John 3:9-10, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious; any one who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” To be truly and fundamentally tolerant of evil is to be evil and unbelieving oneself. Condemnation is the clear destiny of one who is “soft” on evil in such a way.

An underlying confusion about what being merciful means gives rise to one’s thinking that the mature believer should be “soft,” forgiving, and tolerant in the face of sin. A mature believer will and should be merciful. Indeed, manifesting mercy toward other sinners is just as essential to justifying faith as is a zeal for goodness and righteousness. To be finally incapable of mercy is to consign oneself to hell. (See Luke 6:36-38; Matthew 18:35.) We must be forgiving of those who have fallen into sin, including–and especially–those who have sinned against us. We cannot condemn others for being exactly what we are ourselves–wicked, evil creatures. If we accept mercy from God, we cannot then deny it to others. (See Matthew 18:21-35.) Further, we should be tolerant and forbearing of others in their moral weakness. (See Galatians 6:1-5.) How can I not understand and empathize with those who are morally weak? I am just like them. I cannot deny to others the room to struggle and to fail when I know so well that I need that room myself. But to be forgiving of and tolerant toward fellow-sinners is a completely different attitude from being “soft” on sin and evil itself. Sin is our mutual enemy, the thief that robs life from us all. Sin deserves no mercy and dare not be tolerated. I must uncompromisingly oppose sin in all of my life and actions, and I must teach others to oppose it uncompromisingly in theirs. I will fail, for left to my own resources I am no match for sin; only by the grace of God will I ultimately be victorious, and He has not promised a complete and final victory in this lifetime. But while I cannot in this lifetime succeed at living a righteous life, I can succeed at wanting to live a righteous life and doggedly persist in setting it as the goal toward which I strive. I can grow in my understanding of what good is and how I should think and behave. I can grow in my realization of how extensively evil has invaded every aspect of my life, and everywhere I perceive it, I can repudiate and denounce it. Evil is my enemy, and I should oppose it with every fiber of my being. By confusing mercy toward fellow-sinners with the toleration of evil itself, many have–in the name of a biblically mature faith–actually advocated the evil attitude of “softness” toward evil. This is tragic; it can only lead to destruction.

As a casual observer of the church, it seems to me that Evangelicalism has undergone an important shift during my lifetime. In the early part of this century, into the ’60s, the dominant counterfeit to true Christianity was a folk religion practiced and taught by most “Christian” churches. This “Folk Christianity” was fundamentally legalistic and self-righteous, the twentieth-century counterpart to first-century Pharisaism. Things began to change in the ’60s, and a new counterfeit began to dominate. This counterfeit was not characterized by legalism and self-righteousness, but by “worldliness.” It transformed the gospel. No longer was the gospel a hope for righteousness in the eternal kingdom to come; it was the hope for pleasure, happiness, and success in this world now. What was Jesus sent into the world to do? The counterfeit says He came to give me power to overcome my present problems, to give me every desire of my heart now, and to eliminate the pain and emptiness of my present existence. This counterfeit is insidiously evil, every bit as evil as the Folk Christianity it is replacing–and just as destructive.

Now, it is important to realize that Worldly Christianity and true Biblical Christianity both oppose Folk Christianity vehemently. But they oppose it for different reasons. Biblical Christianity opposes Folk Christianity because of its essential legalism and self-righteousness. Worldly Christianity sees Folk Christianity as “hung up” on righteousness and obedience: Christianity isn’t about obedience; it’s about believing God to meet my present “this-worldly” desires and to bring me happiness in the here and now. This is a fatal mistake. Worldly Christianity twists the gospel into a diabolical mockery of true Christian belief. And those who believe it are not justified believers; they show themselves children of the devil, not children of God.

Not only individuals, but cultures, too, are driven by their sin and rebellion against God. A true believer, therefore, will always be alert to the areas where sin and rebellion have become entrenched in the assumptions, institutions, values, and practices of his culture. We are blind indeed if we cannot see the evil corrupting the values and practices of our culture at an accelerated pace. And yet it is alarming how willingly the modern Evangelical church swallows the values, practices, ideals, and institutions of modern American culture without the slightest thought or hesitation. Why is this? It is, I think, because Worldly Christianity is becoming entrenched within the Evangelical church today.

The youth pastor who called me described his experience at a Christian youth convention where a Christian rap group performed. He was bothered by the performers’ practice of grabbing their crotches as they performed. During a meeting with other youth pastors, he asked, “Is it acceptable that these guys are grabbing their crotches?”

“That is just what rappers do,” he was told.

“And Christian rappers? They do it, too?”

“Sure.”

My point is not to be alarmist about public crotch-grabbing. There are more important evils to combat. But this man’s fellow youth-pastors illustrate so well the unthinking, uncritical acceptance of modern culture that occurs time after time in modern Evangelicalism today.

One might object that the youth pastor’s opposition to crotch-grabbing is the truly uncritical attitude, or that he is displaying an unthinkingly conservative attitude, or that he still subscribes to the outmoded notion that sex is dirty and something to be embarrassed about. Perhaps, but there is another possibility. One can have shed the very wrong and unbiblical Victorian notion that sex is dirty and shameful without concluding that grabbing one’s crotch in a public performance is right, good, and appropriate. Sex is not dirty; but it is sacred, and therefore special. Being sexual beings should not be an embarrassment (there is something very wrong with my attitudes if it is); but it should be private. Human sexuality–by God’s design–has the significance of a profoundly intimate vow between a husband and wife. It is not the mundane, instinctual mating activity of a dog. As such, it means something and deserves to be reserved for the privacy of the marriage.

One might still object that what rappers are doing is not about sexuality at all, but about artificial and arbitrary rules of politeness and decorum. Maybe, but I doubt it. If the purpose of public crotch-grabbing is only to oppose arbitrary rules of public decorum, then why don’t they simply pick their noses in unison? To think that anyone in our culture would fail to understand that grabbing one’s crotch has something to do with sexuality is naive. The question is this: What does it mean? What message does it send? What values does it embody? And, having answered those questions, is its message one that a Christian wants to send? Does it embody values or perspectives that a Christian wants to uphold?

My main concern here is not to argue the moral propriety of grabbing one’s crotch in public. Regardless of the outcome of that debate, my main concern is something different. The attitude that alarms me is our unthinking, uncritical acceptance of modern culture. What our culture sees as harmless, we Evangelical Christians (at least, those of us who are “liberated and non-legalistic”) see as harmless. What our culture sees as acceptable, we see as acceptable. If our children’s classmates attend R-rated movies without reservation, then our children attend R-rated movies without reservation. If their classmates date, our children date (and we applaud it and support it). We see no point in trying to instill different values, values radically and strikingly different from those of the world around us. But I think we are very, very wrong.

The typical modern Christian will likely respond, “Jack, you are being too legalistic.” But if legalism is a zealous affirmation of what is right and an uncompromising repudiation of what is wrong, accompanied by a diligent and intelligent attempt to discern the difference, then I am confident that Paul–the most outspoken critic of legalism the world has ever known–would preach, “Up with legalism!”

Copyright May 1993 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree