Faith, miracles, and the Word of God

Posted August 23, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Faith, Gospel

We’re going through some stuff here that has slowed me for a couple of days and will for a couple more.  In the meantime, a quote from Total Church, written down before I — ahem — lost it (still a trauma).  Still in the section “Why Gospel?”:

In John 2 the disciples put their faith in Jesus when they see his first miraculous sign — turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana (v. 11).  This story is followed by the cleansing of the temple and Jesus’ declaration that he is the temple.  John comments, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said.  They they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (v. 22).  There is a kind of faith that comes from seeing miraculous signs, but true faith comes through the words of Scripture and the words of Jesus.  John goes on:  “Now while he was in Jeruasalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.  But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men” (vv. 23-24).  Jesus does not trust the kind of faith that comes from seeing miraculous signs.  It is not difficult to imagine why.  Such faith is likely to be fair-weather faith.  It will believe when signs are performed, prayers are answered, things are going well.  But it is not the sort of faith that will survive the loss of a child, a period of illness or some other trauma.  Persevering faith comes through the word of God. 

The Holy Spirit doesn’t need our help

Posted August 22, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Gospel

Nobody who has located the tiny outpost that is this blog needs any pointers to the vast metropolis that is iMonk (population: bazillions).

But he writes in such a way that, when he’s right, he makes you want to cheer and weep at the same time. He just wrote an example of such; find it here.

A favorite line:  “Wrong to believe the Holy Spirit needs all the help we moderns can give him in getting the attention of the bored.”  It’s the kind of thing we say all the time around here.  I need to say it more humbly, but it’s important to say.

“Wrong to think that the gospel is ever cool.” I agree with what he means, here. I do think that when we “get it”, sometimes our reaction will be, “That’s cool!”

No more nitpicking; head on over.

As if you haven’t been there a thousand times already.

Facebook Church

Posted August 21, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Christ-centered preaching, What is church?

I’m starting to feel old. I’m old enough to remember when the Muppets had a hit TV show. My favorite sketches had to do with the two old grouches that sat in gallery and criticized and complained about the quality of everything the younger Muppets were doing. Those old codgers have probably gone on to puppet purgatory, but no fear, I’m coming along to step into the old curmudgeon’s role. How did this happen to me?

I feel old when I hear about things like Facebook Church. I’m no Luddite. I’m on Facebook, where I have more than two friends (take that, Josh Harris!*). I’ve got this blog. I’ve set a couple of churches up with community forums and groups. I was one of the earliest adopters of email (told you I was old!). I see advantages and opportunities in Internet use. I’ve got credentials in IT and in ministry. And like Ricky Mokel, I think about stuff.

But I can’t get my head around Facebook Church.

I think I understand that Facebook offers ways to make contact and foster communication within an exponentially growing group of people — I haven’t found it particularly useful that way, but others say they have. OK, I’ll grant that’s a good thing to take advantage of.

But the developers of Facebook church are thinking large:

“It is an application that will leverage our new Internet Campus technology to allow people to “attend” and be a part of a church community in Facebook. We are extremely excited about the opportunity to connect with people inside this explosively viral environment.”

They are serious about calling it “church”.

But I’ve not seen any genuine community on Facebook, to say nothing of the unique community that is church. How will the members of this church learn to bear with each other, growing in patience, handling each others’ hearts, if all the relationships are virtual? How will they sing to each other the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs that rise from Holy Spirit filled hearts? Will “smileys” and avatars replace hugs and holy kisses?

One lifechurch.tv member raises this set of questions:

Does engaging people “right where they are” carry the risk of _leaving_ people right where they are? Do we face the risk that members of the Facebook Campus will think of the Almighty–like much of facebook–as just something to entertain them while they procrastinate on a term paper? Are we just making it easier for people to be lukewarm Christians?

Those are good questions; I would think they’d be worthy of great discussion. Here’s one answer he was given:

From my perspective you raise a great question. However, I think it is the same question pastors ask themselves every week when they look out at their congregation and ask; are we just here entertaining our people while they procastinate on life?

Might I offer this suggestion? To any pastor wondering if, perhaps, you are just entertaining people while they procrastinate on life, fiddling while Rome burns… stop. Don’t go to Facebook. Turn around. Go back to the gospel. Plunge in; explore what it is, and how it speaks to us, to all of us, in all of our cultures. Soak this in until every spiritual pore is saturated. Stay, and soak. Don’t go back into the pulpit until your heart is about to burst with wonder at the glory of God; until your mouth is overflowing with Jesus, Jesus and the gospel, the cross, and the resurrection and hope and love and unspeakable joy; until your desire is no longer to please men (or your fear to displease them) but to share the awe and majesty and ecstasy of God and his mighty works in Creation and Redemption; until your heartbreak is that men and women are wasting their lives, sucking desperately at broken cisterns of small, useless, temporary pleasures while the towering waterfalls of God’s grace and mercy and pleasure and delight roar within his church.

Don’t fiddle with Facebook, at least not right now. There may be a place for that, and no doubt good things can be done there. I’m sure we’ll all learn more about that. But rather than trace out the ever-growing contours of Facebook, help your people trace out the infinite — and satisfying — contours of the gospel.

Him we proclaim

Posted August 20, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Christ-centered preaching, Gospel

My review of Total Church has been sidelined by a calamity: I’ve lost the book. I can’t begin to tell you how embarrassing and disastrous this is. I’ve never done such a thing before — to lose a book! I can’t believe this. I would have thought I’d sooner lose a finger. And to lose a book I was enjoying so much. If it was some mediocre drivel, I wouldn’t care…but it was outstanding! This is utterly humiliating and shaming.

Not to mention the extra mortification of having to re-order it from Europe, as it’s still not sold here.

Arrrggghh!

I think I might have left it at a coffee shop where I met with one of the pastors here. I hope somebody is getting a good read out of it.

Ahh, it’s amazing that such self-frustration can live with the egocentrism that is I (actually, understanding idolatry, it isn’t that amazing after all; my self-idolatry just keeps letting me down… as all idolatries do).

Anyway, to hold us, two things this morning:

1. Head over to The Gospel Driven church and read Jared’s 5 Reasons for Sermon-Centric worship. Many of these thoughts seemed to me to harmonize with thoughts I was reading in the first section of Total Church. Once again, Gospel Driven is a good resource!

2. A great quote from Whitefield:

When a poor soul is somewhat awakened by the terrors of the Lord, then the poor creature, being born under the covenant of works, flies directly to a covenant of works again. And as Adam and Eve hid themselves… and sewed fig leaves… so the poor sinner, when awakened, flies to his duties and to his performances, to hide himself from God, and goes to patch up a righteousness of his how. Says he, I will be might good now — I will reform — I will do all I can; and then certainly Jesus Christ will have mercy on me.

–“Select Sermons of George Whitefield” (London: Banner of Truth, 1958), pp. 81-83, as quoted by Dennis Johnson in “Him We Proclaim” footnote p.57.

Update: Pressing in to the cross

Posted August 17, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Christ-centered preaching, Gospel

One of the best books I’ve ever read on this subject is Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. Today, over at Gospel Driven Blog, John Fonville continues a series on “How does God enable believers to keep His moral law?” He includes several quotes from Marshall; it’s a great post. As usual, you should read the whole thing, but here’s a snippet:

“…if you rush out and try to keep the law, without having Christ’s righteousness and Christ’s Spirit in you, you will have both the wind and tide against you! Your guilty conscience, and your dead corrupt nature, will frustrate and defeat all your attempts to love and serve God. The only thing you will do in this case is stir up your sinful lusts. You will not stir yourself up to true obedience. At best, you will attain the hypocritical performance of a slave,” (p. 112).

Pressing in to the cross

Posted August 16, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Christ-centered preaching, Gospel

We’ve been looking at the “3rd type” of legalism, which is a counterfeit gospel. Another way to see the difference between moralism and the gospel call to obedience is this: the gospel calls us to an obedience we cannot complete in ourselves, and so drives us ever deeper into Christ.

I’d written the paragraph above and several of those below when, yesterday, I came on this article at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. In this very well-written piece Tony reminds us that eschewing legalism should not bring us to think little of obedience, or consider it a minor requirement. I especially like the way he ends the article (you should read the whole thing):

…His Cross can sustain the weight of these high demands.

Here is what I’m getting at. In light of the coming tragedy, Christ raises the bar of obedience and fruit-bearing expectations for His disciples. This is how Jesus saw fit to comfort His disciples in the coming storm! He knew the higher the bar was raised in personal obedience the deeper He would drive the disciples into Himself.

We cannot miss this: The high calling to pursue personal obedience will (graciously) press the saint into Christ and into the Cross. And this means, at a profound level, the Cross-centered life is compromised by laziness in the pursuit of personal obedience. [emphasis original]

In Mark 12, a Pharisee (law-teachers were Pharisees) asked Jesus: “Which of the 613 laws in the Old Testament is the most important? 613 commandments are waaaaay too many — that’s crushing! Give us the main thing, give us some sort of keepable, doable, minimum requirement for heaven. Help us!”

Jesus answers: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

In other words, Jesus says, “I’ll help you out. We’ll reduce the laws to just two. Everything for God, absolutely, 100% completely, no mistake, no missing, no diminishing, ALL. Nothing less will do. Nothing less.

“And from there, love others like you love yourself.

“There are two for you…and all the laws hang on them. Every single one of those 613 require full-hearted commitment to God, and God alone, and must be obeyed in complete love.”

That’s it. That’s all God requires. Simple. Everything in everything, and far more than you’ve ever begun to realize.

Simple, and impossible. We sinners can never get there.

The moralist is crushed. He knows enough to see that he can’t do it. This exceeds all sacrifice and burnt offering! There’s no way I can have any of my faults or failures covered!

Rather than have the 613 reduced down to a manageable amount, Jesus reveals the terrifying truth (v. 34) that law-keeping is far more crushing than this trembling Pharisee had ever realized.

The law-teacher basically says so. “This is more than any worship can bring. This is more than all our entire moral system.”  And through the crowd, no one dares ask any more questions.  His responses are too terrible.

And Jesus responds: “You are not far from the kingdom.”

This legalist is broken, he’s crushed, he sees the futility of his entire system…and he’s arrived at a good place! Because the gospel of Jesus Christ crushes our legalistic framework, and then as we begin to see our brokenness and sinfulness and neediness, points us to our Savior. He comes for the lost, he comes for the sinners, not the righteous. And this trembling Pharisee is beginning to see his abject, sinful, lostness. Ahh…not far from the kingdom! You see your need; now, see your Savior!

The gospel doesn’t make obedience less, it makes it more. It shows us a level, a weight, that only the cross can bear. And it calls us to come in to the cross, come deeply in to a Savior who has kept all the law for us, and borne all the punishment of our failure. Come in joy and thanksgiving and worship, and come in faith-dependence upon him. We’re still called to no less than to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength…but we rejoice that he has loved on our behalf, and brought us into the relationship of love where this can now be begun!

The law is to be lived in love; love is found in the cross, in the Savior, in the gospel. Here is where obedience was affirmed, and here is where it begins.

The gospel does not end the need of our obedience. It begins for us, in us, the law living in love. In relation to God, in Christ, it is the life of joyful, full-hearted response.

Part of it is Joy

Posted August 16, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Christ-centered preaching, Gospel, Grace

I’ve been “going on” for a few posts now about legalism, and there’s more to come. I realize it’s easier to point out wrong thinking than it is to describe right thinking. A friend once described it as trying to describe a cow for an infant, as you drive the countryside. You can point at anything and say, “That is not a cow.” Horse, sheep, dog, donkey…”that is not a cow.” But the lesson won’t really be grasped until you can point at a cow and say, “That is a cow.”

Wow, I start early with the deep, profound thinking, don’t I?

Yesterday’s post, “If my daughter were a Pharisee”, was hard for me to write, and is the kind of thing I think and pray about often. I described behaviors that could be achieved by legalistic, moralistic thinking. But aren’t those very behaviors still very much to be desired? Don’t I want her to act exactly that way?

I don’t really care.

O, don’t get me wrong. I’m a real Dad, and she’s on a pretty tight leash. I enforce consequences for her behavior. Just ask her. And since she’s a pretty wonderful kid, I’m also pretty often taking pride in her behavior.

Remember, I’m a recovering legalist.

It’s not the behavior, the actions, which should be the prime focus of our attention. Our behaviors can change while our underlying and motivating idolatries remain untouched. For example, if I lie, it might be because I live for approval, and am afraid the truth will make me less likable. But if I am convinced that being a liar will make me less likable still, I will give up lying forever — and the Temple of Fearing Men becomes even more central in my life’s worship. Our efforts at defeating sin succeed only in making us more accomplished sinners.

Have you ever noticed that? Anger-management classes help us keep our anger — and the lusts and idolatries that produce it — intact, but in “acceptable” ways. Take murderous anger on one hand, and marry it to the lust of man-pleasing on the other hand, and the offspring is a better sinner. Better at sinning.

So what does the gospel produce? If moralism and gospel can each produce behavior that looks the same, how can we tell the difference, even for ourselves?

Part of the answer, we’ve already given — what produced the behavior? Is it a response to Jesus Christ and the work he has done for us? Or is it a response to the pressures of law or fear or guilt or lust?

A while back, I wrote about the illustration (original (I believe) to Lloyd-Jones and used by Tim Keller at the Gospel Coalition conference in May; Justin Taylor took good notes on the whole thing) of a king battling an invading army outside his city. If he wins, he sends back news and people (and soldiers) respond with joy. Jesus sends news; every other religion sends advisors. Then Keller said this, and it’s key: in the short term, the activity looks the same (troops heading to the battlefield), but the reality is much different — celebration and joy, or fear and desperation.

When you look at your own behavior, you can ask: is this motivated by joy, carried forward in celebration of the hope bought in Jesus Christ? What “pressure” do you seek to apply in your battle with a particular sin? Do you seek victory in discipline, accountability, determination; do you go about it in loathing and guilt and fear? Or do you see and rejoice in the victory that has already been achieved in Jesus Christ, and exulting in that and taking confidence and assurance from it, say “No” to ungodliness and worldy lusts, with your heart’s motive displaced unto a new affection and a blessed hope?

One thing I noticed some time ago, in a time of wrestling with my own sin and practical denial of the gospel: it was a time when my own family said I appeared to have lost all joy. I responded then that I had been robbed of joy, and I blamed others. But the reality is that my heart had turned aside from the gospel, and though I struggled and cried and vowed and prayed, I was unsuccessful in breaking the grip of idolatry, and I was captivated by fear, and utterly joyless.

When the gospel broke in, joy returned. And captivity was broken. And the desired behavior followed — in thanksgiving and rejoicing.

Such has ever been the case. It’s because our Jesus is great and gracious and triumphant and merciful and sweet — o so sweet! — to the taste, and powerful in his work and in the Spirit to change us, grow us, sanctify us.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)

If my daugher were a Pharisee…

Posted August 15, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Christ-centered preaching, Gospel

Some reader is going to think, “Doesn’t this guy know that women couldn’t be Pharisees? Sheesh! He’s going to get quite the comment from me…” Well, yes, and good for you. Pharisaism was disdainful of the ability of women to learn, thus Paul’s groundbreaking libertarian, “Let them learn!” in 1 Timothy 2 (contra the idea that Paul was himself misogynistic). OK, we got that out of the way… but I still want to use this analogy, because she’s my daughter, the apple of my eye, and I want the best for her… and sometimes that means I act like I wish she were a Pharisee.

I’ve often heard parents remind each other, “We don’t want to raise them to be Pharisees, after all!” By this is usually meant that we don’t to be overly strict, that we shouldn’t be insisting on dress or behavior that is wildly different than the culture – that we don’t want them to be “fundys”. It’s a wrong-headed view of Pharisaism.

If my daughter were a Pharisee (just go with the analogy):

-) She’d try her hardest to be obedient in every situation

-) She’d love the rules we gave her, and she wouldn’t mind at all if they were not the same as those of her peers. One of her favored rules would be, “Honor your father and mother.”

-) She’d love to excel, especially in academia; her study habits and disciplines would be above reproof, and her scores at the top of her class

-) She wouldn’t hang out with the “wrong sort”; I wouldn’t have to worry about bad company corrupting good behavior

-) This would all be a matter of the heart for her, not simply superficial compliance while being observed. No “Eddie Haskill” observance here (you’ve probably got to be advancing well in years to get that reference).

-) She’d have a reputation for integrity and trustworthiness.

-) You’d all like her and praise her and compliment her mother and I on our excellent parenting skills.

Parents: anyone want to raise a Pharisee or two?

Of course, it would all start to go sour when she told us she couldn’t care for us in our old age because her gifts were dedicated to the temple.

But it would seriously be sour from the beginning, for there are a couple more bullet points to make:

-) She would try her hardest, straining every spiritual muscle she had, to be all that she could be…and she would be doing it all without Jesus.

-) She would believe firmly in herself. This is not a good thing. Her place of worship would be the temple of “I’m my own God” that was erected by Adam and Eve and has been enlarged and renovated in every generation since.

-) Some of the most fearful curses Jesus uttered would hang above her soul.

-) At the insistence of Jesus that he, that God alone must have her worship, she would join the cry of “Crucify him!”

I weep to write this.

I pray for her soul.

And I ask forgiveness from the God of grace for the many times that I have raised her as a Pharisee.

Taking time to press the gospel of Jesus Christ to the hearts of our children takes time. “Just do it” can be a shortcut – a shortcut that ends in devastation.

“Just grow up. You’re acting immature.”

“You’re smarter than this. Start living to your potential.”

“You need better habits. Better disciplines. I’m going to show you how you can develop them: (sometimes followed with “one way or another; you want to do this the easy way, or the hard way?”).

“If you lie, people won’t be able to trust you. You’ll be a liar. Do you want that?”

Look what I’ve done. I’ve told her that she can be strong enough, that she can be her own savior, and to live in fear of the perceptions of others, and to satisfy them. Legalism. Soul-destroying.

The gospel enters and says, “You can’t do this. You need a Champion, a Rescuer, a Divine Helper. Look, there’s Jesus! Look what He has done in our place! See what that means now as we live out our life in him. We’re weak, but we have a great Savior! What does his grace mean for this in our life? He will help us here. Let’s trust him, and ask his help to live this out…”

But our heart naturally resists the gospel, which tells us our problems are deep-seated because of sin, and our hope is wholly other than ourselves. And telling the gospel takes time. And so we often settle for, “Get through it best you can now, relying on your self. We’ll talk Jesus later.”

And just as I have (God forgive me!) done this with my daughter, preachers do it with their congregations.

And when we give people rules for living and advice and tips on how to do it better, and we don’t seat them deeply in the work of God in Jesus Christ, we are growing a congregation of Pharisees.

Today, when evangelicals speak of “Pharisees”, the usual present-day analogy is to stuffy, arrogant religious leaders. But I’m afraid the brush paints much wider. It covers multitudes of earnest, serving, community-building, honest, dedicated church members, longing to be ever more obedient, ruing their remaining sin, trying their hardest to be strong and good.

May God help us.

Niké theology

Posted August 14, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Christ-centered preaching, Gospel

Niké made “Just do it” a recognized slogan. It almost seems many preachers and counselors ought to wear T-shirts with Niké logos, and pulpits – like NASCAR racers — ought to sport the Niké brand name.

“Have courage (or “faith” or “hope” or “peace”; fill in the blank). You can do it. Here is some equipment to help you: 8 Really Wonderful Ideas to Unleash Dormant [Courage] in Your Life. Do this. And this. And this. Stop doing that. And that. Then do this. You’ll be [brave] in no time!”

Just do it.

“Our members are drifting. What should we do?”

“We need to take them through this “How To” study. It will teach them How To grow (or “love” or “have a better marriage” or “develop faith”; fill in the blank).”

“I’m tired of taking them through How To studies. Why can’t they learn to learn how to How To on their own?”

“They’re just sheep. We need to teach them to learn.”

“OK. So there’re two programs. We’ll do a How To on how to How To, and then they’ll do a How To on how to develop [blank]. Two new programs ought to hold them for a while! There’s lots for them to start doing. I hope they’ll do it.

How often has a counselor secretly wanted to scream this during a counseling session?

I feel so awful. I keep reading these magazines (or “lying to my boss” or “wasting my time”; fill in the blank). I know I ought to stop, and I really want to stop, and I really try to stop, but I …

JUST DO IT!!

I seriously intended to start reading my Bible every day, but I just got caught up with [excuse]. I know I should do it, and I really want to do it, I don’t want to be the kind of person that doesn’t do it, but I…

JUST DO IT!!

Of course, the reason it isn’t shouted at the counselee is because that just wouldn’t be nice, or sensitive, or helpful. The fact that it is legalism is not considered. Nor that it is a legalistic answer to a problem created by legalistic striving. The counselee is aware of the law that condemns their sin, they are aware of their guilt, they know what behaviour is required of them, and they are seeking — at some level, no matter how pitiful — to get there. But their idols are intact, their striving is Christless, and the best outcome they can get from “Niké theology” is to be a more accomplished legalist, a refined and acceptable legalist, a sincerely trying legalist — a Pharisee.

Actually, there are several things wrong with “Niké theology”. It seeks to empower change by addressing the will directly, without reference to the motives within the heart – the “affections” as Edwards spoke of them. Until these heart-inclinations are changed, until the idolatrous affections are killed by the “Expulsive Power of a New Affection” (a must-read article), no real change can occur. “Niké theology” doesn’t undertake any deconstruction of our idols or the cultural “powers” at work.

And it doesn’t declare the news of the Great Rescuer who has accomplished for us, in his life, death, and resurrection, all that we simply could not do.

Yesterday I wrote about the three kinds of legalism. This is the 3rd kind. It is the teaching of rules and principles without teaching the gospel, without seeing what the Saviour has done and is doing. It leaves people digging deeper into themselves, trying harder, and hoping in the power of these new tools and suggestions and steps we’ve given them. As Mark Lauterbach has recently written (in an article that should be completely read and committed to heart):

“If people leave my preaching confident in the rules and principles I have given them, I have preached a false Gospel. If they leave the room confident in the faithful grace and power of the Savior to work in them as they seek to obey — I have preached the Gospel.”

I was once at a church where the guest speaker was a Christian who had served his country in the Vietnam war, and had suffered terrible things there, and had triumphed with courage and grit and stubborn refusal to give up. His was an amazing, wonderful story and he was an amazing, wonderful man. He was inspiring. He left us all desperately believing we could be more than we had been. As people left the service, they spoke of how they had been convicted of not trying hard enough, inspired to try harder, and how they were certain their lives had been changed.

Changed into better Pharisees, perhaps.

Because, in other words, they left steeped in legalism. “Power” without gospel. Effort without a Saviour. A heart determined that I will be all I can be, not I am nothing apart from Jesus Christ, and all I can be is in Him.

The gospel challenges our idolatries – one of the greatest of which is simply self. Legalism creates a form of obedience but leaves the idolatries intact. Sometimes this can be extremely subtle, both in individual life and in the body life of the church. Tomorrow I’ll try to bring that to more light with my post “If my daughter were a Pharisee.”

‘Til then,

Cast your deadly “doing” down—
Down at Jesus’ feet;
Stand in Him, in Him alone,
Gloriously complete.

If that tweaked your interest, read the whole hymn (you may want to mute your speakers first).

3 kinds of legalism

Posted August 12, 2007 by promiseskept
Categories: Gospel, Grace

I don’t know anyone who cheerfully says, “I am a legalist”. I don’t know anyone who admits, “I really like Pharisaism.” And I don’t know any Christians who dismiss the gospel with, “We don’t need so much of Jesus.”

But I know a boatload of legalists who would be happy to raise Pharisee children and who don’t see the need of the gospel or Jesus in normal living. I meet them everywhere, I hear their preaching, I read their books, and I converse with them daily. I find them in prayer meetings, on “family radio”, in Christian bookstores, on the Internet, and in the pew next to me at church.

Too often, I even find one in the mirror.

Over the next few posts, I want to examine the assertions made above, and the concepts behind them.

First, let me talk about some ways of using the terms legalist and legalism. A Christian can sincerely denounce legalism in the same breath they practice it. I’ve seen this countless times, and done it myself. A part of the problem is that there are at least three different kinds of legalism, three different ways we could use the term.

1. The first way we use the term is to speak of salvation by law-keeping, or by “good works.” We denounce legalism of this variety as opposed to salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We cannot live in such a way as to merit salvation, and we cannot be saved except in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

On this first point, all evangelicals agree. Evangelicals denounce “works salvation”, and the legalistic thinking that produces the concept.

2. The second way the term is used is in speaking of the heaping up of rules for living, especially rules that go beyond Scripture. This is altogether common in some circles of evangelicalism. People long for someone to “tell me what to do.” Parents believe that “life within the rules” will keep their children safe in the world of sin. Rules are equated with holiness. A dear friend once said to me, when I challenged some rules he had given his teen children, even that “our standards have to be higher than the Bible’s.” It sounds horrible, but he was most sincere; for him, the Bible lays a “lowest common denominator” of Christian living, and the more rules we can add, the more holiness we can have.

Along with this kind of rule-orientation come generous helpings of guilt, manipulation-by-guilt, judgmentalism, and self-righteousness.

An examination of this mindset has recently been well-written by Scott Kay.

3. There is a third type of legalist in evangelicalism – the most common of all. This 3rd-type can be found practicing his brand of legalism at the same moment he is earnestly speaking against legalism of the first or second type. He is devout and sincere and honest, and yet regularly practices and proclaims a legalism that is just as Christless and self-righteous as the legalism that grieves his heart. Any attempt to direct or live the Christian life that does not flow out of the gospel of grace, is legalism. Any ethical teaching or “moralizing”, even that uses Scripture as a framework, that calls upon us to wield our utmost strength towards righteousness but does not ground itself in the work of redemption, the kept promises of God, and the news of our great rescue in Jesus Christ – is legalism.

I want to explain and illustrate this, and outline the alternative, in posts to follow. Some of them in the pipe include “Niké theology and the U.S. Army way of holiness”, “If my daughter were a Pharisee”, “Why family-values radio can be destructive”, and another “Dr. Crane and the Rabbi” post.