More on Legalism

Several weeks ago when I preached on legalism, I got some of the blowback I expected.  What I heard was similar to what I would have thought or said just 6 or 7 years ago.  I used to be afraid that if I taught a gospel stripped of any works–which I truly believed it was, people would take advantage of it and think I meant they could sin with impunity.  “Hey, it’s all covered by the blood.”  Now I worry about other things when I preach the gospel.

I had two main purposes in the sermon:
  1. Warn us not to judge the faith of others by behaviors the Bible doesn’t address.
  2. Present a gospel that is effective solely because of Christ’s work, not an 80 or 90%  deal to which we add our 10 or 20% of effort. 
It was in the judging part that the greatest confusion occurred.  I pointed out that half a century ago, some Christians condemned other women of faith for wearing lipstick or silk stockings, or condemned Christians who played cards.  These are no longer issues for most Christians because we’ve admitted Scripture doesn’t prohibit any of them.  
Then I went further and suggested that smoking and drinking in moderation are in the same category.  Some object that they’re evil practices because they can harm the human body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor.6:19-20) and with which we’re to honor God.  I went out on a limb and insisted that it doesn’t say–or mean, that you drink in moderation or can’t smoke.  OR, if it does, then other behaviors potentially harmful to the body are just as wrong.  Such as large intakes of sweets or transfats.  Two of my personal favorites come to mind: donuts and chips.  Or eating lots of salt which causes strokes.  Or enjoying dangerous hobbies like racing, skydiving or even skiing.
Face it, we can be very selective in what we interpret “honor God with your body” to mean.  We’re sure it includes not smoking, but maybe less sure it includes, “GO GET SOME EXERCISE YOU COUCH POTATO!”  Anyway, the context of the verses in 1 Corinthians 6 has nothing to do with eating, smoking or drinking.  It’s not criticizing what’s physically unhealthy, but what’s spiritually unhealthy; don’t use your body for sexual sin and thus dishonor God with it.
Some thought equating smoking with eating bad food–or failing to exercise was mixing apples and oranges.  After all, a person has to eat, but doesn’t have to smoke or drink.  True.  Irrelevant.  My point was that when we think of other Christians who smoke or who drink in moderation as spiritually inferior–or disobedient, we don’t have a biblical leg to stand on.

What if our children hear the pastor say it’s ok to smoke and drink?  First, simply because the Bible doesn’t prohibit something doesn’t mean it can go on in my home or yours.  I would never have permitted our children to smoke at our house.  Or drink before they were 21 and legally allowed to do so.  And even though I know the Bible doesn’t forbid drinking, I don’t drink at all, and it’s what I advocate.  I told my son, “You know that although the Bible condemns drunkenness, that I don’t believe or teach that the Bible forbids all drinking of alcohol.  But I think that’s the wisest course of action, and in this culture, best serves our Savior.”
I worry about causing a worse disaster by my words than that a young person feels free to smoke a pack of Marlboros or get a six-pack of Bud.  I fear that unless I clearly disrobe the gospel of works, some young person might conclude that he/she can become acceptable to God by behavior.  Or add something to Christ’s work by behavior.  I have seen that again and again in the church: people who believe that they are born again because they behave.  At least they do on the outside.
In trying to strip the gospel of all works in that sermon, perhaps I didn’t make enough qualifications, enough “yes, buts”.  If I overstated the case to the degree that someone understood me to not just open the door to smoking but say, adultery, it was not because I want to be loose on adultery.  It’s because I want to be tight on the gospel.  I fear confusing the gospel is an even greater risk than endorsing sin.  I have come to agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the British pastor of the last century who said: If your preaching of the gospel doesn’t provoke the charge from some of antinomianism [refusing to keep rules], you’re not preaching the gospel.”

In Christianity, legalism means to add some behavior to the work of Christ as a requirement of faith.  John Hendryx, a prominent blogger has given this helpful definition of legalism: “Legalism is a distortion of the gospel which denies that Jesus Christ is completely sufficient for salvation. That some additional element of self-effort, merit or faithfulness on our part is necessary to either attain or maintain a just standing before God. (Gal.3:3).

Now for the “Yes, but”.  Does a true Christian sin willy-nilly?  No.  No.  No!  For several reasons:
  • When God saves, He changes the heart.  Which leads to obedience.  (1 John 3:6-9 makes clear that the person who claims to be a Christian yet has an ongoing practice of sin, is not truly born again. 
  • When God does a true work of grace and saves a person, He changes her heart with the result that the works God prepared for her to do, do follow  (Phil.1:6; Eph.2:8-10).  
  • Those works are not perfect.  Or constant.  But because God the Spirit lives in her, obedience to God is initiated by Him.  She responds but the initiative is supernatural; it’s His (Phil.2:13).
  • Because of Christ’s love for us in the gospel, a desire to please Him has replaced our old desire to find pleasure in sin (2 Cor.15:14-15).  

It would break my heart to discover that any of my words led people into sin.  But it would break into even smaller pieces if my words conveyed a muddied gospel embedded with hints that avoiding things like smoking or drinking could add to it–or take away from it.  Which is what I fear behavioral teaching can so easily do without meaning to.  Love God and live as you please.  (Augustine)

Author: Keith Rohrer

Husband, Dad, Grandpa, Gospel-lover, churchplanter, pastor, woodworker, biker.

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