A post on legalism originally here:
And then posted on MennoDiscuss here:
The text from the article first, and then my response:
Few subjects have as much variation among believers as our interpretations of personal holiness. Many Christians interpret the freedom we have in Christ very liberally. They tend to run with their freedom and often pay little heed to Christ’s commands. These people focus on the love of Christ and the community of the Church rather than God’s holiness and doctrine.
At a deeper level, it is very easy for us to have a simple view of holiness because it requires little of us - if all we understand of the Christian life is freedom, our view is likely informed more by the world than by Christ. The sacrifices to which He calls us do not resonate with a “freewheeling” Christianity. A low view of sin and righteousness can mar our witness by blurring the distinctions between the Church and the world and open us up to the temptations of the enemy.
The opposite extreme is represented by legalism - the view in which personal holiness is of paramount importance. These folks go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of worldliness and take very seriously God’s call to “Come out from their midst and be separate. . .” Very little in their lives is free from rules and traditions, and they often spend a great deal of time and effort to follow them strictly.
Legalism becomes grievous sin when we believe that we have within ourselves the ability to attain God’s favor. Even when well intentioned, we cannot live up to the required standard. This leads us to judge others and ourselves by the “severity” of our wrongs rather than by God’s standard (that all sin is equally offensive to Him and destructive to our relationship).
A strong devotion to holiness does not have to be legalistic, however. Just as we dishonor God in pursuing righteousness on our own, we honor Him when this pursuit is borne out of love for Him. Jesus’ statement, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments,” sets personal holiness as an outcome rather than a condition of belief. His concern is not with individual sins but with sin (that is, whether we pursue Him or pursue ourselves).
Does the Lord want us to live in righteousness? Absolutely. Did He fulfill the law and set us free? Completely. But His command was neither “keep the Law” nor “be free”—He confronts us with something much simpler and yet so difficult that we can’t hope to live up to it outside of the Spirit’s enabling: “Follow Me.”
Spirit-led holiness motivated by love is perhaps the most distinctive marker of the faith; it is a picture to a dying world of the hope of forgiveness. Such an attitude is vital if we are to have the impact God desires.
Sincerely in HOPE of the Gospel,
HERALDS OF HOPE, INC
J. Mark Horst, President
This is reflective of a common evangelical viewpoint, and I think it's really confused. Perhaps the author knew better, but didn't write well, I'm not sure.
He certainly starts out well-- focusing on obedience to Jesus' commands, saying that there is a place between complete freedom and a law based on tradition. And he ends okay as well-- talking about following Jesus and obedience as being Spirit-led.
But in the middle he certainly sounds anti-nomian (in opposition to any regulations). As if any individual sin we do doesn't matter at all in God's eyes-- God is ready to overlook that-- as long as we have prayed the right prayer or whatever that gets us into Jesus.
It is an issue with evangelicals that as long as you've done the right entrance exam ("sinner's prayer", baptism, four spiritual laws, whatever) and you're in the right club (name church here) then it's all going to be okay because salvation is based on "grace" not "works". What evangelicals are scared of is the accusation that they are saying that unless a person DOES something they can't be saved, which is the original Lutheran idea of "works"-- salvation by doing something. This has been taken more broadly as meaning salvation by NOT doing something as well. As if we could murder someone without repentance and not be saved (no one actually believes this, but you could put almost any other sin in place of "murder" and it would work).
The fact is, the NT does demand of us a certain lifestyle. Jesus is, in some ways, more strict about how we should live than Moses-- we can't look at another woman, not just not have sex with her. If we have a habitual lifestyle of sin, then we do not enter God's kingdom (I Cor 5-6). So to help other brothers and sisters not live that way, and to stricly avoid sin is not legalism, it is a part of our salvation.
The problem of "grace/faith not works" is the problem with just about any one line theological statements: The definitions of the words change over time and people don't remember what the original idea was. So theology becomes as much as a fad as music.