December 13, 2013

Shooing Away the Legalism Boogeymen

by Eric Davis

yoke1The “L” word. It’s one of the ugliest of all words: legalism. Defined as the idea that we can earn right standing with God, it does violence to the glorious gospel of Christ. It says, “No, sorry, it’s not enough,” to the substitutionary atoning work of Christ. It confuses the way to forgiveness, it tarnishes the gospel of grace, it lays up heavy burdens that no one can carry, it crushes hope, and fuels despair. It declares that man possesses finesse to propitiate the just wrath of God due our sin. For that, legalism is deadly and must be opposed at every level. Paul called it another gospel whose proponents are condemned (Gal 1:8-9).

Consequently, labeling something/one legalistic ought to be done with caution. To bring the charge is to say that this thing or person is in danger of propagating an unsavable system and trampling the cross of Christ. So if we label something legalistic, we better thoroughly understand the gospel, the definition of legalism, and what exactly is happening with what we are labeling as legalistic. Otherwise, we are sinning by erroneously labeling something in opposition to the cross of Jesus Christ.

Even so, the legalism card often gets overplayed. More and more I’ve interacted with Christians humbly and faithfully working out their salvation with fear and trembling, only to have the legalism card slapped on them. As such, they’re being fallaciously warned about legalism boogeymen. There are many I’ve heard of lurking in Christendom.

Looking Under BedHere are 5 all-too-common legalism boogeymen we need to shoo away:

1. Encouraging others to turn from sin and obey Christ’s commands.

This too-frequent error typically goes something like this: “You know, I hear what you are saying about _____ in my life, but honestly, Romans says I’m free and forgiven, so stop laying up legalistic burdens on me. Nobody is perfect.” But this is far from legalism. In Galatians, Paul says, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1-2).

Notice, that gently helping others to repent of sin and obey Christ, so far from being legalism, is instead fulfilling “the law of Christ.” It’s loving. You are laying aside your comfort, your time, and, potentially, that person considering you their friend, for something greater: love.

helpHow could that be love? Encouraging repentance is like encouraging someone to put in the effort to take their winning lottery ticket and drive the few hours to the state capital to get the winnings. Yeah, it’s a little bit of a pain to get there (confess and turn from sin), but the rewards of arriving at the capital (restoration, God’s forgiving, unchanging love in Christ) far outweigh the inconvenience.

Obedience is God’s best for us. We get to obey. We have to turn from thinking that repentance and turning to greater obedience is some kind of drudgery. Repentance and obedience are not “just grin and bear” it living, like slamming that delicious raw kale and wheat grass smoothie our doctor recommended. But by the power of the Spirit, repentance and walking in obedience is merely travelling the variegated avenues of grace, assurance, and intimacy with our good God.

2. Being discouraged over our failure to obey God’s commands.

This boogeyman comes in the form of, “Ah, come on, don’t be down about your sin. You’re being too hard on yourself, you legalist.” This boogeyman has an aversion to being broken over our sin and mourning our disobedience. But is that legalism?

“For My hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD. “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa 66:2). To be “contrite of spirit” has the idea of lame or broken in spirit, similar to those at Pentecost (Acts 2:37) who were shattered over their sin. God looks favorably to such a demeanor.

Stuart Scott has rightly said, “We never find the Scriptures saying, ‘Come on now, you’re thinking too poorly of yourself’ or ‘What you need is to consider yourself more’” (The Exemplary Husband, 177).

In a similar vein, Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:3-4). So far from a legalistic mindset, discouragement over sin is a demeanor that is pleasing to God. You are blessed, in that it evidences you’re of the kingdom of heaven and under the grace of divine favor.

3. A feeling of guilt.

Guilt, or a sense of one’s violation of God’s commands is not inherently legalistic. This boogeyman protests, “You made me feel guilty. That’s so legalistic of you.”

Guilt sensorIt presupposes that a feeling of guilt means something wrong is happening, and is legalistic. But guilt can be a good thing. It’s like the sounding smoke alarm of the soul. Certainly it’s possible to feel guilty for wrong reasons, for example, if I have a misinformed conscience. But I could feel guilty for sin. So when the guilt comes, instead of playing the legalism card, I need to investigate what triggered the smoke alarm.

Plus, crying legalism in response to guilt is to put subjective feeling as the end-all determination on the matter. But legalism needs to be evaluated, not by feelings, but biblical truth. Was this person actually placing legalistic standards on me? Is what they said really insisting that certain works are necessary for me to merit right standing with God? Or might I be shooing away the Spirit’s work of conviction with the legalism label?

Guilt is often God’s good gift to us to trigger repentance from error in belief or living. Like in Luke 18:13, the tax collector was crushed with guilt, and it was not due to a legalistic demeanor but the convicting power of God. His guilt was a gift of grace from God to generate repentance unto salvation. And Jesus commends him for his shattered demeanor. Richard Greenham wrote, “Never any of God’s children were comforted thoroughly, but they were first humbled for their sins.” The presence of guilt is not an automatic indicator of legalism.

4. Great desire for increasing spiritual maturity.

This boogeyman typically says: “You know, you’re so focused on wanting to mature and grow. You’re putting legalistic standards on yourself. It’s legalism to think on growing so much.”

born to growWe need not meditate all day long on, “I need to grow, I need to grow.” However, an inner desire to have Christ increasingly formed in us is a sign of spiritual health. It’s an attitude akin to when Christ said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6). Like a baby with a voracious appetite, a consistent longing to grow in Christ is a sign of the Spirit’s life and health in us.

We’re saved to grow. Like a baby born, we’re born from the Spirit to mature into spiritual adulthood. NT writers rebuke professing Christians for not having progressed in spiritual maturity (1 Cor 3:1-2, Heb 5:11-14). And the Apostle of grace greatly desired to increase in spiritual maturity while in no way being legalistic (Phil 3:12-14).

5. Trying hard to obey Christ’s commands.

Being one of the more tragic errors, this boogeyman comes in the form of, “Mellow out on trying hard to obey. You’re free in Christ to let go and let God,” and chides humble saints from giving efforted consideration of obedience to their Lord. Ironically, this “legalism” label is sometimes slapped on someone as a solution to the conviction solicited by the other person’s godly life.

But is this legalistic? In light of redemptive realities, Paul exhorted the churches:

“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58).

“So then, my beloved…work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).

The Apostle of grace rightly detested legalism with all his might (cf. Gal 1:8-9, 2:3-5), while simultaneously exhorting all in Christ to be “always abounding” in obedience and “working out their salvation,” something which did not come without effort. As Demarest writes, “Christians’ serious regard for God’s law does not constitute legalism” (The Cross and Salvation, 423). And in Schreiner’s excellent work, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, he writes:

“Some who understand grace overreact and rule out the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ of the NT. They become more ‘biblical’ than the Bible! But grace and demand are not necessarily opposed to one another. God’s grace also gives us the ability to live in a way that pleases God, even if we never reach perfection…[Paul] did not believe that such commands would lead Christians to become legalists; otherwise, he would not have included these commands” (229).

blueprintOn top of that, obedience is already a pre-planned deal for God’s people: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10). As an inevitable consequence of justification, concentrated effort to obey is in the blueprint of sanctification.

Further, this boogeyman can be shooed away on the grounds of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. By faith in Christ, he comes to reverse our depravity by making us willing and able to obey God. This was prophesied when God said, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezek 36:27). Notice that the New Covenant ministry of the Holy Spirit enables careful obedience. Similarly Paul teaches that one of the consequences of salvation is “that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). Along these lines, Schreiner comments, “Doing the law is required for justification and is unattainable, while fulfilling the law is the consequence of justification and the result of the Spirit’s work” (Galatians, 335). One of the chief ministries of the Spirit is causing careful regard for God’s commands in the redeemed.

Sometimes the objection is made: “Well, we need not think about trying so hard. Just relax and think on redemptive realities.” Certainly the fullness our Christian life does not constitute preaching to ourselves, “Try hard, try hard,” all day long. Yet neither can we avoid thinking about obedience. The flesh is active. Our first thought is not always, for example, “I so delight to sing praises after bouncing that check, the kids being sick, and the car broke down again.” Obedience takes effort. And it’s OK. You need not fear the legalism boogeyman even if you really want to obey and you need to put your shoulder into doing so. Both the desire, effort, and action are pleasing to God.

Along those lines, Christ assured his people that trying hard to obey him is anything but legalism: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).

So, to call someone legalistic for doing so is wrong. It’s equivalent to saying, “Stop loving Christ so much.” Imagine getting to heaven and God the Father saying to you, “You know, I wish you would not have tried so hard to obey my Son so as to love him. That was so legalistic of you.”

secureGod is pleased with his children as they give effort towards obedience because they are like a little child who knows he is secure and will not be disowned. In light of that familial security, they so love their Father, thus delight to work hard in pleasing him. His children labor hard to obey, not to earn right standing with God, but because they already have it.

Believers, then, can securely and joyfully pursue obedience with concentrated effort free from the paranoia of the legalist boogeyman. With Paul, they can say, “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Cor 5:9).

Where legalism truly exists, we must resist and oppose it at every level. Few things mar the Person and finished work of Jesus Christ like it. But let’s be calculated and careful so as to ensure we’re shooing away the real thing and not boogeymen.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008.
  • Jerry Wragg

    Just had a lengthy discussion yesterday on this issue with my pastoral leadership students. They’re vulnerable to these imbalances, it seems, because many of their favorite contemporary authors are teaching that spiritual change comes from thinking deeply about grace. The mere passionate contemplation of God’s sovereign grace, they’re being told, is all that’s needed for the flesh to die and righteousness to prevail over temptation. To them, proactive holy striving bypasses passion and usurps the exclusive ground and power of grace. A clear, biblical understanding of the means of grace is being labeled ‘legalism’ by an overreaching zeal to honor the unmerited favor of our redemption. And it’s a particularly attractive view to two kinds of people: (1) Those dominated by certain sins despite sincere ‘efforts’ to subdue them; (2) Those already in the habit of chafing under authority. The former find the legalism bogeyman a fitting explanation for why they can’t seem to get past particular weaknesses (they’re ‘trying too hard,’ like legalists do). The latter group loves the ‘legalism’ card because it masks their secret dislike for coming under constraints on their lifestyle choices. Excellent study here, Eric!

    • Kofi Adu-Boahen

      I find this all over the place these days and echo your sentiments, Pastor Wragg – an excellent study, Pastor Davis!

    • Drew Sparks

      Great pastoral insight. Thanks.

    • Eric Davis

      Jerry-

      Thanks for this excellent insight, esp identifying those 2 kinds of people. I’m grieved by these things that you, and many others, are encountering. May God give us strength the shepherd his people away from this error. Thanks Jerry

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        “I’m grieved by these things that you, and many others, are encountering.”

        Ditto.

        And ditto on the thanks to Pastor Jerry, and to pastor Eric for your terrific expose of the Legalism Boogeyman.

    • Greg Pickle

      Jerry, thanks for your continued diligence on this front as well. It doesn’t appear this error is going away anytime soon. Keep up the good fight, I’ve been really helped by your work on this (Shep Conf seminar, Ekklesia panel).

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      Jerry Wragg: “The latter group loves the ‘legalism’ card because it masks their secret dislike for coming under constraints on their lifestyle choices.”

      Has anyone ever confronted someone using the “legalism” card in this particular fashion?

      If so, how did it go?

    • Chris Julien

      As a recent college graduate who was trying to live this out in my own life as well as explain to other young people the nuances of sanctification, I often found what you’ve described as the two types of people. And indeed, it is “mere passionate contemplation” that is considered by many people as the warp and woof of sanctification; increasingly, I’ve said that such an ideal is too gnostic and not well-rounded. We still must act. Thanks for your comment.

      • Jerry Wragg

        Thank you, Chris. I’m encountering, quite frequently now, a host of people who actually express a kind of contempt for Scripture’s imperatives. However noble the Free-Grace movement’s attempts to unshackle weary Christians from the yoke of failure, it should NEVER result in less love for God’s holy law. Something’s terribly wrong with a view of sanctification which nurses resentment toward humbly conforming to Christ’s commands.

    • Amplitudo

      I have searched high and low for a “clear Biblical understanding of the means of grace” and as of yet have found none.

      If you can direct me to one, that does not use the term “means of grace” to define what a “means of grace” is, I would be very interested in reading it.

    • http://www.juliansabroad.com/ Dan Julian

      I mentioned it in my comment above, but I wanted to point out that meditating deeply on grace is an act of obedience. God commands His people to remember His grace and mighty power in saving us. Remembering and meditating on grace enables obedience in other areas as well.

      Also, those in category one are genuinely helped by continued reminders of the Gospel. It is not an “overreaching zeal to honor the unmerited favor of our redemption” to ensure that grace is preached to them and meditated on by them. It’s promoting obedience to the command to remember!

      But you are right that there are those who would live lives of sin and walk in the hardness of their hearts and call any condemnation of sin or pursuit of holiness “legalism.” The fact that this second group misuses grace does not in any way undercut the power of the gospel for sanctification. And if we choose to preach a Christian-centered sanctification for fear of encouraging license in those who would abuse grace, we do a deep disservice to those who love Christ, are battling sin, and need to be pointed to the cross again and again.

  • kevin2184

    Another great article, Eric. Thanks for posting!

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks for the encouragement Kevin

  • Brian Morgan

    Brother Davis,

    What a refreshing article in a parched land. This issue comes up over and over with my more reformed associates. Any “effort” at obedience is labeled legalism. I see this lack of consistency on their stance; In salvation, we all agree that it is all of God, for the Glory of God. But we eschew hyper-Calvinism teaching where we do nothing and just wait for God to do it in the sinner. Isn’t this boogeyman mentality a form of “hyper-sanctification” where we teach positional sanctification to the exclusion of practical effort on our part….just waiting as it were, for God to do whatever he will do in my life…without any “work” on my part?

    Can we improve our merit with God by obedience? Absolutely not! Can we make ourselves more righteous through obedience? Absolutely not! But we can better reflect the character of God to the nations as both evidence of new life and pattern of His grace in discipleship.
    I quote from the LBCF1689 Section 13:3 “yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in His Word hath prescribed them..” and 2Co 7:1 Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God…
    That’s not legalism, that is liberty!
    Yes, a bit wordy, thanks for the outlet.
    May God bless you this Lord’s Day in the ministry of the gospel.
    Brian

    • Eric Davis

      Brian,

      I think you’ve made some good points here, brother. I like this: “where we teach positional sanctification to the exclusion of practical effort on our part…” Very helpful.

  • M

    Thank you for this encouraging post. I do this, I don’t do that. The list is probably fairly wrong. But making these rules to “do” and “not do” are helpful to my spiritual life. That’s all. These rules help me resist certain temptations, help me make better use of “my” time, to spend more time in prayer and scripture reading. That’s all. They don’t make me better than my neighblor. They certainly do not give me more favor with the Lord. I agree – let’s not be too quick to judge the motives of people who appear “legalistic”.

    Jerry’s comment rings true with my experience. I attend a church pastored by a recognizable, conference-speaking, YRR guy. It’s true – there’s not an emphasis on the role of personal effort in holy living. The emphasis is, as Jerry says, about contemplating God’s character, which in turn will change you.

    This emphasis reminds me of the “second-blessing” teachings that my wife grew up with in her church. I’m not saying they are the same or even very similar, just that the one teaching reminds me of the other. In both cases one believes himself to be under-equipped for living a holy life, and one must wait, beg, meditate until he receives the internal change he needs. There is (maybe, sometimes) an under-appreciation of just how much the Lord has equipped every single true believer through the Holy Spirit.

    Thanks again. I limit my weekly blog-reading time ( is that legalistic?!?), but I make a point to check out the Cripplegate and Grace-To-You blogs.

    • M

      ..first paragraph typo…the list is LONG, not WRONG… ;)

    • Eric Davis

      M-

      I like the proper biblical balance you strike here, namely, the intentionality w/ which we approach obedience while of course knowing that doing so does not merit standing before our Lord. Thanks for the comment!

  • Drew Sparks

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  • Matt Mumma

    Thankful for this needed discussion in our day. Thank you for your leadership brother.

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Matt. Grateful for you too

  • Greg Pickle

    Good stuff, Eric. Thanks for this.

    By the way, what do you think is the relationship between this and the false teachers addressed by Jude? Same category, or a milder version?

    • Eric Davis

      Greg,

      If I understand your question, I think Jude is addressing a more deviant group than those who would propagate these legalism bogeymen. Granted, it’s possible for apostates in Jude’s category to also propagate these false ideas of legalism, but I would not say that all who wrongly call these things “legalism” are inherently in the same category as them. It’s possible for saved individuals to mislabel legalism as above. Jude seems to be talking about total apostates, again, if I understand your question. Thanks Greg

  • Brad

    In my context, I have found that people are either helped and blown away by the gospel of grace or enraged at it. My guess is that I am experiencing this reaction from others because I am on mission to the lost rather than ministering to life-long Christians who have read a lot of books and know a lot of theology. I will definitely revisit this article as the new Christians I minister to grow up into maturity. Thanks, Eric!

  • a.

    let us put on the full armor of God so that we will be able to stand firm against the (every) schemes of the devil. Eph 5:11

  • jdg

    Some have referred to this problem under the heading of “The Grace Movement,” the concept that willful obedience to revealed commands is tantamount to legalism. Or the notion that a joyful relationship with Jesus is counter to rules or commandments. But should we not walk like Jesus did? Shouldn’t His relationship with His Father be an example for us?

    “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have keptmy Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:9-11, ESV)

  • Chris Julien

    Very thankful for this article. Well said.

  • Kate Martin

    Wow, what a great blog. Wish I had this so long ago when the church was teaching grace unbalanced. This gives the right perspective, the right balance, so well said.

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  • Daniel Stephens

    Thank you for this article. This is a great help for discernment. I’ll probably file this one away to use as a teaching aid around Christian freedom and sanctification, as well as (obviously) legalism.

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  • jigawatt

    Thanks for the post Eric, I agree 100%. I’ve seen this in the last two churches I’ve
    been a part of, except they didn’t use the word “legalism”. Probably too churchy for them. Instead, they misused the word “religion”. I’ve heard the whole “Jesus/God hates religion” thing too many times and I can’t stand it. For those interested, the best rebuff of this is from Kevin DeYoung –
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2012/01/13/does-jesus-hate-religion-kinda-sorta-not-really/

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks j-watt. I really appreciated that article by DeYoung. Thanks for reposting it here.

  • Michael Snow

    “… the legalism card often gets overplayed.” Talk about an understatement!

    This line from Charles Spurgeon gets to the heart of the matter: ” …it is a dangerous state of things if doctrine is made to drive out precept,”
    http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/holy-living-spurgeon-precepts-war-chritistians/

  • Brian Dart

    I run across the legalism trump card almost daily (both in myself and from others). I think people are either too ‘spiritual’ or too ‘physical.’ Spiritual meaning, let go and let God fix everything as He’s ordained. Physical meaning, pull up your bootstraps and follow the self-help guide to bliss (however that whim is defined).

  • GWS

    this book just came out…and might add to those interested in feeling alone in this: http://www.amazon.com/Antinomianism-Mark-Jones/dp/1596388153/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

  • Debbie

    WONDERFUL article! We are so saddened by Christians that say “let go, and let God”. They think God is going to wave some “magic wand” and take away any sin in their life. So until God “takes” away their sin, they are going to fully enjoy it. :-(

  • http://www.juliansabroad.com/ Dan Julian

    I think you’ve done a fantastic job in this article, particularly in the first four points. Those are pretty straight-forward. The question really becomes tricky at point five, which is evidenced by the length at which you have to deal with that one.

    Here’s the difficulty in that fifth point. While trying hard to obey Christ’s commands is not legalism, it could be.

    You’re absolutely right that “One of the chief ministries of the Spirit is causing careful regard for God’s commands in the redeemed.” but it is also true that unredeemed legalists have careful regard for God’s commands, though their hearts are not given to joyful obedience, but rather to bitter desires to control God and others through their outward obedience. Jesus spoke of the Pharisees as having a pretty high level of righteousness. Trying hard can be holy, or it can be depraved. The question is one of motivation.

    One of the commenters–Jerry Wragg–criticizes the idea that “spiritual change comes from thinking deeply about grace.” However, meditating on grace is commanded throughout Scripture! It’s actually an act of obedience to meditate on grace! God tells Israel over and over again to remember His grace and mighty power in saving them. Paul writes over and over again of God’s grace to us and power in saving us. Hebrews is all about commanding us to fix our eyes on Jesus, and it repeatedly, strongly warns us against ever forgetting or failing to remember what He has done. At the same time, all of those commands to remember then follow through by saying, “In light of this grace, go, do this…” We are called to obedience on the basis of what God has done, and the way that Scripture communicates indicates that one way that we are motivated to obedience is by meditating on what He has done.

    So as far as motivation goes, I believe that one of the ways that God motivates us towards obedience is by reminding us of His grace. Though this is anecdotal, my own experience has been that meditating on, remembering, thinking deeply about God’s grace on me in Jesus Christ really has resulted in an increased desire to obey, increased motivation to pursue holiness, increased spiritual strength in the face of temptation, and increased growth into Christlikeness. It has helped me to kill sin and it causes me to hunger and thirst for righteousness like nothing else in my devotional life. And that is a gift of God. I praise Him for it.

    • Eric Davis

      Dan-

      Thanks for the comment and encouragement. Agreed that mere observance of commands could be legalistic. The Pharisees did so, however, there’s was a lowering the bar of God’s law b/c it was merely external. Regarding the 5th point, I don’t think it’s a tricky one. I made the distinction between pharisaical careful observance of God’s commands and spiritual, God-honoring observance when I mentioned:

      “God is pleased with his children as they give effort towards obedience because they are like a little child who knows he is secure and will not be disowned. In light of that familial security, they so love their Father, thus delight to work hard in pleasing him. His children labor hard to obey, not to earn right standing with God, but because they already have it.”

      That kind of attitude is impossible for a Pharisee, or any unregenerate person, to have b/c they are not indwelt w/ the Spirit. It’s the attitude which the father desired the unregenerate, older son to have in Luke 15. He couldn’t, in effect, b/c it’s by the Spirit, we, w/ Paul, joyfully live w/ the ambition to be pleasing to Christ (2 Cor 5:9). We know that our careful obedience to God neither merits our standing or compromises it. Praise God for that!

      And my position here would neither preclude the importance of meditating on and learning more about our glorious redemptive realities. Totally agreed! Hebrews 12:3 is critical. Thanks Dan

      • http://www.juliansabroad.com/ Dan Julian

        Hi Eric–Thank you for your response as well!

        I suppose I meant “tricky” in the pastoral rather than theological realm. Which is pretty similar to what you probably mean when you say “so often misunderstood.” I think you handled it very well in the article, and I agree with what you wrote above in your response.

        In many pastoral situations, I have found myself clearly convinced that the person with which I am talking has a sincere desire for faithful obedience which springs from a joy in their Father. In others, occasionally, it becomes evident that the individual is very concerned about God’s commands because they view their obedience/adherence (externally) both as a source of pride and as a benefit in controlling other people. I meant that the “tricky” thing is the discernment necessary in those situations.

        Anyhow, thank you for your article!

        • Eric Davis

          Got it, thanks Dan. May God give us grace for this, both in our own lives, and shepherding others in situations you mentioned.

    • Jerry Wragg

      Dan –

      Sorry for the confusion.
      I didn’t criticize the catalyst-benefit of grasping and trusting in
      grace. It is a thoroughly biblical motivation for obedience, as
      you well-explained. What I disagree with—as I clearly stated— is
      the contemporary teaching that “mere passionate contemplation” of grace is the essence of all striving (emphasis added). This idea is being advanced in numerous recent books and has been the source of serious confusion and doctrinal error among many. Having read and reviewed several of these volumes, it’s really nothing less than a resurfacing of 17th century Antinomianism, at least in some form. Perhaps you’ve already read it, but Mark Jones’ recent book, Antinomianism, is an outstanding critique of the contemporary problem and its parallels with historical forms of the error.

      As for your own experiences, I rejoice that your meditations on saving grace have resulted in greater spiritual strength and maturity. But if I asked you to further explain precisely how grace-filled thinking prevails in the face of temptation, you’d no doubt describe more than simply meditations that led to motivations. You’d have to acknowledge that you trusted in God’s grace (faith) and willingly ‘put off’ sin and ‘put on’ righteousness. If you’re like me, you’d have to include every other biblical means of grace we’re called to believe and walk in. Your obedience, if from the heart, occurs the
      same way mine and every other believer’s does: trust in God’s word and a
      yielded will (Romans 6:12ff). When faith in God’s word/promise is real the will is submissive. You actually made that clear when you described the results of your meditations, which was greater obedience.

      I agree that God’s saving grace should richly motivate us
      to obey, but it can only be effective if we truly entrust ourselves to God and yield to His commands. That’s what true faith consists of. That’s what true faith does: it dies to self (self-emptying) and yields to God. But
      as so many today are discovering, mere contemplation of God’s glorious grace isn’t resulting in power over sin. Why? Because they have no
      intention of yielding their will in obedient faith when it comes to certain
      life-dominating temptations. And now they’re being handed a doctrine of sanctification that denies all other means of grace except higher contemplations of justifying grace. They’re being taught that becoming
      overwhelmed with thoughts of sola gratia will virtually eliminate any serious
      war between the flesh and the Spirit. And I fear that the young, reformed generation is attracted to this view because it makes spiritual growth sound easier and more passion-driven. They seem to want the delight of saying ‘yes’ to God without the pain of saying ‘no’ to sins they coddle.
      One author went so far as to claim that with deep enough thoughts of grace,
      “new and surprising fruit” will essentially just begin to happen.

      Our will is not passive in sanctification, as the Bible makes abundantly clear. In fact, to love God is to yield to Him (John 15:10). His
      power is mightily working within us as we strive to be conformed to the image of Christ (Colossians 1:29). God’s grace promised as much, and the means through which we experience His power and perseverance is loving, obedient faith to the commands and warnings in Scripture. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify.

      Trembling at His word,

      Jerry

      • http://www.juliansabroad.com/ Dan Julian

        Hi Jerry,

        Thank you for your clarification and response! I think we are on the same page.

        In my understanding, sola gratia is not coherent w/out some understanding of our total depravity–I don’t think it’s possible to rejoice in God’s free grace w/out understanding that we are depraved and hopeless apart from him, and w/out a hatred for our sin. What joy is there in grace that promises to free you from something you love (or from something you think you need no freedom from)? I didn’t start to grow in my understanding of God’s grace until I was crushed and despairing over my sin.

        I don’t know who you are referring to as promoting antinomianism (and I’ve seen that word thrown around with some of the same carelessness as “legalism”), but I would take a critical view of those who say they love God but not His revealed character.

        • Jerry Wragg

          I agree, Dan. As for hyper-labeling, it does happen but I find it’s most common among those who’ve either neglected to study and understand the issues at stake, or who’ve already drifted into error and see opposing views through extreme lenses. For the record, I realize that not everyone who strongly and frequently champions grace as a supreme motivation for obedience has fallen into antinomianism. Nor is there a true legalist behind everyone who’s intense about spiritual disciplines. God’s word emphasizes imperatives and indicatives in perfect balance. But error on either side can form very quickly when someone first learns the joy and victory of one truth without grasping the other. We take our new understanding, create sensational and pithy definitions (“scandalous, vulgar grace,” etc.), market and publish them, and others become confused and theologically truncated. The last people needing to write and preach on a truth are those who’ve just begun to grasp it, and who manifest a lack of biblical clarity and balance.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ the Old Adam

    Thanks for your blog.

    In Christ we are truly free. Free from the religion/ladder-climbing game.

    “The good we do won’t save us…and the evil we do won’t condemn us.”

    That is good news (unless someone really is a legalist).

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  • Dean P

    Interesting article. One thing that you did not touch on in your article is the common practice by many Christians today and throughout church history where believers will attempt to bind the conscience of another believer by forbidding things that are clearly not condemned by scripture. Yes I recognize that there are many vices and behaviors that exist today that scripture did not mention or condemn in that time, but with that said we also have to be careful that we don’t fall into these behavioral patterns that Paul clearly addressed and condemned in 1st Corinthians 4: 5 & 6 and in Colossians 2:16-23, where we might go beyond
    what is written. Although these examples may not fall within the parameters of
    what you in your article defined as legalism (since your description seems to
    fall more in to the category of salvific legalism) which is totally right, but as
    mentioned above in 1st Corinthians 4: 5 & 6 and Colossians
    2:16-23 these practices are also a form of legalism condemned by scripture.
    It is this practice by Christians that has perpetuated the concern for
    legalisms and although I guess there maybe a concern for a possible over
    correction for this in the form of a “legalism boogyman”, it is still
    no excuse to disregard these commands by Paul against these behaviors since
    scripture condemns these actions. Therefore we should never shy away “boogyman” or not from calling these actions out and calling them what they are which is
    legalism.

  • Jenny

    Thank you for writing this! I have come into contact with more and more Christians who insist that feeling guilty about our wrong doings is actually wrong and although I knew what they said wasn’t true, I wasn’t sure how exactly at times to respond. This article will definitely help for future conversations!

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Jenny. Guilt is good, in a sense, b/c it drives us to Christ and his finished work, in which our guilt is removed. Any other response to guilt is dangerous, like taking a hammer to the blaring smoke alarm.

  • David

    Guilt is only legalism if you’re still guilty five minutes later.

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