“…since Genesis 3, legalism (self-salvation) has always been our biggest problem. And this problem does not shift to something else when the cultural mood shifts–it just takes one of two different forms.” –Tullian Tchividjian. (Quoted from Church We Have a Problem)
Tchividjian has argued quite forcefully that legalism and lawlessness aren’t two ditches for us to fall into. Instead they are two different responses to the one problem—legalism. One person attempts to save himself by his good works (legalism). Another person attempts to save himself and find freedom and life by breaking the rules (lawlessness).
Though he—and others—make a very compelling argument, I am not convinced that legalism is the problem of the hour. In fact I don’t think he goes back far enough in Genesis 3 to see the real issue for humanity.
Our Deepest Problem
When the cunning serpent invites Eve to taste the forbidden fruit it is not an attempt at self-salvation that drives her. It is instead a plot to overturn the creature-Creator distinction. Her problem isn’t legalism it’s self-worship.
Now, I suppose one could argue that what she is engaging in is “back-door-legalism”. That is a phrase coined by Tchividjian to describe those that “avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on”. In that case our first couple may very well have believed, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules.”
So I suppose if we redefine legalism in these terms then legalism is really no different than self-worship and I don’t have much of a point to make. But I’d submit to you that whenever I use the term legalism with 99% of the people in our congregation what comes to their mind is a man that is trying to gain favor with God by his good works. It is self-salvation by obedience to the law. And that is fundamentally what I mean when I’m arguing here that legalism isn’t the greatest problem of the hour.
The way that I read Genesis 3 is that Adam and Eve transgressed the law of God because they chose self-worship over the worship of God. They weren’t concerned with saving themselves. They were concerned with exalting themselves and becoming God. Discontent with being image-bearers they sought to be the Imago Himself.
In Genesis 3:7 I believe we are introduced to legalism. Legalism becomes the problem when a self-worshipper is confronted with a holy God in the cool of the morning. Here Adam and Eve are seeking salvation. This is why I believe Tom Schreiner says, “Legalism has its origin in self-worship.” Self-worship comes first and legalism is the rancid fruit of self-worship. Self-worship, then, is the foundational problem of humanity.
In Our Day
But what happens when sinful man no longer gives a rip about a holy God walking in the cool of the morning? Legalism is a wrong-headed attempt at salvation through means of self effort; a sewing of fig leaves to hide from the Almighty. Today we aren’t cowering in a bush hoping that fig leaf underpants can hide our shame. No, we are bold and naked before the Almighty. Confident that “no disaster will come upon us” (Micah 3:12) we are by and large confident that our godlessness will have no consequence. Narcissism has become our greatest virtue.
D.A. Carson summarizes our culture well:
If we know the characteristic sins of the age, we can guess its foolish and fashionable assumptions—that morality is simply a matter of personal taste, that all silences need to be filled up with human chatter or background music, that 760 percent of the American people are victims, that it is better to feel than to think, that rights are more important than responsibilities, that even for children the right to choose supersedes all other rights, that real liberty can be enjoyed without virtue, that self-reproach is for fogies, that God is chum or even a gofer whose job is to make us rich or happy or religiously excited, that it is more satisfying to be envied than respected, that it is better for politicians and preachers to be cheerful than truthful, that Christian worship fails unless it is fun. (Worship by the Book, 30)
This way of thinking has certainly infiltrated our churches as well. Yes, we may very well be able to call this some humanistic or back-door-legalism. But if we approach this entrenched neglect of a holy God as if it’s the same as a man trying to appease God through self-effort, then we’ll be woefully inadequate in the way that we respond to our cultural assumptions. Telling a narcissist that God loves him isn’t good news, it is old news.
I agree that the unfettered gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to our lawlessness and our legalism. But I believe the gospel is a multi-faceted diamond and pending on who your audience is, you might want to emphasize one point over the other. What needs to be confronted, wrecked and ruined, and then transformed isn’t merely our plans of self-salvation but our self-worshipping hearts.
For the Saints
But surely legalism is the greatest problem within the church, right?
Again that probably depends on how we define legalism. If we mean people trying to please God by obeying the law, then I’m honestly not certain if it is the greatest problem in the church. If we mean people trying to please God by obeying imaginary laws that they’ve made up (i.e. laws of prosperity), then we might be closer to the mark. But I wonder if there isn’t an equally devastating problem of people that assume all is well with the Lord because of some supposed justification that took place some years ago and now it doesn’t matter much if we obey or not.
I’m not suggesting that what we need in our churches is a bunch of law preaching and banging people over the heads and telling them to get with the program. That’s foolishness and that’s terrible legalistic preaching. I still believe with my whole heart that we pastors had better leave people in the hands of Jesus or we haven’t preached a gospel sermon.
But I’m also not convinced that the solution is to simply rehearse over and over again justification and our settled position in Jesus Christ. Part of discipleship—yes, even discipleship from the pulpit—is teaching people how to live out the gospel. That doesn’t just mean showing them how Jesus is an answer to all of their sin problems. It is that, but discipleship also teaches people how to obey all that the Lord has commanded. Jesus commanded far more than just “repent and believe the gospel”.
I close with these words from John Piper:
Discipline is not legalism. Hard work is not legalism. Acting against carnal impulses is not legalism. They may be. But they may also be the torque of the engine of faith running on the fuel of the Spirit to the glory of the grace of God in a self-centered and undisciplined world.
Let’s not fear legalism so much that we become afraid to speak of discipline, hard work, and making war against the flesh in real concrete terms.