The Upside of Legalism

Part 2 of the What We Really Need Now is No” series.

“No” is the new “Yes.”

Even with Obama’s “Yes we Can” battle cry (of which, in all seriousness, I’m a big fan), I think that our society is more in need of nos now than yeses. And I think they realize it.

Detroit needs to be told no, as do greedy banks on the verge of collapse. People with bad credit and no income seeking a loan need to hear it, as do fiscally irresponsible, tax-and-spend politicians. Little boys and girls screaming for this or that at the mall need a hearty N-O from their parents, as do I when I’m in the iTunes store, preparing to buy my third digital album of the week.

We need restraint. We need to be more disciplined. We need to rediscover the beauty of not getting things we want. We need to re-introduce ourselves to the ascetic life. We need to deny ourselves daily.

I grew up in conservative Southern Baptist churches that seemed to be all about legalism. There was an abundance of things that were forbidden for members of the church to partake in: drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, having sex before marriage, watching too many R-rated movies, etc. At the time, it seemed so stupid and so unfair.

These days, there are tons of “cool” churches that allow all of the things I’ve listed above. Many of them show R-rated movies in church, have wine-tasting events for the college groups, and don’t say a harsh word when it comes to illicit sexual activities. Little if anything is forbidden, and only the happy, “love others” passages of scriptures are preached. The Gospels get emphasized a lot more than the Epistles, that’s for sure.

Obviously I am pointing out two extremes here: the hyper-legalistic and the hyper-permissive. Both are wrong, in my view. It is a shame that, in reacting against the former approach, the latter has gone so far in the other direction. I think we’ve lost a crucial aspect of Christianity in our efforts to purge it of the much-maligned “legalism.” We’ve lost the element of sacrifice. Christ called his followers to take up their cross, to identify with his suffering, to be living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to him.

And it’s not like this is a bad life. What we take as a renunciation of the worldly things we desire is really just a renunciation of the smallest, most unfulfilling part of existence. Lewis reminds us so beautifully in The Weight of Glory that it is not that our desires are too strong, it is that they are too weak—that we are far too easily pleased. In Christ, in focusing on being in him and abiding in the future glory he promises, we discover a higher longing that frames and illuminates everything else we thought we wanted.

The Christian life is a wonderful life because it requires some pretty serious “no” discipline but ultimately offers the greatest “yes” of all: an affirmation of our part in the kingdom and royal priesthood of God, the very maker of heaven and earth. In the face of God’s grace, our excuses and quibbles and struggles look pretty insignificant. As such, we should be more than happy to give up the pursuits, pleasures, and comforts we thought we wanted. God’s grace is sufficient, but it isn’t cheap.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizes it nicely in The Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has… It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

So what does this mean for Christians? It means that we can’t be cavalier with God’s grace. We can’t live wild, hedonistic lives in which the world’s pleasures and our own deeply felt, bent urges are in competition with the call of the Christian life. We have to say no to what is wrong and stand up for what is right. We have to be willing to discipline ourselves and each other; we have to be willing to be intolerant where it is appropriate. And yes, this goes against the grain. It isn’t popular to be intolerant. But ultimately, it’s better for humanity.

Some might say that rules, boundaries, and limitations are stifling. I say they’re liberating. When individual man is the measure of morality… that’s when it’s stifling.

5 responses to “The Upside of Legalism

  1. This is 100% dead on, Brett. Thanks.

  2. As usual, brilliant post.

    I’m taking a class in the spiritual disciplines right now for a formation degree, and we’re gathering material as the weeks go on to that could be used to teach the disciplines to others. This week, one of the disciplines we’re studying is that of submission. Your pregnant man post from the other day and this one have both made it into my folder for the discipline of submission.

    I spent several years of my life unlearning the unhealthy forms of legalism. As a result, I learned grace. That was the amazing, life-giving part of that journey. The other part of that journey was falling too far on the other side of the spectrum, thinking that doing anything was too much of a demand. Only recently, through the readings of Henri Nouwen and Richard Foster, especially, am I learning how to come into the life of Christ that is the suffering Christ. Maybe now it’s about learning to bring the truth part into the mix of being “full of grace and truth,” like we know Christ is. Because we need both. Truth alone breeds legalism; grace alone breeds license. But we need to learn grace in order to practice truth without legalism. Or maybe it’s love that we need to truly experience in order to keep them both in balance.

    One last thing to add. Last week, one of the disciplines that we studied was that of simplicity. As an exercise, I wrote a “rule for life.” This involved taking an honest, hard look at my life with God and seeing what He made me for, what practices of my life bring me more fully into His presence and living from the center He placed within me, and which activities impinge upon that life. This was hard to do because my flesh really wanted to keep up with the Joneses in certain areas of my life, even though the Joneses are concerned with things I’m not meant to be concerned with. But once I surrendered to the truth of God and the truth of me, I was able to write a rule that was simple and reflects the truth of what God is calling me to be and to do.

    I can’t tell you how liberating it was! It made saying no to unhelpful activities a no-brainer. It made my priorities clear. It made moment-by-moment decision-making so easy. Even though it requires sacrifice, it is truly liberating because everything can fall into line. I am free to choose the good and free to reject the bad.

    All that to say that I totally identify with what you’re saying there at the end: Some might say that rules, boundaries, and limitations are stifling. I say they’re liberating.

  3. “Some might say that rules, boundaries, and limitations are stifling. I say they’re liberating.”

    An article by a favorite theologian on the same theme:

    Freedom and Decency

  4. I heard a really great sermon on “The restraint of the Holy Spirit” when I first returned to Illinois.
    I wish that we heard this message more often. I especially wish that we were willing to preach it to each other more often. Thanks for writing this!

  5. Pingback: Best of the Blog’s First Five Years | The Search

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