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New Legalism

The new legality also tells me how to love my neighbor. But this list may seem very different from God`s law. The Holiness Code of Social Justice tells me that it is a virtue to engage with certain groups in partisanship and deliberately disadvantage other groups because of their race. The new legalism also tells me that I must fight against all “oppression.” It is the fruit of legalism: very complex systems of obedience that, while probably rooted in God`s law, lead us to a goal far from where we should be. Even worse, it leads us to neglect other important parts of God`s law. Unfortunately, a new form of this legalism is on the rise. I say new legalism to distinguish it from the old form that we all claim to hate. The old legalism largely said to stay away. Don`t do certain things and you`ll be fine.

He insisted that there was no cinema, no theatre, no drink, no long hair and things like that. As long as you stay away from A, B and C, your justice is effectively in your pocket. And most modern people look at this and say, no thanks. We are called to judge good from evil according to God`s Word. But we are neither called nor able to discern the motives of the heart. If the Church wants to fulfill the Great Commission, we must welcome the brother who loves the KJV as well as the recovering alcoholic. The irony here? We claim that the former deserve less of our love before we even know if they are legalistic! And if a brother is truly steeped in legalism, how will our own arrogance make him repent? That doesn`t mean that these things aren`t good, useful and valuable, or that we don`t want to encourage our people to do so. But as soon as we begin to insist on them as if they were prescribed biblically, we transformed what could be good and useful into a new form of legalism. We make it a litmus test of faith that the Lord simply does not make. Many Christians believe that being saved by grace means that God`s law has nothing to do with us. It`s a mistake! When Jesus told the disciples to go into the nations and preach the gospel, it included teaching them to obey all of Jesus` commandments (Matthew 28:18–20). Yes, we are saved by grace.

But this is not the end of the Christian life. This is just the beginning. God expects His people to walk in humble obedience to His commandments. Obeying God`s law is discipleship, not legalism. Like the tattoos of old, the “telltale signs” of legalism attract a collective murmur of the modern church: long skirts, headgear, the King James version. And yet, by judging people who practice these things, we are doing exactly what we claim to hate: judging by appearance. The truth? A head covering is not the same as legalism. A long skirt, a suit, a KJV sermon – the Spirit of God can motivate such decisions with as much authenticity as the girl dressed in anthropology in her YWAM mission. By limiting God`s work to the limits of an ideology, we do not defeat legalism, we become legalism. Yes, legalism still exists in the “right” places beyond which the modern Church has “overtaken.” But there are also skinny jeans and a Hebrew tattoo.

It`s hiding behind your Bethel Music and electric guitar. It fills conversations with judgment and grace, adding man`s needs to a gospel of freedom—a freedom that includes both suits and skinny jeans. If we really want to defeat legalism, it will not result in further condemnation. It is found by striving for a life of true holiness and being willing to let go of all that we have added to the gospel along the way. One of the missing factors in our modern legalism is the emphasis on prayer. Why pray when you can apply all your principles and get the results you need? At its core, prayer is a recognition of a desperate need—the need for God`s grace. But when the focus is on the principles to follow, people are often deceived and think they are not so desperate. Their needs can be easily and completely met if they only follow steps one, two, three and four. In truth, none of us will ever be able to perfectly follow all the principles we need to live godly lives or achieve God-given goals. We need grace! Not only will we never be able to fully follow all the necessary principles, but we will never know them all.

“We see darkness through a glass.” Pretending to believe that we can please God and fulfill His calling in our lives simply by following the ten steps to great leadership or the twelve points to successful parenthood is nonsense. If principles are God`s principles, follow them as best you can, but don`t take your eyes off Jesus and never stop praying. It was not the principles of efficient walking on water that allowed Peter to walk on the Sea of Galilee; it was Jesus` command. And it wasn`t until he turned his eyes to Jesus and the storm that the water could no longer hold him back. The title “The New Legalism” is meant to be ironic. There is no “new legalism.” There is only the old one. Whether legalism is confronted with circumcision, Sabbaths, or food (Mark 7:14-19; 1 Timothy 4:1-6; Col 2:20-21) or whatever. It`s the same old sourdough. Caution.

This is a real temptation and a real danger. The reality is that legalism will appear wherever you allow it. Whenever our methods take precedence over Christ Himself, we have established an idol in His image, not Christ, just our version of Him. Then we take our idol and beat people on the head with him, wondering why they can`t understand the importance of tradition or the need for progress. And in the end, all you have is a group of idolaters—people who care more about who is right than living right. But the new legalism takes a different set of principles and applies them. New buzzwords are things like “missionary life,” “community,” and “living together.” Now, all of these things are rightly rooted in biblical principles. The Lord clearly commands us to be hospitable and to accept one another as Christ welcomed us.

We are supposed to spend time together and carry each other`s burdens (and all the other things “from each other” that require us to spend time together). The principles in which these things are rooted are biblical from start to finish. But the problem arises when these principles are locked into rules that the Bible simply does not require. This becomes a problem when we insist that our “rules” – good or even better, as they can be for our specific context – are pressed in all contexts. God`s people “shall not tire of doing good” (Galatians 6:9). We should have cautious, Bible-based, evidence-based conversations about justice and racism.

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