Am I a Legalist?

Wait, lega-what?

Concerning Christianity and the Bible, a legalist is someone who believes that their works will save them. On the one hand, a legalist may believe that he needs absolutely no grace from God and rests entirely in his own righteousness. On the other hand, a legalist may believe that he needs some added grace to complete his salvation; that could be like a 90/10 grace to works, or 10/90 grace to works, but either works, grace plus works equal salvation.

Collin, this sounds bad. Are you a legalist?

Well, yes and no. Theologically, I am not a legalist. Paul is clear in Gal. 2:16, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Paul says to those who add works of any kind to grace, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4).

That is some serious language, but if works are necessary for salvation, then Jesus did not need to come a die. But He did come and die, and His death is sufficient for our salvation. To add works is to say He and His cross are not enough for us. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).

While I am not theologically a legalist, practically I still remain one. I am an actual sinner. As a current, actual sinner, everyday I live with a flesh that still believes it can save itself. It believes if it wants to be righteous, it has all the resources it needs: itself. My sinful flesh does not believe in Jesus Christ for salvation. Like Paul “…I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:23).

This is why I have to pray like the father in Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!” God has made me alive by His Spirit and given me faith in Jesus, but everyday I feel the flesh so close, doubting His grace; a nagging sense is always close at hand, “Is Jesus really enough? Surely you can do it! You can pull it off!”

So I am a legalist, to my shame. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:24-25). “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13).

In Christ and because of Christ I am counted perfectly righteous and totally forgiven. All glory be to God.




Abandon the Playground

I find it interesting that Christians are quick, very quick to voice caution against preaching grace. We fear taking it “too far”. We fear neglecting the subject of Christian growth, obedience, and transformation. Some may even go so far as to assume that those who talk about grace “too much” (evaluated by their opinions) do not like the topic of sanctification or do not think it needs to be talked about it.

While I think those assumptions are logically unwarranted, there may be something about them that is more concerning than just the inaccurate conclusions made. What may be more concerning is that caution is raised quickly in the face of grace-preaching, but caution seems to be raised more slowly (should I say much more slowly?) in the face of law-preaching.

As an example, in my experience I think I have heard far more about the fruit of receiving God’s grace than I have about the nature God’s grace. I have heard far more about all the things Christians are called to do than all the things Christ did for us. I have been cautioned against taking grace as a license to sin far more than I have been pleaded with to take grace as my only hope.

There seems to be far more tolerance for implicitly legalistic preaching than salvation-by-grace-alone preaching. There seems to be far more tolerance for preaching that turns the Christian life into itself, revolving around the Christian, than for preaching that makes Christ the center of the Christian life.

There seems to be far more tolerance for preaching that sounds like it is coming from a man who hates the people he is talking to, rather than someone who is “…like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). I expect to hear rants about preachers who primarily preach grace, but I do not expect rants about preaching that explicitly or implicitly teaches that we are saved and secured by our sanctification.

As Dane Ortlund says in his book Defiant Grace, maybe this is how it is (if I’m right) because “We are addicted to law.” We are addicted to “Conforming our lives to a moral framework” so that we can “cure that deep sense of inadequacy within.” Maybe it is because “Law feels safe; grace feels risky.”

He goes on, “It’s time to blow aside the hazy cloud of condemnation that hangs over us [and our churches] throughout the day with the strong wind of gospel grace….For many of us the time has come to abandon once and for all our play-it-safe, toe-dabbling Christianity and dive in.”



Beware of Licentious People! (Pt. 3/3)

I have addressed our natural skepticism that we have towards the radical grace of God, and especially those who talk a lot about grace. We often believe that those who talk a lot about grace devalue God’s law and devalue obedience in the Christian life.

Let me admit that I do believe there are people who use “grace” as an excuse to live sinful, rebellious lives. Jude 1:4 says, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed…ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

This idea of claiming grace as an excuse to live sinful lives is real. However, many, many church leaders and pastors make it seem like these people are running rampant in our churches. I don’t think they are.

When I was in college, I talked to hundreds of students on my university campus. I went to school in the heart of the Bible belt at the largest Baptist university in the world. If there was a place you would think students understood the gospel, it was there. But out of the hundreds of students I talked to over my years there, I can probably count on two hands how many understood the grace of God.

Many of them seemed to live unrepentant lives, and they claimed to be Christians. But they did not seem to be using grace as a license to sin. They didn’t even understand grace! Actually, they walked in rebellion because they felt secure in themselves, not in grace. Many thought they had done, or were doing what they should be doing to earn God’s acceptance. And yes, they believed in Jesus too! They were living by works + grace, not grace alone.

How do you use grace as a license to sin if you do not even understand it?

These students, and all these people we think are “using grace as a license to sin,” need to be told exactly what the grace of God is. Then, and only then, will we see if they use it as a license to sin.

We need to put to rest our fear of the licentious people. It seems many churches do not even preach the grace of God to produce those kinds of people! And this is what is so interesting, and infuriating: talk all you want about obedience, sanctification, growth, transformation, discipline, getting better, and killing sin, and hardly anyone, if anyone, will tell you to be careful, otherwise you will become a legalist and lose sight of God.

Yet this is the most clear and present danger! Christian or not, our natural tendency is to doubt grace, not believe it. We need more, much more preaching of the gospel of grace, the heart of the Bible, not less. Let’s not be scared, let’s be thrilled with what the Spirit will do when we preach the good news of Jesus! 

The Propensity to Earn

If you read through the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), you will see something rather odd and surprising. In general, we could say the surprising thing you will see is salvation; men and women entering into a relationship with God. This is surprising because we have earned our way out of a relationship with God, and out of eternal life. But there is something even more surprising.

What is more surprising concerns who enters into a right relationship with God. Throughout the gospels, it seems those who have blown it big time, those whose life motto was “Go hard or go home”, those are the ones who often are given the grace to believe in Jesus and begin a new relationship with God. This is surprising. But there is yet something more surprising.

To see rebels made right with God is one thing. Most of us, Christian or not, get that the gospel of Jesus is about taking those who don’t deserve forgiveness and giving them grace. This general idea doesn’t shock us much (though when we understand our sin, and God’s holiness, it will). Most people do not have a problem with the notion that a perfect God will forgive imperfect people. That is why most people feel ‘OK’ about their state before God. “Am I imperfect? Yes. But will God forgive me? Most likely.” Many assume grace is coming.

What is surprising is how Jesus reacts to those who try really hard to be perfect. If God forgives rebels, then certainly he forgives the hard working religious people, right? I mean, if those who tried their hardest to break all the rules can have a relationship with God, then certainly those who tried their hardest to keep the rules have earned something, right?

Wrong. Very wrong.

In the gospels, what we see over and over and over (and over) again is grace given to the ugly, dirty, filthy, no-good jokesters. And what do the hard-working religious folks get? Denied. Sternly denied. Those who stand up before God claiming to be righteous on their own, saying things like, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (see Lk. 18:11-12) do not go away justified, or righteous before God.

That is surprising to a bunch of people who have a strong propensity to earn our way through life. We work our way to promotions, titles, positions, relationships, etc. We get what we’ve worked for. Period. Yet this is not how the gospel of Jesus works.

It is those who recognize they have worked their way out of a relationship with God, and then turn from sin to trust in Jesus, saying things like, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (see Lk. 18:11-12) who stand justified, or righteous before God. They are not righteous in themselves, or on their own. They are righteous because Jesus is righteous, and they are given Jesus’ righteousness through faith in him, his death, and his resurrection. That is surprising. Surprisingly gracious. Surprisingly amazing.

Why “Gospel-Centered”?

There has been a lot of use of terms like “gospel-centered” and “gospel-centrality” in churches today. Like most terms, they can be thrown around easily, regardless if someone knows what they are talking about when they use them.

For me, the language of “gospel-centeredness” is somewhat new, but it is not a new reality. The difference between a day lived with Jesus and his gospel at the center versus any other kind of day is deeply felt by me. I sense in myself all too much the tendency to trust myself and my works to gain a right, or even better standing with God. If only I could read my Bible more consistently, pray more fervently, and be more loving, then I would have easier access to God. If I could just get those things done, then I could get to the very thing I am after: God.

All too often I believe the lie that in my sin I have lost some standing with God. Not necessarily all of it, but some of it. Maybe I still believe I am going to heaven, but I don’t believe I can experience heaven today because I too often believe my performance determines how much God accepts me in a given moment.

This is the temptation I face sometimes violently. When facing it, I have only two options: works-based confidence before God or gospel-confidence before God. By works-based I mean: If I just do better, God will accept me. By gospel-confidence, I mean trusting that Jesus’ work alone gives me full acceptance before God. If I choose works-based confidence I am possibly led into pride, being confident that despite my imperfection I have pleased God. In this pride I claim to not need Jesus, the cross, and grace. On the other hand, I am possibly led into despair. I know my sin. Even if I am not sinning, I feel guilty. I despair. I despair that I could ever be close to God or have his love.

A gospel-centered day, and life, is one that rejects self-dependence. It despairs of anything I think I could do to earn God’s nearness. At the same time, it rejoices with rock-solid confidence in the crucified and risen Savior that has bought me nearness to God. It rejects any and all prideful and despair-resulting self-righteousness. It accepts all that Christ did in his life, death, and resurrection to give me His perfection before God.

Gospel-centrality for me is not a catchphrase. It isn’t a cute way that I try to identify myself with other pastors and churches that use similar language. It is the difference for me between daily joy or despair. I am resolved to keep Jesus and his finished work the center of my life and ministry because it means daily life or despair for me.