I am a child of the Southern Baptist Convention. Since the time I entered my mother’s womb I’ve been attending SBC churches. Not only that, I am a child of the conservative resurgence more specifically. I am extremely grateful to men like Adrian Rogers, Paige Patterson, Judge Pressler, and others who helped pave the way for my generation. I love that the conversations I have with my peers almost always center around biblical theology and methodology. Due to the diligence of the men who came before us, we no longer even wonder about each other’s commitment to the infallibility and innerancy of Scripture. For those in my circles, that is considered a given. That’s a wonderful place to be, I assure you.
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking through this commitment to the veracity of Scripture. What I mean by that, is I have been searching my personal commitment to the integrity and efficacy of Scripture, and more specifically, my commitment to uphold the importance of Holy Scripture and to stand on the principles of Sola Scriptura that those who came before me were so committed to. As I’ve thought through this, it occurred to me that although the fight for the reliability of Scripture is much different in my day than it was 20 years ago, it still remains. Let me try to explain.
When I grew up, the great enemy of the Gospel was almost always known as “liberalism”, or possibly, “moderate theology”. We felt a righteous anger, and justifiably so I believe, to any who would dare undermine the weight of God’s Word by taking from it much of its content. I was taught to diligently pursue and dismiss any influences from this realm that would happen to threaten my church, my family or even myself. Today, however, it seems to me that we must equally be on guard against a different enemy. This new enemy is just as old as the first, but it is often more difficult to spot. The enemy I am referring to is the enemy of legalism.
These two polar opposites of liberalism and legalism both stand on antithetical positions, but both essentially accomplish the same goal, and that is the undermining of God’s Word. Liberalism reduces God’s Word, and in doing so attempts to make a mockery of those who would dare take the Word at face value. It assumes a position of great authority, in fact it could be argued that it assumes a position of greater authority than Scripture itself as it attempts to “rectify” the “errors” found in God’s Word. Legalism, however, is also guilty of reducing the power and authority of God’s Word. While liberalism takes away from God’s Word, legalism adds to it, and although it is different in practice from liberalism, it essentially accomplishes the same goal, that of assuming authority over God’s Word. While liberalism claims that Scripture says too much, legalism claims that Scripture does not say enough.
In all of this, however, I often find myself wondering if legalism might not be a greater danger to the Gospel, than the danger that liberalism itself poses. Liberalism is often easy to spot, and certainly within SBC circles, is easy to ridicule. Legalism is not nearly so easy to highlight. As I have thought through this fight that we must engage in if we love the Gospel, I have noticed a few particular dangers inherent within legalism.
First, legalism is a difficult to diagnose cancer. All too often legalism is a subtle, creeping cancer that masquerades as holiness. In Matthew 23, Jesus points out that the Pharisees were guilty of adding “heavy loads” to the backs of their disciples. In Philippians 3 Paul points out that the Judaizers were “dogs” who “mutilated the flesh” in their pursuit of holiness. Both of these groups were guilty of affirming Scripture and yet adding to it in a further attempt to clarify their brand of “holiness”. When we take our personal convictions and apply them unilaterally, regardless of their clarity in Scripture, we may be guilty of this same creeping legalism. To oppose this vision of “holiness” is difficult, because to do so may cause others to paint you as a hater of all things holy. To oppose legalism can be seen as embracing the profane, which most often, could not be further from the truth. Because legalism masquerades as holiness, we can often struggle with whether or not we are right to identify it as a false gospel.
Second, legalism leads to a diminished recognition of sin. While some might find this to be a strange response to legalism, I think it is an accurate one. Notice, if you will, how many times in the New Testament we find the Pharisees trying to point out the sin of others, or even better yet, trying to “catch” Jesus in sin. A certain mark of legalism is a capacity to recognize others’ sins while failing to recognize our own. In his recent article on a topic similar to this, J.D. Greear cautions us concerning this danger. Good legalists get so busy playing watchdog for the sins of others, that they fail to see their own gross failure. As a result, personal sin is diminished, all in the name of “protecting holiness”. We see this in our convention today as we get more emails celebrating the latest boycott, or pointing out the moral lack of those in political leadership, than we hear of broken Baptists, contrite in spirit and repentant before God regarding their sin.
Third, legalism worries more about “it’s reputation” than it worries about Jesus’ reputation. You could also say that legalism is uncomfortable with “go and tell” and rather enjoys “come and see” as an evangelistic strategy. As I have studied Jesus’ life, I have come across a really fascinating truth, that is that Jesus often seemed to be comfortable in places, and with people, that we often tell ourselves “good church people” would never embrace. Legalism worries more about whether someone else saw them talking to that “sinner” than it worries about that sinner being engaged with the Gospel. Legalism is happy to preach to the sinner, so long as they will clean up and show up at the church on Sunday morning, but would recoil in horror at the thought of going to the gutter with the person who is far from God, in an effort to live the Gospel among them. Ironically enough, at this point legalists are terrified of becoming like the Jesus we see in Mark 2:16. This unhealthy understanding of God and the Gospel undermines the Romans 5:8 nature of the Gospel and assumes a necessary false righteousness must precede our ability to respond to the Gospel while also denying our own personal depravity and in doing so neuters the heart of the Gospel.
Fourth, legalism trumpets man’s capacity to do good, and in doing so undermines the depth of God’s grace. Legalism, in its efforts to adhere to the “holiness” code of rules and regulations, assumes man’s ability to “do good” and in doing, pulls the legs out from under the grace of God as exhibited in the Gospel. Legalism loves hard work, and lots of it. The more you are able to work, the more holy you must be. Interestingly enough, this kind of pursuit will almost lead to a forced, false spirituality. Legalism judges you on behavior, not the condition of your heart, and therefore can encourage behavioral change, regardless of the heart’s condition.
These are just a few of the many, many dangers that legalism poses to the heart of the Gospel. While liberalism was, is and always will be an enormous threat to the Gospel, I would plead with Southern Baptists to recognize the danger that legalism also poses to the Gospel. While it is easy to preach about the liberals “out there”, it is probably beyond time that we preach against the legalists who are among us.
If we love God’s Word, if we desire Scriptural fidelity, we will stand equally opposed to liberalism and legalism, understanding that both attempt to stand in a position of authority over God’s Word and in doing so, tear at the heart of the Word, and inevitably, the Gospel itself. We must oppose this kind of danger. The life of our convention may just depend on it.