Some months ago I heard a sermon in which a pastor explained his understanding of legalism and critiqued some erroneous teaching in the contemporary evangelical landscape. I agreed wholeheartedly with most of his argument, but I want to hone in on how he framed the issue. Here's an important portion of what he said:
Today, the problem is not so much actual legalism. The problem is accused legalism. And those who argue for accused legalism basically say that rule-keeping in any form will somehow equal a walk with God. And so they make the case that anyone who has rules in their home or in their school or in their church of any kind is essentially an accused legalist. So if you have personal standards or institutional standards, then they accuse you of legalism.
But I don't know of anyone, frankly, who has institutional standards or personal standards that would ever advocate that the keeping and maintaining of standards somehow obtains our justification or maintains justification or, frankly, even obtains or maintains sanctification. Now, I've known a lot of fundamental pastors all my life. I have never heard a pastor say that, ever. And so I think it is a red herring and a false accusation.Now, if there's one thing fundamentalism has taught me, it's that culture matters. How we interact with or consume culture shapes what we love, treasure, and believe. Often subtly, even imperceptibly. If that's true, then it's also true that rules in our homes and churches and schools create cultures that shape what we love, treasure, and believe. Pastors can say all the right things, but we need to be alert to how rule systems create cultures. Could anyone who believes that culture matters deny that the power of a culture could undermine even the most sound theology?
Rules aren't bad. I don't know how a Christian could deny that we are obligated to obey, at the very least, the imperatives in the New Testament. (Granted, dispensationalists will want to exclude lots of the imperatives in the Gospels, but that's another conversation.) And I'm highly doubtful that even the most tenacious antinomians really practice their principles consistently in their parenting.
Nevertheless, my experiences have led me to believe that homes and churches and schools with lots of rules far too often undermine the gospel and cultivate legalistic thinking. I've seen them lead people to believe that they can merit favor with God by keeping his rules or ours—to believe that sanctification is fundamentally contingent on personal effort. And I've seen people grow frustrated with the inevitable failure of that conclusion, give up, and grow embittered. Do you think there's any possibility that these sorts of institutions have even sown the seeds for the antinomian backlashes we're dealing with these days?
So what should we do? Maybe a part of the solution could be to evaluate whether our institutional rules might actually be counterproductive. Maybe some of them should be discarded and replaced with more heart-oriented, relationally-grounded discipleship systems. But at the very least, leaders of families, churches, and schools with robust rule and discipline systems will need to redouble their efforts to reinforce the foundation: Our standing with God is acquired and maintained by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And sanctification will never progress without the initiating, motivating, enabling ministry of the Spirit. I'm not at all convinced that the conservative streams of American evangelicalism have laid that foundation well, or even tried.
That's what fundamentalism taught me about culture. A certain kind of culture. It just took me a long, long time to realize it.