Unmasking Legalism (part 1)

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...for the sincere Christian, legalism is a far more dangerous deception than worldliness[.] Every honest heart knows its wrong to play around with sin. Legalism, however, appeals not to the love of sin but to our love of God and desire to obey Him. It robs our spiritual life by hijacking our purest motives. I hate legalism! In the name of Christ I'll fight it till the day I cast my unworthy crown at his feet (Martin Weber. My Tortured Conscience, p. 75).
The Seventh-day Adventist church has long been plagued with legalism. This is no secret. Thankfully, significant strides have been made by church leadership to steer the boat in the right direction. While we are making headway we still have a long road ahead of us and I suspect the legalism will never fully go away until the shaking that Ellen White spoke of, an event which will purify the church, takes place. 

But what exactly is legalism? Traditionally legalism has been defined as the attempt to earn the favor of God through human merit. However, there are many legalists in the church today who would renounce creature-merit just as readily as a non-legalist. As such, I have come to realize that saying you believe in salvation by grace through faith does not automatically mean that you are not a slave to legalism. Legalism is far more deceptive than that. You see, the devil knows he cannot convince us of righteousness by works for any Christian with their head on straight would reject that in a heart beat. Therefore, the devil works with more subtle methods. In order for us to combat this foe we need to understand its characteristics. Doing this will enable us to identify its delusory head wherever it pokes up. 

In this post (and the ones following) I will share some common characteristics of legalism that tend to hide underneath a mask of salvation by grace through faith. I have compiled this list from personal experience and from two primary books written by Seventh-day Adventist ministers: The Gospel VS Legalism by Marvin Moore and Blinded by the Light by Philip W. Dunham.

Before I continue allow me to clarify. This is not a checklist that we ought to carry around to determine if other people are legalists. Though the characteristics can shed some light to help us identify legalism anytime we measure someones spiritual walk by a checklist we have become legalists ourselves. This list is intended for self-reflection not for judging others. However, I do speak of legalism externally in this post (those who think like this, this group, etc.), not to create an atmosphere of "us VS them" but for the sake of clarity. Regardless of this unfortunate necessity I recognize that I can easily fall into any one of these categories. Similarly, while it remains true that this list can help us identify the often conniving presence of legalism in the lives of others such an awareness serves as an opportunity to foster healing and restoration. After all, legalism is sin and we have been instructed, 
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. - Galatians 6:1, emphasis mine.
Now onto some common characteristics of legalism:

1. Obsessive concern about the increasing worldliness in the church. While it is normal for any Christian to bemoan a departure from Biblical Christianity some people seem to be obsessed with it to the point that all they talk about is how the world is coming into the church. In addition, many times their definition of "world" is not the Biblical definition (jealousy, strife, arrogance etc.) but a personal definition based on their own cultural preferences. As a kid, my father refused to buy jeans for my brother and I because they were "worldly." This is a perfect example of an un-biblical definition of the "world." While every Christian should be concerned about worldliness creeping into the church (in the biblical sense)  an obsessive concern shows that the person does not trust that God is in control of his church. It also shows that the person is more concerned with denominational purity than with loving others. While this person would never say we are saved by works their unhealthy adoration of works seems to suggest otherwise.

2. Obsessive concern about the lowering of denominational standards. This characteristic is closely related to the first. Those who are overly concerned with these things often attempt to "play God." They feel that it is their personal calling to purify the church and rescue it from apostasy. Criticism of church leadership is central to their religious experience. Oddly enough this group never criticizes the church's failure to feed the poor and visit the widows. Their only concern appears to be trivial matters such as jewelry, dress reform, dietary laws, and worship styles. I once attended a church in which the slightest departure from tradition was considered a step toward apostasy. Thus, the fact that people wanted to have Sabbath school after the service instead of before was held in suspicion. In addition, those who found little spiritual blessing in the Sabbath school lesson and instead opted for a different study guide were criticized. To this group of legalists absolute conformity to the traditional standards of the church as they understand them is the only way to be faithful to God. Any departure from these practices is viewed as a move toward deception. While this group would wholeheartedly reject the concept of salvation by works their lifestyle shows that they are more concerned with living by the letter of the law than by the spirit of Christian love.  

3. Critical conversations about the church. This characteristic goes hand in hand with the above two. While the church is far from perfect and is in need of revival and reformation this group seems to place all of their emphasis on how "bad" the church is. They never have anything positive, helpful, or uplifting to say. An air of doom and gloom permeates their conversation. Often times, this group gets together after church to criticize the pastors sermon, the way the youth were dressed, and their concern for how the church is abandoning the "ways of the Lord." In an Adventist context it is common to hear a plethora of Ellen White quotes thrown around, all of which are intended to shed light on how terribly sinful the church is. This group often feels that they are the only ones who are right and everyone else whose Christianity does not look exactly like theirs is deceived. While they would never tell someone that they are saved by works their critical spirit of the faults and failures of others testifies to their demand that everyone be "perfect" as they are (or think to be).  As Tullian Tchividjian once said, "Legalism breeds a sense of entitlement that turns us into complainers."

4. Desire to restore the church to its "historic purity." This characteristic is one of nostalgia. Those of this persuasion constantly bemoan how the church has abandoned its historic purity and they long for the "good ol' days" of Adventism when the standards were upheld with an iron rod. They are often tense - unable to lighten up and have a good time, and very rigid. What this group fails to see is that the "good ol' days" of denominational purity are a myth. Christianity has been divided from its infancy and the early Adventists were no exception. It is not historic Adventism we should strive for but biblical Adventism. This group also fails to see that our departure from rigid Christianity is actually an improvement to be celebrated not a decline to be regretted. While this group might never flat out say that we are saved by works their strong desire for a return to the old-school rigidity of the past shows otherwise. 

5. All ministers and denominational leaders are deceived. This characteristic is closely linked with characteristic number 2 and is often expressed by those who feel that their version of Adventism and Christianity is the only right one. If the pastor quotes an author they don't like he is deceived. If the pastor preaches a sermon they don't like he is deceived. If the youth sing a song they don't like they are deceived. In short, everyone is deceived except for them. This group is also characterized by their heavy distrust of denominational leadership. Many times, this group becomes associated with independent ministries that criticize and condemn the church and its leaders. At times, they even promote separation from the main body of believers. While this group may not fall under the traditional definition of legalism their intolerant rigidity shows them to have the fruit of the flesh (jealousy, dissensions, strife) instead of the spirit (love, joy, peace).

6. I wish ministers would stop talking about grace so much! Closely related to characteristics 1 and 2, this characteristic is anti-gospel. While it is possible to preach cheap grace, this group often dislikes even a balanced preaching of the gospel. They want the law, the standards, and what the Pope is up to. They want conspiracy theories and sermons that expose the hidden heresies of some "new" theory floating around. In short, this group finds Jesus boring. A sermon on grace does not invoke thankfulness and praise from them. However, preach a good old sermon about the mark of the beast complete with conspiracy theories, elitist sentimentality's, sensational predictions, gloomy scriptural interpretations, and a bit of cleverly disguised hate speech against "other churches" and you will make them happy. While they may never say the words "we are saved by works" their infatuation with obedience and law shows a lack of balance. 

7. People who do x and y cannot possibly have a relationship with Jesus. Judgmentalism and measuring another persons walk with Christ based on their behavior is a classic characteristic of legalism. While it is true that a persons behavior reveals their character this concept can only aid us in cases in which moral boundaries have been crossed. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to worry about someones spiritual life if they are committing adultery. However, this is not the case with someone who drinks coffee. While you as an Adventist may be fully convinced that coffee is a drug and therefore should not be consumed this does not mean that everyone who does so has a poor relationship with God. A friend who used to be very legalistic told me there was a time when he would have judged me because I wear a wedding band. He now recognizes that people have different convictions and he honors those convictions. "Salvation doesn't have to be my way" is the way he summarized it. Those who fall under this category would never say that we are saved by works but they feel the need to hold everyone around them under their personal convictions as though their salvation depended on it.

Further Reading:

"Jesus is more than an intriguing cultural icon, more than a fascinating story, more than a worldview, and more than another religious guru among the myriads. Jesus is truth, and although the culture mocks the declaration, those who know it cannot help but predicate it. Jesus is real. He can be experienced. He can be known."

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