Lurking legalism and liberalism

Even pastors are vulnerable to both extremes.

Martin Weber is an associate editor of Ministry.

Two of Christianity' s most persistent and perplexing problems are legalism and liberalism. Pastors must deal with them daily in solving church controversies, in counseling confused members, in evangelism, and even in their own spiritual struggles. Maximizing one's ministry and personal faith requires insight into the legalism and liberalism that lurk everywhere.

Liberalism is religion that maximizes love and minimizes law; legalism majors in law and tends to minor in love. By not realizing how the living God's love involves keeping His commandments—and vice versa—both liberals and legalists have a superficial concept of religion. Both groups are skating on thin ice, yet they are true Christians if their faith, though shallow, is sincere. The blood of Christ covers honest ignorance—but not willful blindness (see Acts 17:30; John 9:41).

Intense religiosity isn't necessarily sincerity. The clergy who crucified Christ retained zeal while succumbing to hypocrisy. Spiritual fervor can be a smoke screen for secret sin and also an attempt to atone for bad habits with good works. Only God knows when legalists and liberals go so far as to forfeit what feeble faith they might have. The church at Galatia crossed that line into damnation, having turned away from "the grace of Christ, to a different gospel" (Gal. 1:6).* In abandoning their faith to legalism, they were taking the high road to hell: "You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace" (Gal. 5:4). Zeal is no substitute for faith. When ignorance becomes willful unbelief, people lose their salvation.

Lukewarm legalism and liberalism

Many legalists and liberals have a superficial spiritual commitment that accompanies their superficial concept of God's law and grace. Jesus said of them: "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me" (Matt. 15:8). Lukewarm legalists and liberals are more religious than they are secular, yet their worship is more an exercise than an experience. They claim Jesus as Saviour while not knowing how much they need His salvation. They sing about a closer walk with Christ when, more than that, they should be clinging to Him for their very lives.

Lukewarm liberalism is not outright worldliness, but a subtle yet serious undermining of behavioral principles to which faith must remain faithful. Luke warm legalism even more deceptively compromises Christianity, because it vigorously promotes God's law while shunning fanatical extremes—yet it neglects the caring and compassion that are the essence of true commandment keeping.

Lukewarm legalists and liberals don't have the commitment to join the self-denying ministries that represent their respective beliefs; they would rather sit back and send donations (tax-deductible, of course). Lukewarm liberals talk about following Christ's loving example like Mother Teresa, but they would rather applaud her than go and do likewise. Lukewarm legalists also speak much about following Christ's example, in terms of fulfilling the law's requirements as He did. But they fail to devote themselves entirely to the high standards they champion.

Legalism and liberalism in us all

All of us are vulnerable to both legalism and liberalism; in fact, to some extent both legalism and liberalism afflict every human being, saved or unsaved. Depending upon one's personality, environment, and attitude, there may be a predisposition that puts either legalism or liberalism on center stage—yet the other is also there, hiding behind the curtains.

Even straitlaced legalists experience wild fantasies that they dare not indulge or even acknowledge. And on the other hand, reprobates despite their sinful lifestyle have invisible, unfulfilled yearnings for legalism. Their conscience may be rusted and warped, but it still works. When particularly troubled by conviction, they sin with a frenzy, seeking to silence God's still small voice. In their sober moments they make sporadic resolutions to overcome addictive or abusive habits, hoping to work their way back to the Father's house from the playpens and pigpens of their far-off land. But they are deterred by the steep stairway to God they think they would have to climb.

Many fear they could never be for given, or if they got past that hurdle they could never walk across the tightrope of divine expectations for daily living. Thus hopeless, they remain helplessly trapped by the latent legalism that often smolders underneath the surface of sinfulness.

Liberalism and legalism may both be active, often in binge/purge behavior. Guilt from an ice-cream feast might launch a week of atonement fruit fast. Extremes of both liberalism and legalism sometimes get entangled in an in congruous mess. One fundamentalist whose family I counseled assigned his wife daily readings in health and dress testimonies, forcing her to adopt rigid and outmoded standards. Meanwhile he enjoyed the charms of well-adorned girl friends and regularly raped his daughter.

Most church members wouldn't descend to such degradation, but all of us suffer cravings for both legalism and liberalism. Without the moment-by-moment intervention of the Holy Spirit, unenlightened conscience pulls us to ward legalism, and unrestrained flesh pulls us toward liberalism. We may train ourselves not to heed these cravings or to suppress one kind beneath the other, but the fact remains that both legalism and liberalism in varying proportions attract each of us. Despite disagreements about theology and differences in lifestyle, we have much more in common with fellow believers and lost sinners than we realize or might want to admit.

Unaware of their shared weaknesses, proponents of legalism and liberalism view the errors of the opposing camp and thank God they don't participate. Their continual contention is fueled by extremism on both sides. For example, some liberals in the name of love repudiate doctrine. Sabbath rest becomes just a vacation from the office and class room. To many of them, hell and the judgment are outmoded myths. Their social gospel marches in step with secular humanism. In contrast, some legalists are so zealous for doctrine that they are devoid of God's love. They live in the desert at Mount Sinai. Their lives are like the burning bush, but with the flame of God's blessing gone out. Not satisfied sin's dead leaves are burned off, they also break off life's innocent branches. Finally they become an unadorned stump of stern spirituality.

Christ-centered legalists and liberals

We must not condemn extremist legalists and liberals; many are tragically sincere. They may even devoutly follow Jesus as their example. Christ-centered legalists pursue a relationship with Him mostly for the sake of strength to fulfill the law as He did so they can be saved. Trusting in their own attainments rather than in Christ's accomplishments on their behalf, they unwittingly compete with His substitutionary merits. It matters not whether they depend on their own strength or on Christ's; the fact is they are trying to become good enough to go to heaven. This is legalism, Christ-centered legalism. Its victims want to love Jesus with all their hearts, but they worry more about their own love for Him than they rejoice in His love for them.

Christ-centered liberals also seek a relationship with Jesus, more for His comfort and companionship than for strength to obey His requirements. They feel uneasy about the commandments, seeing them as a set of strictures generating guilt and legalism. Declaring that relationships are more important than rules, Christian liberals devote them selves to following Christ's example by relieving suffering. Their misguided compassion on moral matters such as homosexuality and abortion is based more upon human reasoning than upon Bible principles. Many regard misconduct as moral sickness and an expression of low self-esteem rather than as sin. They see humanity as inherently good but deprived of love. Their solution is the popular gospel of affirmation and self-worth that denies or downplays the Bible doctrine of human depravity and regards Christ more as an understanding friend than as a Saviour from the condemnation of the law—when He is both.

The solution is the same

Solving the shortcomings of liberal ism begins with gaining respect for God' s law. Humanistic morality is insufficient; "there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Prov.16:25). Lest we drift away from God on the shifting tides of relativism, we need the anchor of His absolutes. Genuine love does not deny or downplay the law, but fulfills it (see Rom. 13:10). Christian liberals need the Ten Commandments to teach them truth. Prodigal liberals also need deeper insight into the law to convince them that keeping all their New Year's resolutions isn't enough to make them good people. God is absolutely holy, and none can ever become righteous enough to deserve acceptance; the only hope of relieving sin's debt is the gift of God's grace in Christ.

Perhaps surprisingly, the solution for legalists is also a deeper understanding of God's law. They would hunger and thirst for Christ's righteousness—His alone—if they fathomed the hopelessness and sinfulness of their own supposed goodness. Before they can truly appreciate the Saviour, they must comprehend what He is saving them from. For that they need the convicting testimony of God's law.

Any time the law is mentioned, though, those who tend toward liberal ism will raise the charge of legalism.Actually, those who rightly regard God' s law can never live as legalists, hoping to be saved through success in keeping the commandments. Honoring the high demands of the holy law produces what the Bible calls "the fear of God," which involves respect for His righteousness. Convinced that we cannot do business with Almighty Yahweh on the basis of our merit, we crave His mercy. Fleeing Mount Sinai, we find refuge at Calvary, crying "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Thus saved from the curse of condemnation, our gratitude for life-giving grace unites us to the Saviour. We become grace-oriented instead of law-oriented.

We also cease being sin-centered, since faith in Christ requires that we shun the world' s counterfeit fulfillments. Ancient Lot learned this the hard way after pitching his tent toward Sodom. Today's environment is even more treacherous; even the airwaves around us have sodomized with televised temptation. Many liberals let the devil ravage them with his allurements. They need to repent of this spiritual fornication, but they don't welcome warnings about breaking God's law. They want a pastor who affirms them in loving themselves rather than one who guides them in loving God and losing themselves for Christ's sake. Without old-fashioned repentance for sin, however, confidence in God's mercy amounts to presumption. Mere infatuation with God's forgiveness is not faith. Happy songs of praise and even fervent prayers can be an exercise in damnation: "One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination" (Prov. 28:9).

Politically correct camels

Legalists rightly condemn such liberalism, affirming the importance of a life in harmony with the law. While speaking up for moral standards, how ever, they are seriously deficient in their own spirituality. They magnify obedience while minimizing the principle of unselfish love that undergirds the law. Jesus had this in mind when He warned about straining out gnats while swallowing camels. We must not focus more on what people believe about eating than whether they actually have food to eat. We cannot stress the doctrine of dress reform more zealously than we clothe the poor. Liberals want to dismiss health and dress standards altogether, while legalists base their religion upon such rules and regulations. We need a balance. There is a time and place for instruction on lifestyle standards, but first things first. Isn't relieving poverty and suffering with the love of Christ even more basic in fulfilling the law?

One pastor told me about an elder who condemned a young member for being a liberal because she wore a fancy wedding ring, but the elder himself wore a Rolex watch and jeweled cuff-links. He accused her of adorning herself, oblivious that his own jewelry, although politically correct on earth, might be condemned in heaven. Could exquisite hand-tailored suits also qualify as adornment? And what about adornment on wheels ... or that living room adorned with antiques? Was his selective conservatism an attempt to compensate for his darling indulgences?

Such victims of legalism major in minors but have "neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness" (Matt. 23:23, NIV). They try to get the specks of dust out of the liberals' eyes while neglecting the beams of their own blindness. They speak of "raising the standards," not knowing that Sinai's righteous standard is much higher than their own comprehension. To God, "the inhumanity of man toward man is our greatest sin," 1 while heaven-born love fulfills the law.

The irony of such legalism any kind of legalism, lukewarm or otherwise is that its own standard is too low. It cannot adequately measure and quantify the absolute holiness required by God's commandments. In reality, the law condemns not just obvious sins of commission such as killing, stealing, and fornicating, but also sins of omission. Neglecting to bear one another's burdens violates the law of Christ. Withholding an encouraging word of witness is a sin. Any failure to show the total love of Christ in every situation is sinful behavior. Thus by God's standard all of us are sinners, unworthy servants. We all fall short of accurately reflecting Christ's character of caring. Our only hope is to come to the cross and lay hold upon His mercy.

Assurance of salvation

Having forsaken what the world offers for what God offers us at Calvary, we may rejoice in His salvation. Luke warm liberals overlook the importance of repentance before claiming assurance in Christ. They refer to the welcoming arms of the prodigal's father, forgetting that the repentant son came home empty-handed. He wasn't bringing back the wine bottles of his former lifestyle.

When listening to lukewarm liberals, one pictures Saint Peter at heaven's gate happily handing out lollipops to every one alike, no matter how each one lived. Going to the other extreme, legalists would portray the mythical gatekeeper with his arms crossed, wearing a suspicious scowl, grimly disqualifying any poor soul who had recently indulged in a chocolate bar.

Many legalists consider any assurance of salvation as something of a questionable amusement. Others have fallen prey to a cruel and deceptive counterfeit: "Sure, you can have the assurance of salvation! Just pray for the Holy Spirit's power to overcome all sin, and then based on your victorious experience, you can know you are saved." That sounds simple enough, except that all of us are sinners. So who can have any assurance? We had better find a better basis than our own perfection.

"Wait a minute," someone objects. "Are you limiting the power of God to overcome sin in your life?"

No, there isn't any deficiency on God's part in helping us overcome sin. We have, however, a limit on our ability to appropriate His power. Before over coming a sin, we must become convicted of it; we must know a specific action is wrong before we stop doing it. Agreed? Now here's the problem: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" (Jer. 17:9). Our sinfulness is so pervasive that we can't even know it all, so how can we possibly overcome it all?

"Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God's ideal for His children" and lower than the lowest human thought can reach is the depth of our depravity. While there is no limit to God's power over sin, our self-knowledge is finite: now we know in part. So not until we have holy flesh will we be able to live totally sinless lives. That will happen when Christ comes and makes our vile bodies like His glorious, sinless body (see Phil. 3:21). Not till mortal puts on immortality will corruptible put on incorruption (see 1 Cor. 15:52, 53). And so we must content ourselves to live with the mercy of God as our assurance of salvation. But if we reject His grace in order to live by the law, we will also die by the law.

To have any assurance of salvation, legalists are forced to join liberals in compromising God's commandments. They accommodate the law to their capacity to comprehend sin and overcome it. Let us commend them for lamenting worldliness and immorality, but isn't it also immoral to be intolerant, insensitive, unloving, racially prejudiced, or greedy? Why don't they protest these fundamental sins more vigorously?

Without appreciating our need for God's mercy we have no basis of assurance, little mercy of our own for fellow sinners, and nothing to show a lost world. Jesus said: "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). So the true uniqueness of God' s remnant people is shown in love for one another. And what about holding fast sound doctrine? Yes, but only in a spirit of love. This has to be our witness to the world. Without such love overflowing from our hearts, we need repentance from sin in its deep est sense.

Since liberals enjoy assurance, mistaken though it is, their worship is emancipated from anxiety about the Almighty. Sometimes their services are sophisticated and sometimes boisterous. Legalists, by contrast, have an aura of counterfeit reverence that may reflect spiritual apprehension. They are solemn and subdued. Everything is decent and in order—as it should be—yet there is no heartbeat in their worship. But watch them come alive Sunday afternoon during the football game. See them clap ping and celebrating. Does their refusal to rejoice in heavenly things while they adore the things of this world say any thing about their spirituality?

Not that it's necessarily wrong to watch a football game, nor is celebration the only proper worship format. The point is that whatever our style, we must worship God in spirit as well as in truth, with our hearts and souls as well as with our minds. If we are incapable of spiritual emotion but full of enthusiasm as sports-aholics, perhaps our faith is fundamentally flawed.

God alone can judge. And He will. A holy God must ultimately punish sin in even the least of its manifestations. So let us hide ourselves in Christ. Only through the Lord's mercies are we not consumed; thus we must cease making sinlessness our hope of salvation. What ever good is in our lives is never good enough to make us worthy.

When we learn to respect the height and depth of God's law, we will become ashamed of our own works and glorify the works of Jesus Christ. We will cease being enamored with all we are doing for Him and feel our utter need of what He offers us. We will consistently and exclusively present the truth as it is in Jesus. Then the Sabbath will no longer be a 24-hour tightrope on which to per form our holy acts; we will honor it as the memorial of Christ's accomplishments. Heaven's sanctuary will no longer be a furniture showroom of denominational antiquities; when we think of Christ's final phase of priestly ministry, as symbolized by the Second Apartment, we will focus on the mercy seat, the throne of grace. For a long time God has been waiting there to meet with us. As we make ourselves at home in His merits, Christ's coming will no longer be the cursed threat of those who lack assurance of salvation; it will indeed become our blessed hope.

The final generation

From the tragedy of the Titanic we get a symbol of the saints who survive the shipwreck of legalism and liberalism in the last days. Imperiled passengers no longer segregated themselves into first class, second class, and steerage. They crowded together on the sloping decks, praying and singing as they waited for the lifeboats. Likewise, when our human institutions and organizations collide with the icebergs of earth's final crisis, we will not mind mingling with one another while waiting for Jesus, our lifeboat. No longer will we segregate ourselves along racial, cultural, or economic lines. Huddled together under the shelter of His wings, we will sing "Nearer, My God, to Thee." And we will mean it.

Perhaps what many of us need most right now is to get jolted by some lightning and thunder from Mount Sinai. That would wake us up from both liberalism and legalism. Then we will be able to hear that still small voice from Cal vary: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34). Drawn by that tender love to make an uncompromised commitment, we will welcome lifestyle standards—but we will also acknowledge that vegetarian virtues are not kosher enough to qualify us for the kingdom. Realizing that we have been forgiven much, we will love much. Filled with hope, joy, and peace through believing in Jesus, we will have the Holy Spirit's power in our lives (see Rom. 15:13). With the faith of Jesus in our hearts, we will finally be keeping the commandments of God. No longer will we be satisfied offering merely the turtle doves of tithe. Restored to the joy of His salvation, we will offer bullocks of personal sacrifice. That's what it will take to finish the work of God. Nothing less will do.

*Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts
are from The New King James Version.

1 Ellen G. White, Ministry of Healing (Moun
tain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905),
p. 163.

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Martin Weber is an associate editor of Ministry.

May 1993

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