Thursday, July 28, 2011

What It Is

My previous two posts discuss legalism in the first century, both among the Pharisees and as a threat to the early church. I pointed out that it manifested itself in two forms: as an attempt to establish a works-based meritoriously achieved righteousness, and as a system of extrabiblical man-made rules and regulations which are used in addition to, in place of, or even in some cases, in contradiction to scriptural commands.

It may be helpful here to clarify what legalism is not. It is popular in some circles to respond to every exhortation to obey scriptural commandments with the misplaced accusation of legalism (sometimes the term "Pharisee" is even used). But legalism is not obedience to biblical standards of conduct. It is not moral behavior or holy living. These are requirements on the Christian, not as a means of earning salvation, but as a servant-heart response to the lorship of Christ. A new creation is expected to live like a new creation and a repentant sinner should behave like they are repentant. Obedience to God is not legalism and Christ said "If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments."

Freedom from legalism is not an excuse to sin, as Paul makes emphatic and unambiguous:

"What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!" --Romans 6:15 (NASB)

The New Testament is filled with exhortations for obedience to God's commandments, thus it is not legalistic to enourage others to obey these commandments. So Paul tells the Galatians "For ye, brethren, were called for freedom; only use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another (Gal. 5: 13)." The apostle James exhorts, "but be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves (James 1:22)." The apostle Peter commands, "But like as he who called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy in all manner of living (1 Peter 1: 16)." John says "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous (1 John 5: 3)." The writer of the letter to the Hebrews instructs, "Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb 13: 21)."

In fact, chapters 6-8 of the book of Romans make clear that it is precisely because believers are free from the law of sin and of death that we are also free to obey God. While the Christian will not achieve perfect obedience until meeting Christ and being made perfect, there should still be a pattern of sanctification, maturing, and growing obedience in the life of the Christian. There should be a desire to obey and an increasing fruit of obedience.

And that is not legalism.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Legalism Part II

In my previous post I discuss an article by Timothy Gombis in Christianity Today titled "The Paul We Think We Know". Specifically, I address Gombis' New Perspectives notion that Paul would not have considered Judaism legalistic and that the early church was not tempted toward legalistic works--based righteousness. In that post I covered some examples from Luke's and Matthew's gospels showing the grip legalism had on the Pharisees, who in turn were regarded as experts and teachers (John 3: 10) of the people of Israel.

In this post I want to discuss examples of the first-century church's struggle against legalism. While Paul's letter to the Galatians provides one prominent indication of this struggle, his letter to the Colossians is also instructive in this area. It highlights the syncretized nature of the legalistic attack on that particular church which came not only from a background of pharisaical law, but also mystical pre-gnostic ideas and attempts to achieve righteousness through a rigid asceticism. Paul deals with all these legalistic forms in his letter to the church there.

So he warns, "Let no man judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day, or a new moon, or a sabbath day (2: 16)." Then, "If ye died with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, do ye subject yourselves to ordinances, handle not, nor taste, nor touch...(2: 20,21)" He describes these things in verse 23 as having only a show, or appearance of wisdom and religiosity. Earlier in verse 8 he commanded the believers to "see to it" that they not be taken captive according to human tradition, human wisdom, and worldly tenets. It shows a concern on the apostle's part that there was danger and he wanted them on guard against legalistic tendencies.

It is interesting to note that at the end of the letter Paul sends greetings from Luke, who was obviously with him at the time. The emphasis in Luke's gospel on Christ's adamant rebuke of the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees shows that Paul's perspective was shaped by Christ.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Luke's Law Review

We have misconceptions. So states Timothy Gombis in his article in Christianity Today titled " The Paul We Think We Know". Basically, Gombis claims that Paul didn't stop being Jewish (agreed), first-century Judaism was not legalistic (disagree), the early church did not have a problem with legalism (disagree), and Paul was more into the salvation community while we tend to focus on individuals (false dichotomy--it's both/and). He also says Paul was not physically imposing (agree--but I don't think many have the misconception that he was), and that Paul was not particularly eloquent (disagree--he was not a smooth talker, but was very eloquent).

In this post I want to deal some with the legalism issue. Gombis presents his own nuance of the "New Perspective" view that Paul did not come from a legalistic background when he was introduced to Christianity. He asserts that "Paul would not have regarded Judaism as legalistic." Gombis also insists that "The problem in the early church , therefore, was not the temptation toward legalistic works righteousness."

Legalism comes in two forms, and both were prevalent in first--century Judaism and also a challenge for the early church. One form of legalistic thought is the false belief that salvation can be earned or that humans can be justified by their own works. The other type of legalistic teaching adds extra-biblical rules and regulations as behavorial requirements, in some cases even as exceptions or replacements to scriptural commands.

Paul himself in Philippians 3: 5 describes his former life in terms of his legalistic proclivity identifying himself "as touching the law, a Pharisee;" and " touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless." He is speaking here of an earthly "righteousness" and a blamelessness from the world's viewpoint, not God's. To see the formidable obstruction that legalism presented in the Jewish community, particularly within the sect of the Pharisees, one need only go to the insights recorded in the gospel of Luke, who was Paul's traveling companion and fellow-servant of the word of truth. At the beginning of chapter 6 he decribes a dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus over what is lawful on the Sabbath. They assert that the disciples aren't allowed to eat grain from the stalks while walking through the fields on the Sabbath; Jesus reminds them He is Lord of the Sabbath and He's okay with it. Later on, He healed a man's hand on the Sabbath knowing full well the Pharisees were watching because they wanted to claim he had violated the law.

In chapter 11 of Luke's gospel we see Jesus correcting the Pharisees over whether a ceremonial washing of dishes is required before a meal, and in verse 46 he accuses them of weighing men down with "burdens grievous to be borne" while not lifting a finger to help with the burden. In Luke 16: 15 Jesus tells the Pharisees, "Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God."

In Luke 18: 9-14 Jesus tells the famous parable of the Pharisee and the publican, for the express purpose, Luke says, of addressing those "who trusted in themselves, that they are righteous, and set all others at nought." The Pharisee in the parable relates how he is not a sinner, ticks off a list of sins he says he's not guilty of, points out how often he fasts and how completely he tithes, while the publican simply and humbly begs for mercy. The conclusion is the publican "went down to his house justified rather than the other..." having found the justification that comes by grace.

In Matthews's gospel, in the first nine verses of chapter 23 Jesus chastises the Pharisees for altering God's commandments with their own legalistic system, "teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men". And in the first 34 verses of Matthew 23 Jesus makes a comprehensive indictment of the legalism and hypocricy of the Pharisees, saying they "strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel."

The gospels demonstrate that the legalism of the Pharisees was a definite burden upon those under their influence and Jesus repeatedly rebuked them for it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Now You Tell Me

Campus Crusade for Christ is changing its name to Cru--or is it cru? The organization has its reasons. And in a list of frequently asked questions it seeks to provide an explanation for the change through its answers to these questions.

Some answers appear more direct and explanatory than others. For example, question #6 asks, "What does Vonette Bright (wife of the late Bill Bright, with whom she founded the organization in 1951) think about the new name?" We get a sort of non-answer for an answer. "...Vonette was involved throughout the process..." (that isn't the question) "...We sought her special counsel along the way..." (not asking if you sought her counsel or if you thought it was special...what does she think about the name change?) ..."She is excited about the outcome and the future of Cru." By "outcome" are you referring to the name change choice? Was "Cru" her choice? Did she vote in favor of it? Does she endorse the decision? Did she favor another choice over "Cru"?

Question #7 tries to explain why a brand consulting agency was hired. But question #10 is where the design emerges. It asks, Why did we take the name "Christ" out of our name? It is, in effect, a repeat of question #1, Why is Christ no longer in the name? But while the answer in question #1 is four paragraphs of that sort of non-answer thing, in question #10 the organization finally gets around to answering what is probably the primary question on everyone's mind.

And the answer is troubling. It begins with a repeat of the claim made in the answer to question #1 that they weren't trying to eliminate the word Christ from their name. But then they admit that, well, in fact, that is exactly what they were doing: "Cru enables us to have discussions about Christ with people who might initially be turned off by a more overtly Christian name."
Well, you probably couldn't get more overt than than the ministry's now former name, so if their objective was to turn on the ship's cloaking device they would seem to have succeeded.

Then again, maybe these sorts of shenanigans are why so many young people are choosing the YRR movement (see my previous post) over a more "seeker friendly", market--driven, and ultimately, watered-down approach.

It has been a long time since I was in high school, but I was heavily involved with Campus Crusade for Christ at the time. I received many blessings from that involvement. I once had the privilege of meeting Bill Bright. Although I was a believer, he did not take it for granted and made sure to confirm my relationship with Jesus Christ before our conversation concluded.

I wonder what he would think of the new name.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Check it Out if UR a YRR

John MacArthur posts the first in what looks to be an interesting series aimed at YRR ("young, restless Reformed") believers. While appreciating the trend in which many young people are choosing sound theology over postmodernism and emergent ambiguity, he exhorts these young Calvinists to keep reforming, press on toward maturity, and work on settling down that first "R" in the YRR designation a bit.