Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Legalism versus Obedience

As my small group concludes Crazy Love, I’m struck by the opposition this book gets. The most common theme I’ve seen is that it swings too far from the “Prosperity Gospel” towards a “Poverty Gospel” (watch the interview of Francis Chan by Mark Driscoll and Joshua Harris to see this debate in action) and for some this translates into a “salvation by works” doctrine.

Of course that ruffles the feathers of many. “Saved by grace through faith alone” I believe is a security blanket held on to so tightly than anything approaching a “hedge” such as raising standards or expectations is avoided out of fear of legalism. But what is legalism anyway? Is it works? Why does Hebrews say we should encourage one another? (Good deeds) What are we saved for? (The works God has prepared for us) What is faith if absent of works? (dead as a doornail) So the fruits of the Spirit, evidenced by works isn’t legalism, it isn’t a poverty gospel, it isn’t preaching sanctification through personal sacrifice. At the same time, we’re reminded that such acts if unaccompanied by love are worthless.

In this book, and in his life to be perfectly honest (and I think this is why his views upset the status quo), Francis Chan simply puts his money where his faith is. And he’s not alone. Nor is he alone receiving such criticism.

David Platt just released the anticipated sequel to his bestseller, Radical, called Radical Together. I like the approach- the first book challenges what you are doing on faith personally, and he follows up with mobilizing churches to do the same. But he has to devote an entire chapter (short as it is) to deflect the criticism he received in the first installment.

And the criticism is coming from surprising corners of evangelical celebrity. Jared Wilson, author of Your Jesus is Too Safe (doesn’t that sound legalistic?), raises the above issues and cites similar concerns from Skye Jethani, author of The Divine Commodity and Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk. Now I’m not familiar with all of their writings, and I don’t know them personally, but just based on their public persona and the titles of their books/blogs, you’d think they’d be lockstep behind Chan and Platt. Like I said before comparing Crazy Love to Mere Churchianity, we all see the same problem and are moved to do something about it.

This debate exposes the tension between Justification as taught by Paul, and the Kingdom as taught by Jesus. For more on this, check out this article in Christianity Today. The conclusion is not to start with either Justification or Kingdom, but rather the Gospel of Jesus himself. I couldn’t agree more. After all, Paul instructed us to “follow [his] example as [he] follows the example of Christ” and that our “attitudes should be the same as Christ Jesus”, that Christ is the “chief cornerstone” on which we build our own personal convictions, and to “live as Christ and to die is gain”. (1 Corinthians 1:11, Philippians 2:5, Ephesians 2:19-22, Philippians 1:21)

So now the question becomes, is expecting a Christian (recall the definition has nothing to do with belief, but rather imitation) to live a Christ-like life legalistic? Through the lens of “saved by grace” it would appear so:
  • In the parable of the four soils, three seeds sprout yet only one is saved. How can we tell the difference? By the one baring fruit.
  • In the parable of the talents (or bags of gold in the new NIV, blech) the only servant condemned is the one who does nothing. Even the one who does a little is rewarded. Also the reward is proportional to the service.
  • At the same time, in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, all are rewarded the same regardless of how much work is done. Yet there is still a connection between work and reward.
  • In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus couldn’t make it clearer when he delineates “that which you do for the least of these…” (In fact one of the Crazy Love study guides I found online tried to explain away this passage as only applying to service towards believers at the tribulation)
  • And I want to remind us of the rich young ruler. He was holding on to something that would keep him from entering into the Kingdom. We all have something we’re holding on to. It doesn’t necessarily have to be money or possessions. Yet just like the wealthy, it is impossible to give it up. “But with God, all things are possible”

Going back to the definition of love from 1 Corinthians 13, legalism versus justification or works versus grace can be resolved simply by establishing the motivation. Obeying Jesus out of fear, guilt, obligation, pressure or people-pleasing is legalism. But obeying Jesus out of love is not.

Love. I think that shows up in Chan’s book somewhere.

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