Recently Crossway’s blog published some of Sinclair Ferguson’s reflections on legalism.
A friend of mine passed on the link and here is some of the correspondence that followed.
Good morning, Brother,
Thank you for passing this link on to me. Three thoughts come to mind as I read that post.
1. All sins are related.
Haven’t we both heard people say that the ultimate sin that all sins root back to is… Pride (a preacher I once heard). Or Selfishness (a preacher I once heard). Or Autonomy (Frame). Or Idolatry (Keller). Because Jesus summarized the whole law as love God and love your neighbor, there is a valid tendency for us to systematize—which merely means combine some ideas and divide others—all the verses of the Bible. It’s a valid practice because our Lord did it, but also because our own hearts have experienced the web that produced our spiritual failures.
So, in that sense, I agree with Ferguson.
2. His choice of legalism was somewhat arbitrary.
The act of systematizing is a moral choice. There is a reason why this author and this blog at this time chose to combine those two ideas. He could have written a post (or chapter) from that same text (Gen. 3) critiquing antinomianism and evangelical scholarship.
“Eve didn’t want God’s law [antinomianism]. She rather chose to place her confidence in some other authority, just like many of the PhD’s at Wheaton College.”
Or, he could have chosen to aim at antinomianism and sinful entertainment from the account with Eve.
“Eve didn’t want God’s law [antinomianism] because she was so fascinated with personal satisfaction. Her eyes were bewitched, her senses were excited, and her hope for pleasure outgrew her humility.”
Or, he could have chosen to aim at antinomianism and egalitarianism.
“Eve didn’t want God’s law [antinomianism], which brought her necessarily outside the federal headship God had provided for her. Adam also bears blame because he should have been helping and guarding. But ultimately, Eve’s initiating leadership was the opposite of what God had made her to do and it was the natural fruit of her own rejection of God’s law.”
I’m not arguing for any of those presentations, although I think we could. Rather, I want it to be clear that the examples I just gave and that could easily be multiplied are in the same category as the two ideas Ferguson brought together and Crossway chose to highlight. That is, they and all the New Calvinists with them don’t like restrictions on their cultural pursuits. So, they chose to take a swing at legalism again—after all who wants to support something like that?—because they have moral reasons behind it. They feel very strongly about what they perceive to be behind that word. Notice that they at least tossed out a cursory definition of antinomianism (“opposition to and breach of the law”), but they don’t even need to define legalism because its “so obvious to everyone.”
They chose to put that term in the post because they wanted to make that point, not because they were neutrally bound by the text alone.
3. When evangelicals use the word “legalism,” I have good reason to suspect that they are hiding their antinomianism.
Precious few are the New Calvinists who will rebuke a leading scholar from Trinity for humorous remarks he made at a pastor’s conference about how he and all the other pastors present watched the movie Titanic. Where are the evangelicals who will rebuke the blatant worldliness of so many CCM artists? Though Kevin De Young wrote a book about holiness, The Gospel Coalition and WORLD magazine continue to write movie reviews because they know evangelicals consume those products. Wheaton College’s newspaper called a young boy a “missionary” to Hollywood because he was a model, and not surprisingly, he has since been seen in photos with nudity. Robert Webber at an evangelistic Bible study that my friend set up (and at which I was in attendance) waxed on and off about legalism while using the F-word.
These examples are only the beginning of my file full of evangelicals and their ongoing disregard for God’s law. So when they say legalism, I hear, “denying contemporary popular culture and entertainment.” Sadly, my experience has shown that is the one heresy with which no truly evangelical church will compromise. To the average evangelical “I hate legalism” means “Don’t touch my lifestyle.” If they really want to defend justification, they should try living holy lives.
Is that cynicism or just Biblical wisdom? If John the Baptist were alive, the blogs would be overflowing with posts about a professing, popular preacher who is cynical and ungracious and legalistic, yet Jesus praised him.
I would enjoy hearing your thoughts as well even if you disagree. I trust that you can see my conclusions rest on some level of evidence, so feel free to deal with that evidence if I have somehow missed something vital.
May God grant us both more of that holiness without which no man will see the Lord.