Legalism and the Insecurity of Our Times
Legalism is an ugly thing to those outside it, but often a beautiful thing to those within it. Legalism is any system whereby the merits of man contribute in any way to his standing with God. For those who have been delivered from the works-righteousness mentality, legalism is bondage, an oppressive system that distorts the grace of God and often turns out neurotic believers who wear themselves out trying to keep up. But to those within legalistic systems, legalism is a refuge from the insecurities of life and the uncertainties of our world.
This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to talk someone out of a legalistic church. There is so much “certainty” and comfort in knowing exactly what one must do to remain in “right with God.” Legalism requires so little faith, because every aspect of life is defined and mandated. In contrast, the concept of grace and Christian liberty is a scary wilderness of uncertainty. Better to stay in the fortress (or prison).
This is not a new phenomenon. At the end of the Middle Ages, the predominant concern of Europeans was the fear of death. After years of bad weather and widespread famine in the 14th century culminating in the Black Death, life in the 15th century was bleak. As Carter Lindberg notes, “The shortness of life was never far from people’s minds” (The European Reformations, Blackwell, 1996). This situation fueled an obsession with concern for the afterlife. Enter the Catholic Church.
Since hell was not the preferred option, the church and its theologians developed a whole set of practices and exercises to assist people to avoid it. The irony was that in attempting to provide security in an insecure world, the church largely mirrored the new urban and economic developments that exacerbated human insecurity. Suspended between hope and fear, the individual had to achieve his or her goal through a whole system of quid pro quo services that reflected the new ledger mentality of the urban burgher absorbed in the developing profit economy. Taken as a whole, Christendom at the end of the Middle Ages appeared as performance-oriented as the new business enterprises of the day. (p. 60)
Pastoral care, while intending to provide security, succeeded only in adding to the insecurity of the individual before God. The reigning paradigm of the Christian life was the phrase facere quod in se est: do what lies within you; do your very best.
In religion as in early capitalism, contracted work merited reward. Individuals were responsible for their own life, society, and world on the basis of and within the limits stipulated by God…This theology, however, enhanced the crisis because it threw people back upon their own resources. That is, no matter how grace-assisted their good works, the burden of proof for those works fell back upon the performers, the more sensitive of whom began asking how they could know if they had done their best. (p. 60)
For anyone who has ever lived in a legalistic system, this sounds all too familiar. The Fundamentalist variety of today would never deny that salvation is all by grace, but the not so subtle message is that to be “right with God” requires the keeping of the rules. This division between “salvation by grace” and “standing by works” is a theological aberration that has at least two results. The first is that people live in a perpetual state of insecurity regarding their standing with God. This reflects a complete misunderstanding of the nature of justification, whereby we are declared to be in a righteous standing with God, based on the perfect righteousness of Christ. Legalism, in effect, makes the believer’s standing with God dependent on his own works. This creates either self-righteous pride in those who give themselves good marks, or abject despair in those sensitive souls who see their failures more clearly.
The other result of legalism is the emergence of strategies for dealing with the psychoses that arise from this impossible situation.
The second half of this essay will recount the emergence of relics and indulgences in the Middle Ages, and the concomitant strategies of legalists today to cope with such a system.
Relics, indulgences and modern legalism
What happens to people who feel that they must earn their standing with God? They seek help in a number of ways. One common strategy is to erect new standards of righteousness that are at least theoretically attainable. By setting up external markers, those who believe they must perform certain works or maintain certain standards not required by Scripture find a measure of security in this “attainable righteousness.” Keeping a list of rules becomes familiar quickly, even though the rules are difficult to maintain.
Another strategy to which people resort is more extreme, but it follows naturally from the first. At the beginning of the Reformation, the strategy of veneration of relics became the preferred method of improving one’s standing with God. Luther’s protector, Prince Frederick the Wise had assembled one of the most impressive relic collections in Europe—over 19,000 pieces. Frederick’s collection included a (supposed) piece of the burning bush, soot from the fiery furnace, milk from Mary, and a piece of Jesus’ crib. Touching or viewing the relics allegedly brought one closer to God, conveyed grace, and shortened one’s time in purgatory. In addition, saints were made patrons for every human demand. How could people sink to such depths of superstition and error? Historian Carter Lindberg offers one explanation:
Insecure about salvation, people attempted to guarantee it by capturing mediators between themselves and God. Why did people throw themselves into such a piety of achievement? Why was the treadmill of religious performance thought to be the path to security and certainty of salvation? Perhaps because in times of crisis people tend to yearn for the “good old days,” and try harder to emulate what they think they were. Hidden behind the late medieval surge in piety there was an oppressive uncertainty about salvation together with the longing for it. (The European Reformations, Blackwell, 1996, 61)
Now, I am not suggesting that all legalists have gone to the same lengths that people did in the late medieval period. But some certainly have. Relics of a sort appear when a particular college is the only school that a church will recommend. When this happens, a subtle message is sent that a good standing with God can only be obtained by graduating from that college. Another relic of modern fundamentalism is the veneration of certain men for the position they hold, whether it be a college president, the pastor of a big church or ministry, or the author of a book. Somehow these highly visible personalities are viewed as existing on a higher plane.
I have watched the fawning over some of these men, and I wonder how this is any different from the medieval veneration of saints. A rather extreme example is the overt promotion of relics at the pastors conferences at First Baptist in Hammond, IN under Jack Hyles in the 1990’s. Prizes were awarded to those who brought the most attendees, including John R. Rice’s car, Jack Hyles’ ring, and other strange items attached to Fundamentalist saints (for the record, I think Rice would have turned over in his grave at the post-mortem veneration accorded him by many Fundamentalists).
So, from where does all this legalism spring? My contention is that it is partially fueled by the insecurity of the times. As people feel more anxious about the uncertainty of life, they naturally turn to anything that might provide security. For religious people of all kinds, acts of self-righteousness and veneration of relics of some sort seem to be common responses. Christians can fall into these practices too, if they do not have a strong grasp of sound doctrine, especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Without a settled assurance based on the imputed righteousness of Christ, even true Christians will begin to seek other means of security. This, in turn, fuels greater insecurity as the very extra-biblical standards they set up become unattainable to the average Christian.
Legalism is a vicious cycle, a constant treadmill that always increases in speed. The only solution is to jump off the treadmill onto the firm ground of grace. With the increasing uncertainty of our world, we should expect to see more similarities between our day and the spectacle of the late medieval times. May God give us a new reformation of love for sound doctrine that will ground us in the truth and guard our hearts and minds!
Mark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two daughters and a son, all teenagers. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) after seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an MDiv from Calvary and a ThM in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He has also studied ancient manuscripts at Harvard Divinity School and philosophy at Villanova University. He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics. These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or its faculty and administration.