Now, About Those Differences, Part Five

NickOfTimeRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Legalism and Worldliness

Over the decades, fundamentalists and other evangelicals have played a kind of game. It is a contest of mutual recrimination. To fundamentalists, evangelicals have often said, “You are legalists.” Fundamentalists have generally replied, “You are worldly.” Both parties seem to find pleasure in this game, though neither has ever really won it.

Of course, most evangelicals are not conservative evangelicals. In common with other evangelicals, however, conservative evangelicals still tend to view fundamentalists as unnecessarily legalistic. For their part, many fundamentalists are not even willing to recognize a difference between conservative evangelicalism and other branches of non-fundamentalistic evangelicalism (usually classed under the broad label, “neo-evangelical”). These fundamentalists believe that any evangelical who is not a fundamentalist is a new evangelical and simply must be worldly.

An uninformed observer might wonder what all the fuss is about. One group observes some strictures that the other does not. Why worry about it?

The answer is that Christianity is more than a set of doctrines. Christianity is also a life lived for the love and to the glory of God. Just as some doctrinal affirmations or denials are not compatible with the gospel, so also some ways of living are not compatible with the gospel.

According to 1 Corinthians 5, certain patterns of conduct (if not repented of) should eventuate in a so-called brother being delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. When pursued by a professing Christian, these patterns of conduct are so reprehensible as to bring scandal upon the gospel. The apostle does not require disassociation from unsaved people who practice these patterns of conduct, but he demands that professing believers who engage in them be “put out from among you.”

Writing to Timothy, Paul specifies that if someone does not provide for the members of his own household, he has denied the faith. Paul actually states that such an individual is “worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8). Again, such conduct brings scandal upon the gospel. It constitutes a practical denial of the saving grace of Christ.

To God’s people, practice should matter as much as confession. Most Christians recognize this principle almost intuitively. They will not excuse an adulterous pastor simply because he is orthodox. One can deny the faith in deed as well as in word.

Scripture is quite clear that a “world” exists in opposition to God (Jn. 15:19). A believer must not love this world—not even the things in the world. Someone who loves the world betrays that he does not possess the love of the Father (1 Jn. 2:15).

These are reasons to take worldliness seriously. Worldliness is a threat precisely because it displaces the centrality of the gospel in the life of the believer. Worldly believers are more focused upon the satisfaction of self within the present order than they are upon the glory of God. Concern over worldliness really is fundamental to Christianity.

But then again, so is concern over legalism. Legalists believe that outward observance or performance is a key to acceptance with God. They believe that some element of their salvation or their sanctification is secured by their outward acts of obedience. Such an attitude directly contradicts the biblical understanding of God’s grace.

Not all legalists make up their own rules, but some do. To be sure, Scripture does not forbid Christians from adopting extra-biblical practices and disciplines. It does not even enjoin believers from teaching such disciplines to others. What it does forbid is the communication of non-Scriptural disciplines as matters of Christian faith.

We all practice extra-biblical disciplines. We set our alarm clocks, brush our teeth, and shake hands in greeting. We not only practice these disciplines but also teach others to do so. That does not make us legalists.

What we must not do is to assert authority to bind the conscience. We must not present a rule as a matter of morality or Christianity when Scripture does not. Christ alone possesses authority to command the conscience. No matter how sensible our rules may seem to us, we must remember that only the Master has the right to command His slaves. If Christ is the Lord of our conscience, then we have no right to subject ourselves to ordinances after the commandments and doctrines of mere humans (Col. 2:20-22).

In short, both worldliness and legalism are serious matters. They are even grave matters. They touch the very heart of the Christian faith. They are boundary issues that impinge upon the gospel.

Fundamentalists are right to object to worldliness, just as evangelicals are right to object to legalism. Yet no fundamentalist would accept the label of legalist, while few evangelicals would embrace the designation worldly. Almost everyone wishes to reject both labels.

Fundamentalists and evangelicals (including conservative evangelicals) have been playing the game of mutual recrimination for some time. Neither side thinks that the other is playing fair. Nevertheless, both sides agree that some difference exists between them.

Over the next couple of essays, I hope to do at least two things. First, I wish to unpack the difference, providing a more accurate description of what both sides acknowledge. Once the difference has been identified, I would like to take a further step. I will evaluate the difference for its seriousness. Specifically, I will attempt to assess the extent to which this difference ought to affect the possibility of cooperation between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The Holdfast
George Herbert (1593-1633)

I threat’ned to observe the strict decree
     Of my dear God with all my power and might.
     But I was told by one, it could not be;
Yet I might trust in God to be my light.

Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.
     Nay, ev’n to trust in him, was also his:
     We must confess that nothing is our own.
Then I confess that he my succor is:

But to have nought is ours, not to confess
     That we have nought. I stood amaz’d at this,
     Much troubled, till I heard a friend express,
That all things were more ours by being his.
     What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
     Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.


This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks. Looking forward to more on this subject.

Quote:
Legalists believe that outward observance or performance is a key to acceptance with God. They believe that some element of their salvation or their sanctification is secured by their outward acts of obedience.
These essays are in brief in nature, so I try to read with realistic expectations, but as a kind of definition of "legalism," this one is a bit unclear. Perhaps the the next couple of essays will sharpen it.

The reason for my concern is that, for a great many, rejecting "outward observance or performance" as a "key to acceptance with God" means--in day to day living--that outward performance does not matter at all and/or that God automatically "accepts" everything a believer does. In short, for many, there is confusion of our judicial position in Christ (imputed righteousness/justification) and God's evaluation of our actual choices.

The second sentence concerns me more than the first. Unless all the imperatives of the NT are not really there, "outward acts of obedience" would indeed seem to be a major part of "securing" our "sanctification." But there are lots of key words there and I'm not sure what Kevin means by each of them.
I have to thank Andy Naselli for providing some vocabulary recently that I was missing in this area. I believe that justification is monergistic (all the 'energy' comes from God; we believe and our works contribute nothing), but sanctification is synergistic (our works--as reborn, spirit-indwelt, adopted sons and daughters--do contribute to our sanctification. These acts are themselves products of God's grace, but they are works, nonetheless.)

I believe monergistic views of sanctification lend themselves to a distorted view of liberty and also to true worldliness.

Mike Durning's picture

I too am looking forward to where Kevin goes with this topic. I have been very active in writing and debate on the topic of legalism, and hope to find new light shed on the topic.
Despite my shooting at what I perceive as legalism in many Fundamentalist circles, I do recognize the problem of worldliness. But I believe that many Fundamentalists misuse the term "worldliness", yanking it from Scriptural context and defining it merely in terms of its dictionary meaning of "like the world". The Scriptural term "world" and how it applies to our affections and loyalties is far more interesting a study.

Aaron Blumer wrote:
I have to thank Andy Naselli for providing some vocabulary recently that I was missing in this area. I believe that justification is monergistic (all the 'energy' comes from God; we believe and our works contribute nothing), but sanctification is synergistic (our works--as reborn, spirit-indwelt, adopted sons and daughters--do contribute to our sanctification. These acts are themselves products of God's grace, but they are works, nonetheless.)

I believe monergistic views of sanctification lend themselves to a distorted view of liberty and also to true worldliness.

Despite the fact that the term monergism is used in theology to refer to, as you say, all the 'energy' coming from God, the term properly means "one work". In that sense, I would argue that there is a counter-monergism among some Fundamentalists on the topic of sanctification. They seem to preach against worldliness as though the sanctification process depended entirely on human energy and action. I suspect this may be the core of what we think of as legalism among Fundamentalists. Despite the fact that it can result in outwardly pristine lives, it gives rise to an inward worldliness that also fits the Scriptural idea behind the word "world".

As for worldliness among the Evangelical spectrum, who can question its existence? What else have guys like MacArthur been fighting than a resurgent worldliness among others in their movement? It is built into their philosophy of ministry. When becoming "all things to all men" means drinking the guy you're trying to evangelize under the table, something has gone seriously wrong.

AndrewSuttles's picture

> Dr. Bauder said, 'Of course, most evangelicals are not conservative evangelicals.'

Can we have a citation on this please?

> Dr. Bauder said, "In common with other evangelicals, however, conservative evangelicals still tend to view fundamentalists as unnecessarily legalistic."

I grew up in IFBism, and now I attend a John MacArthur style (Evangelical, I guess, since you need to press the label). I would say the church I attend now is more conservative theologically and in many ways, more conservative socially, than those I grew up in. I've not taken a poll, but I would think that if the folks in my present church were to attend an IFB, they would characterize it as wild-fire charismatic, emotion-tugging, soft gospel, and shallow.

I think instead of using a term like "legalistic", which is not being used in it's proper theological sense here, we should use the phrase "man-pleasing" to describe Fundamentalists. The IFBs that I've been raised in are man-pleasing, not legalistic.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"Evangelical" is a broad term that includes just about everyone who "believes in Jesus" and is not Roman Catholic. Probably a good place to go for definitions on that would be George Barna's work.
"Conservative evangelical" is a term Bauder uses to refer to a handful of leaders (and those who share their views) within the broader category. What "conservative evangelical" means is kind of what this series is about... but if you use the search box here and key in Bauder, you can probably find a definition somewhere that would give you a succinct statement of how he uses the term.

The assertion that most evangelicals are not conservative evangelicals is pretty evident to those familiar w/the landscape, including the conservative evangelicals themselves. One of the things that sets them apart is that they have been vocal critics of problems in evangelicalism in general and the problems they have identified are in the more liberal direction--that, in itself sets them apart as a conservative minority.

As for "IFBism," you've done a bit o' broad brushing there yourself, I'd suggest. None of the IFB churches I grew up in were doctrinally weak, socially liberal, gospel-soft or emotion tugging... and certainly not charismatic (interestingly, some of the conservative evangelicals are quasi-Charismatic). Though I was often aware of other IFB churches (and still am) that are doctrinally shallow and emotion-driven, these problems are hardly unique to IFB!
(In fact, doing a quick mental survey of churches I'm familiar with in my region, 9 out 10 of the churches of that sort are not Baptist)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Mike D wrote:
Despite the fact that the term monergism is used in theology to refer to, as you say, all the 'energy' coming from God, the term properly means "one work". In that sense, I would argue that there is a counter-monergism among some Fundamentalists on the topic of sanctification. They seem to preach against worldliness as though the sanctification process depended entirely on human energy and action.

Yes, "energy" was not the best way to put it.... energos... work. But I would suggest the idea is "one worker" not "one work."
In any case, yes, I have seen the kind of "all depends on us" thinking in both evangelism and sanctification. I think this is monergism at the other end... the "one worker" is the believer. If we understand the NT synergism properly, it solves both extremes of 'legalism' and antinomianism (and eliminates crisis-driven/second blessing/decisionism errors as well).

Charlie's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Thanks. Looking forward to more on this subject.
Quote:
Legalists believe that outward observance or performance is a key to acceptance with God. They believe that some element of their salvation or their sanctification is secured by their outward acts of obedience.
These essays are in brief in nature, so I try to read with realistic expectations, but as a kind of definition of "legalism," this one is a bit unclear. Perhaps the the next couple of essays will sharpen it.

The reason for my concern is that, for a great many, rejecting "outward observance or performance" as a "key to acceptance with God" means--in day to day living--that outward performance does not matter at all and/or that God automatically "accepts" everything a believer does. In short, for many, there is confusion of our judicial position in Christ (imputed righteousness/justification) and God's evaluation of our actual choices.

Aaron, I think you bring up a very important point here concerning our juridicial position in Christ and how God evaluates our choices. One of the more significant theological emphases that is working, especially in the PCA, to revitalize our churches is that of adoption. Justification by itself takes care of our sin problem, but logically it could still leave us strangers to God. For example, someone I don't know might accidentally scratch my car, and I can choose to forgive him that, but that doesn't mean we're suddenly friends now.

Adoption goes beyond justification in asserting a new kind of relationship, not a juridicial status, between God and the believer. I am transferred into God's family, a place where there is no longer even room for juridicial/legal categories. Wrath and punishment disappear, replaced by discipline and chastisement. Though at times they may look the same, the underlying realities are far different. Wrath and punishment make sense within a paradigm of justice, wherein one party relates to the other as he deserves. Discipline and chastisement make sense in a paradigm of relationship, wherein one party relates to the other for their benefit.

So, God relates to those outside his covenant based on what they deserve, although He often forbears, not immediately delivering the full consequences of their actions. He relates to those within his covenant as family, acting toward them in whatever way is best for them. No consideration of what they deserve enters into the calculations; that variable is out of place here. So, although there are certainly ways to abuse this doctrine, the basis is that God accepts me despite my works, and that my works are not the fundamental reality that determines the nature of our relationship. Just as I could never earn justification through works, I could never earn adoption through works.

I will not say that my psychological and spiritual journey is representative of other Fundamentalist young people (let the reader judge for herself), but when I was in Fundamentalism, I had no clear concept of adoption, even though it was talked about in the books I read. I knew, on the one hand, that God accepted me in Christ by grace through faith; on the other, I always felt that he sort of grudgingly accepted me. Yes, he would fulfill his promise, but he wasn't very happy with me. I didn't read my Bible enough, witness enough, shun sin enough, uplift other people enough, mortify self enough, etc. I was not living like a son, but like a slave. What do I have to do today to earn the master's approval? It wasn't until I was in Reformed circles that I really understood this truth. God is for me, pro nobis as Martin Luther used to say. He is the one cheering me on, encouraging me, congratulating me when I'm successful; when I fall down, he is the one who runs to me, picks me up, and hugs me. He only wants what's best for me. He's my Daddy.

Sorry for the length of the reply, but I think that in the Sonship framework of the Christian life, there is a freedom and a joy that, if expressed wrongly, can easily sound like anti-nomianism. If you got to know some of these people, though, and maybe even helped them express themselves more precisely, you would see that they just really get adoption.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Quote:
Wrath and punishment disappear, replaced by discipline and chastisement. Though at times they may look the same, the underlying realities are far different.

Couldn't agree more. And it speaks to the whole legalism/worldliness problem too, because it clears up what the real choices are.
We're not choosing between either "I have to do right to be accepted by God" or "everything I do is accepted by God," rather "as one who is accepted into His family, are my actions/attidues/affections acceptable?" The family relationship gets it all into place I think (and solves the "1 John 1:9 problem" as well.... how can we be forgiven "if we confess" when we are forgiven already? It has to do w/the relationship between choices and chastisement perhaps as well as restoring broken fellowship in the family setting.)

Charlie's picture

Todd Wood wrote:
Charlie, do the elders of your church operate through a Sonship framework?

We don't use the discipleship course, but our pastor is a former RUF campus minister, and the implications of both justification and adoption for sanctification are heavily emphasized in all facets of our church life. Also, Dan Cruver of [URL=http://www.togetherforadoption.org/ Together for Adoption[/URL ] is a member of our church, so that theme gets a lot of concrete illustration. If you're familiar with Sonship, then you probably know that when it first became popular, there was some criticism of it from within Reformed circles. Much of that criticism was fair, and I think Sonship has largely corrected the unhealthy emphases and misleading statements. In any case, whether or not a church uses "Sonship" curriculum, I hope it is a "sonship" church.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It's possible to overemphasize anything with the result that other doctrines are distorted. I'm not familiar with Sonship, but our adoption/sonship is just one of the terms Scripture uses to describe our relationship w/God in Christ. We are also slaves and bondslaves, disciples, friends, a holy nation, a bride, and probably a few more. All of these have important implications but I do think that adoption (along w/new birth) are huge when it comes to sanctification, especially in explaining why synergism is possible in sanctification where it was not in justification (you who were dead He made alive).

I'm sure--like anything else--there is a subset of folks in the faith who latch onto adoption/sonship and ignore other factors in order to be indulgent and conform to this world or embrace a passive 'let go let God' approach. I know that for some, it's not sonship, it's union with Christ (Rom 6)... but there are many roads to the same result.

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