by Justin Lonas
Editor's Note: This is the second of 10 articles on areas in which entrenched unbiblical attitudes tend to hold sway in the Church. We are seeking to encourage believers to live up to Paul's command to "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world rather than according to Christ" (Col. 2:8).
Tradition Number 2-Legalism and License
Few subjects within the Church have as much variation among believers as our interpretations of personal holiness. On the one hand, few would argue that Christians shouldn't pursue right living. By the same token, what is meant by "right living" and to what degree it is to be pursued perennially causes strife between individuals and denominations.
This is an area in which we are often given to extremes, each of which gratifies Satan more than it glorifies God or edifies His Church.
Many Christians interpret the freedom we have in Christ very liberally. While rightly recognizing that the old Law has no claim to one saved by grace, they tend to run far with their freedom and often pay similarly little heed to Christ's commands. They often have few standards for how they behave, what they choose to eat and drink, what they wear, and what traditions they follow. For those who fall into this camp, the focus of the Christian life is on the love of Christ and the community of the Church rather than the holiness of God and doctrine.
Approaching personal holiness from this angle has many potential pitfalls. As Paul so forcefully warns us in 1 Corinthians 8, our freedom can easily become sinful if we lead a weaker brother into activities that he sees as contrary to the faith. Scripture is clear that personal liberty should always take a back seat to the health of the Body.
At a deeper level, it is very easy for us to have a simple view of holiness because it requires little of us-if all we understand of the Christian life is freedom, our view is likely informed more by the world than by Christ. The sacrifices to which He calls us do not resonate with a "freewheeling" Christianity. This end of the spectrum is characterized by what Bonheoffer called "cheap grace"-its low view of sin and righteousness can mar our witness by blurring the distinctions between the Church and the world and open us up to the temptations of the enemy to "love this present world" and desert the faith as Demas did (2 Tim. 4:10).
The opposite extreme is represented by legalism-in short, the view in which personal holiness is of paramount importance. Those in this camp go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of worldliness and take very seriously God's call to "Come out from their midst and be separate . . . and do not touch what is unclean" (2 Cor. 6:17 reiterating Isaiah 52:11). Very little in their lives is free from rules and traditions, and they often spend a great deal of time and effort to follow them strictly.
This perspective is a problem when the motivation for holiness is pride rather than the Spirit's leading-righteousness for righteousness' sake is never God's desire. The Pharisees took great care to be "holy" in every aspect of life but Christ saw right through their "righteousness" to their pride, calling them "whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanliness" (Matt. 23:27).
Legalism becomes grievous sin when it leads us to believe that we have within ourselves the ability to attain God's favor, but as Paul so firmly states in Gal. 2:20, "if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly." Such a lifestyle finds its roots in the self-determination of the stoics and leaves no room for God's transforming grace. Even when well intentioned, we cannot live up to the required standard (Rom. 3:10, 23). This leads us to rate our sins, judging others and ourselves by the "severity" of our wrongs rather than by God's standard (that all sin is equally offensive to Him and destructive to our relationship). We look down on others by applying our personal convictions to their lives rather than allowing God to lead them.
A strong devotion to holiness does not have to be wrapped up in legalism, however. Just as we dishonor God in pursuing righteousness on our own, we honor Him highly when this pursuit is borne out of love for Him and gratitude for His ultimate sacrifice. Jesus' statement, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments," sets personal holiness as an outcome rather than a condition of belief. His concern is not with individual sins but with sin (that is, whether we pursue Him or pursue ourselves).
As with so many issues, our craving for "black and white" certainty in this area leads us astray from Christ's call. Does the Lord want us to live in righteousness? Absolutely. Did He fulfill the law and set us free? Completely. But His command was neither "keep the Law" nor "be free"-He confronts us with something much simpler and yet so difficult that we can't hope to live up to it outside of the Spirit's enabling: "Follow Me."
The extremes of legalism and license represent the world's ideas of how to live life, not God's. When we follow Him, however, we confound those who seek to dismiss Christians as either prudes or hypocrites. Spirit-led holiness motivated by love is perhaps the most distinctive marker of the faith; it is a picture to a dying world of the hope of forgiveness. Such an attitude is vital if we are to have the impact we are designed for.
Justin Lonas is editor-in-chief of Pulpit Helps magazine.