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The Radical, Missional, but not-so-new Legalism

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Being wired for Law makes us susceptible to Christians and other religious people trying, in the most creative and eloquent ways, to goad Christians into adopting a new law.  Writer Anthony Bradley has pinpointed one way our culture is coaxing Christians towards a new law or “new legalism.” “Being a “radical,” “missional,” Christian, “he says, “is slowly becoming the “new legalism.””


These calls to be “radical”—or whatever is the new “extraordinary”—snooker us because we are wired for the Law.  We were created for the Law.  Adam chose to disobey the first law given to us by God and we bear the consequences of that today.  Israel proclaimed that they would keep the law given by Moses. As they stood together as a nation (Exodus 19:8), they promised, “This we will do.”  Like Adam, though, they broke the covenant and, as a consequence, lost the right to stay in God’s Promised Land as his chosen people.  Ever since then we have gone looking for a new law in an attempt to erase our narcissistic shame.  We love new laws, particularly when they promise to make us look spectacular.

Sadly, because Adam disobeyed, we are no longer able to keep this type of law or what really matters:  God’s Law.  That is why Christ came.  He fulfilled God’s Law perfectly, took our sins upon himself, and died on the cross to satisfy justice and bear the condemnation we deserved because we broke (and willfully keep breaking) God’s Law. Jesus did for us what we could never do and then intentionally gave to us his own earned righteousness.  This is the glorious gospel, the true missional and radical action.  We did nothing; Christ did everything.    But instead of claiming this truth, we forever harangue ourselves into adopting some new law so we can prove that we are not quite as bad as Adam.

But now there is no new law to fulfill.  Clarion calls abound for us to band and stand together again and shout “This we will do.”  But Christ did it all.  Michael Horton calls Christianity a “sit down” religion, not because our faith is not active, but because we have to sit down and receive before we have something to give others.  We are active, but it is because we’ve been given something.   So every Sunday we sit down in church to hear God’s word preached by God’s servants and to learn about our glorious inheritance.  Every Sabbath we turn our hearts towards the north star of God’s living and beautiful words because we are so prone to forget our inheritance and wander into the wilderness.  In our anxiety, we prefer to launch a new movement to assuage this restlessness that only the Father, speaking to us about His Son through the power of the Holy Spirit, can cure.

Anthony Bradley is dead right.  We are sons and daughters of the living God; this is our inheritance.  Therefore we can become lovers of the one true God and lovers of our neighbors.  Mr. Bradley suggests that we need to recover a true sense of vocation, and certainly that is correct and proper.  But before we rush off to our vocations, we need to learn to sit in wonder at our radical, missional God who calls us to learn who we are in union with His Son.  Only then will God’s Word properly inform us so that we do not create another legalism that obscures our inheritance and only gives us, in the end, something else to do.

Mark Green is the President of White Horse Inn
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  • Bill,
    Your defensiveness here regarding what Paul teach is an indicator of the problem we have with how the Gospel is presented in America. We want the Gospel to make us feel good about ourselves and so we whittle away at it until it comes closer to giving the message we want to hear.

    So the idea that a nonbeliever could better please God through his/her actions is not acceptable. At that point we say that nobody is righteous and we connect the two points with an exclusive-or connector. Then we use syllogism to determine which statement is true and which one is false.

    The problem here is that we need to connect the two ideas using conjunction rather than exclusive-or. Both ideas are Biblical. That the acts of a nonbeliever who acts on a good conscience can be more righteous than ours not only point to our sin but discredits the Gospel by causing others to blaspheme the God of our Gospel is what is being taught in Romans 2. And this brings us back to the subject of this thread. What happens when nonbelievers do more to bring justice and mercy to those who are neglected or oppressed than what believers do?

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  • Guest - Bill

    Curt, you write:
    "We want the Gospel to make us feel good about ourselves and so we whittle away at it until it comes closer to giving the message we want to hear."

    Answer: Quite the contrary scripture tells us we are wretched sinners. We don't feel good about ourselves, we have no self esteem. The sole ground of acceptance with God is Jesus Christ, rather than esteeming myself or holding myself in high regard I hold Christ alone in high regard. If we are accused of having a high self esteem, I reply it is based on Christ's work, the imputation but not the impartation of his work. So it is Christ, not me, that makes me valuable, yes perfect in God's eyes.

    You write:
    "So the idea that a nonbeliever could better please God through his/her actions is not acceptable."

    Answer: Our actions don't please God. Only Jesus Christ's perfect obedience pleases God. Those that trusted in Christ are clothed with Christ's righteousness. On this sole basis the works of the believer are pleasing to God.

    You write: "That the acts of a nonbeliever who acts on a good conscience can be more righteous than ours not only point to our sin but discredits the Gospel by causing others to blaspheme the God of our Gospel is what is being taught in Romans 2."

    The message of Romans 2 is that the unbeliever has the law of Moses as well. The jews got it in writing from Moses, the unbeliever has it in his conscience. The law is written in every man's conscience. However no man can obey the law and no flesh shall be justified by the works of the law.

    "And this brings us back to the subject of this thread. What happens when nonbelievers do more to bring justice and mercy to those who are neglected or oppressed than what believers do?"

    God looks at the heart. A heart that has not been cleansed by faith and is devoid of self righteousness is not pleasing to God. The unbeliever will always do things that bring more justice to the neglected and oppressed than the believer in the eyes of man. Martin Luther called it a theology of glory, the works of the unbeliever are pleasing to man and look powerful. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett give more to charity than all christians combined. Gandhi was a powerful peace maker that maybe no christian will ever be able to match. Mother Theresa was obsessed with performing good works, and the secular world reveres her. As I said what's impressive to man is not impressive to God. So the fact that the unbeliever can perform mightier works of charity, justice, and mercy is nothing more than what the theologian of glory values. Powerful works that impress man. Rick Warren;s PEACE plan is impressive and has received acclamation from other religions that have joined it. It was actually advertised as ecumenic. Deeds not creeds has been the slogan. But christianity is not a religion of works.

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  • Bill,
    Believing that the Gospel tells us that we are wretched sinners doesn't prevent us from shaping the Gospel into a message that, in the end, makes us feel good about ourselves. When that message, despite its criticisms of us is used to rationalize seeking the comfortable life, we have shaped the Gospel into a message that makes us feel good about ourselves.

    Furthermore, our actions must not always be seen in dichotomous way. For your all-or-nothing view of righteous acts contradicts what Paul is saying in Romans 2. Paul is talking about the righteous acts of unbelievers condemning those who pride themselves on their faith in God. Realizing that words can have multiple definitions depending on their context, "righteous" doesn't always have to mean something that is completely acceptable to God. It can have other shades meaning. And if not, then again, what Paul is writing in Romans 2 is nonsense.

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  • Guest - Bill

    Curt, in Romans 2 Paul may be talking about the righteous acts of unbelievers just like Jesus does in the parable of the good samaritan. But Paul is not addressing christians, he's addressing jews that thought they could be justified by the Law of Moses. So P:aul is addressing unbelieving jews in Romans 2 by pointing out that unbelieiving gentiles can also attempt to perform the deeds of the law (written on their heart). The key point here is that the message of Romans 2 is fot the non-christian, the hypocrite that has not trusted in Christ for salvation, somebody that makes a false profession of faith. If that is what you mean then we agree. But certainly at no point Paul is saying that God accepts the works of unbelievers more than the works of the true believer.

    And with regard to your first point that we can rationalize the gospel to make ourselves feel better. I say it's impossible because the gospel message can only be embraced by those that the holy spirit reveals it to. It's not something that can be rationalized. And if anybody does this then he lacks true faith and is making a false profession of faith. He's a false professor. And I do not deny that there are plenty of false professors that have shaped the gospel into a message that makes them feel good. Actually the evangelical church today is full of pastors and church attendees that fit that category.

    With all that said the solution to this is to preach Christ atoning work on the cross. We should not confuse law and gospel. We should not teach that walking in the spirit means that we don't sin and walking in the flesh means that we sin. Walking in the spirit means that we repent daily, acknowledge our sin, and trust in Christ saving work. Christ is the answer, not good works like social justice or helping the poor. As a matter of fact there's no record of the New Testament church in the book of Acts or through any of Paul's epistles that the church should help the poor or preach about improving the economic or social condition of the disadvantaged. As a matter of fact the church should only preach the word and administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. As a result of this the lives of sinners can be saved and hope is given to the poor in spirit, to the persecuted, to those that love righteousness, in summary to everybody that comes to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ's atoning work on the cross is the only hope for mankind, the blood of Christ is the only solution to the problem of world misery.

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  • Guest - Bill

    With regard to mercy Ministry, the church should only help widows of believers and believers that have gone through persecution. This is the teaching of the New Testament. Feeding thousands of unbelieving people in starving Africa, the church has nothing to do with it. Helping the people trapped in the american ghetto is the job of the Obama administration and charities. However preaching the gospel to the whole world, particularly the poor and oppressed, this is certainly the mission of the Church. I think that christians concerned with world poverty are very welcome to run for office or volunteer in a charity organization with unbelievers, but this work should always take place outside the institutional or organized church, whose mission is solely to preach the world and administer he sacraments.

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  • Bill,
    We are only to help whom? What does the parable of sheep and the goats teach us? And what does Jesus mean when he says that since even the heathen love their own, we are to love others to show God's love.

    It seems that you are afraid to use logic in how the scriptures are to be applied. You are afraid to do anything else than what was literally spelled out though many of Jesus's parables demand that we have the ability to generalize past the concrete statements given.

    In addition, though Paul wrote Romans 2 to the Jews, it applies to all of us since all are sinners.

    Finally, this accusation made by some conservatives about not confusing law and gospel is made with an agenda. That agenda is to maintain the status quo by protecting those with wealth and power from any call to repentance.

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  • Guest - Bill

    Curt, obviously you and I have to agree to disagre.

    1) You think the Chruch should be a social agency and I don't
    2) You think we are all sinners but don't seem to understand that Christians only are Saints. We all sin but the christian is no condemned and the non christian is condemned. The christian is not under the Law so God does not impute his sin. We may be all sinners, but only the believer is a Saint, perfect everywhere, in the eyes of God who is clothed with a robe of righteousness.

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  • Bill,
    I don't believe that the Church should be a social agency. I do believe that acting as a social agency is part of what the Church is responsible to do and how it should act that way should be determined by how its actions reflect the Gospel.

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  • Guest - Bill

    We disagree. I don't see anywhere in scripture taught that part of the Church's responsibility is to act as a social agency.

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  • Bill,
    Sorry for the late response but if God is concerned with justice, then we should be too. And if injustice is sin, we should call those who practice such sin to repent

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