The New Legalism
FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 13, number 30, July 24, 2014
And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God, Galatians 6:16.
We know that Paul the apostle was highly upset with the Judaizers of Jerusalem who sought to pressure the Gentile believers of Galatia to commit to Jewish rituals, like circumcision and observing the Passover and other religious holidays. He called such efforts another gospel which was no gospel at all, and he said that those who continued in that line of thinking ought to be judged, to be anathema. He summarizes his teaching in Galatians 6 by saying that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything but only faith working through love matters. One’s outward religious activities do not give right standing with God nor do they maintain that right standing. Then he concludes by saying that those who live by this rule (that your works do not save you nor sanctify you, they do not gain you access to God nor do they maintain access to God) will have peace with God, will be in right relationship with Him, will be the beneficiaries of His marvelous grace. This includes the Israel of God who no longer are merely circumcised Jews but all people, including Gentiles, who are saved by the death and resurrection of of Jesus Christ.
Increasingly we have heard from the millennial generation, over the last several years, that the older generation of believers are legalistic, that we are the “older brother”, that our smug self-righteousness drives them away from the church. Some have said, for example, that our “can do” emphasis on making money, buying bigger homes and buying vacation homes, that our retreat to the suburbs is isolating us from the problems of the oppressed and disenfranchised. Consequently our perceived lack of social consciousness is hurting the witness of the church in our watching world, that we have made the church irrelevant.
And just like the baby boomer, Woodstock generation before them (after all, many of my generation were Freedom Riders and marched at Selma and opposed the Viet Nam War), the millennials have a social consciousness and are seeking to right the wrongs in our culture. Many, for example, have moved into our decaying inner cities, repairing old homes, living in them, and even helping others refurbish or construct new homes through Habitat for Humanity. Others have gone to developing nations and adopted children, sometimes as many as eight or ten children, and brought them into their own families, giving them all the privileges they afford their natural born children. These are all good things, of course. The tendency by some, however, is to chide older folks for their perceived unwillingness to work for social justice in their communities. They seem to disparage those who make big money, live in nice, suburban homes, drive big cars, and send their children to high tuition schools. I remember an old Presbyterian pastor who worked in the red light district of New Orleans speaking at Reformed Theological Seminary while I was studying there. He spoke of bringing the gospel to a very difficult area. He had the joy of the Lord on his face as he told us that moving into the area was vital if we were to reach that community. He seemed to have no “axe to grind” with those of us who did not sense a call to similar ministry. He had a couple of young men working with him, however, who seemed to be very angry, who gave us the impression that to not serve like them was to sin against the Lord.
Many voices are calling us to a simpler life, eschewing the big salary, the country club membership, and the big, suburban home. That’s great. And if some want to move into our inner cities, risk house break-ins, and support the education system there, then by all means do it. More power to them. I rejoice that many are choosing to live this way.
Here’s the problem though-not everyone is called to live like this. I remember my wife Wini speaking to a business owner a while back about these things and he said, “I really don’t have time to serve in a soup kitchen or tutor children in the inner city, and the demands of my own four children are plenty to keep me busy. I am running a business that employs two hundred people.” From what I know this man is incredibly generous with his money, faithfully tithing to his church and giving far beyond the tithe to other Christian ministries. He lives well but he makes lots of money and he gives lots of it away. He also employs a couple of hundred people who, because of his entrepreneurship, have jobs and are able to provide for their own families. That’s okay, isn’t it? I hope so. Many sincere, faithful believers simply do not sense a call to move into the hood. They don’t have a burden to adopt children from developing nations. They are not moved to serve in soup kitchens, or build a home through Habitat for Humanity. Mentoring an inner city child is not on their radar screen. They prefer wearing suits and ties to church. That’s okay, isn’t it? I hope so.
Some involved in inner city ministries, who chide suburban people, still come around looking for money to support their work. I suggest this emphasis on the necessity to live simply, to buy small cars, to live in small homes, and to look down on those who do not move in this direction is the new legalism. Let’s face it, all of us, no matter what our age or lot in life, are susceptible to legalism. Those with money can look down on the guy who wants to paint or perform his music, who seldom has two nickels to rub together. And the couple who has moved into a seedy neighborhood and is making inroads with those in their community can easily deride one who wears a suit to work and drives a BMW. What is legalism? Legalism is Christ plus anything else to gain God’s favor. Legalism is manmade efforts to sustain God’s favor. Legalism is getting our need for self-justification from others by what we do. Legalism is anything, apart from Christ, which gives us a sense of well being.
So, if you want to live in the hood, if you want to adopt eight children from developing nations, if you want to serve the poor and tutor inner city children, go for it. That’s great. Do it. Only don’t attempt to get your righteousness through your efforts. Don’t judge those who choose not to ride that way.
And those of you who are people of means, don’t become defensive with those who may disparage your lifestyle. Of course you should always ask yourself-what am I doing with the resources God has given me? Am I being a faithful steward of them? Perhaps some kind of change is needed, not to gain your standing before God, but in a desire to honor the Lord with what He has given you. John Wesley’s maxim still plays well today-“Make all the money you can, save all you can, and give away all you can.”