When the Gospel Becomes the New Legalism

When the Gospel Becomes the New Legalism

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The word gospel has been the most popular word in evangelicalism for many years. You can’t go wrong with the gospel. Or can you? Is it possible for God’s creation to take a good thing like the gospel and twist it into something not right?

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Gospel Distortion

I suspect the Lord is pleased with this reinvigorated gospel focus. Whenever His creation makes much of His Son—the most succinct definition of the gospel—He is well pleased (Matthew 3:17). Jesus Christ is the good news: the Father promised Him in Genesis 3:15. He came to us in John 1:14. We will worship Him throughout eternity (Revelation 19:1-6). Paul preached a pure gospel to the churches of Galatia, but it was not long before even the great apostle Peter—the one in the innermost circle of the Savior, messed it up. And Paul had stern thoughts about distorting the gospel (Galatians 2:11-13).

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

If Peter could distort the gospel, I’m sure the rest of us could put our twist on it too. Give me something good, and there is a chance that I will bend and reshape it to something wrong. Ironically, because of the popularization of the gospel, there is the possibility of latching onto the language of the gospel while not fully understanding its practical applications. Knowing the gospel will not insulate you from messing up the gospel. May we learn the lesson of Peter.

The gospel is good and pure, but people are not good or pure—apart from God’s grace. God’s work in us is not a “one and done” kind of grace. We need His constant vigilance in our lives until He perfects us in eternity. If we are not daily submitting our lives to the transforming power of the gospel, in the context of loving friends who are willing to hold us accountable, we can be easily tempted to get “out of line with the gospel” (Galatians 2:14).

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Baptist Legalism to Gospel Legalism

When I first became a Christian, I became immersed in a legalistic Christian culture. God saved me when I was twenty-five years old. I was so new to religion that I did not know John 3:16. The town where I grew up was predominately a Baptist culture. It seemed logical for me to associate with them. The particular group of Baptists that I was part of put the accent more on what we did for Christ (externalism) than who we were in Christ. I immediately began to do the works of Christianity while not consistently guarding my heart against internal problems like pride. Gospel transformation was not impacting and transforming my character.

I loved God and desired to obey Him genuinely, but I did not understand how the gospel applied to my heart (internal) as much as I knew what it meant to my obedience. In God’s impeccable and merciful timing, He led me to a gospel-shaped community of believers. This gospel community did not de-emphasize obedience at all. Some people believe the grace crowd or the “gospel people” marginalize obedience. It’s not true; genuine gospel living demands heart and life obedience. And what I began to learn in my new gospel-centered community was the more you grow in your understanding of the gospel, the more your heart is affected by Christ.

And the more you are motivated from the heart to live for Him, the more practical your obedience becomes. My growing “gospel-shaped heart” moved me toward a greater desire to “practically live for Jesus.” Refreshingly, my new gospel-centered community, with its strong emphasis on total transformation, gave me a greater passion and excitement for holiness. This season was one of the most transformative times of my life. But all was not well. In time, I began to notice similar patterns that were part of my old legalistic culture. A “behavioristic lifestyle” started to manifest in my gospel-shaped community.

Gospel Grows in Humble Hearts

It was a new culture but the same old dichotomy: being one thing in private while being something else in public. Though there were many sincere people in my new gospel community, there was also a culture of “learned behavior,” a gospel-centered legalism. Gospel behavior presented well outwardly, but on the inside of some people was insidious and imperceptible pride. I first noticed this as I was becoming more like the stronger personalities of the leaders of the culture. Rather than becoming more like Jesus, I began to take on their characteristics, good and bad.

This effect can quickly happen to any person or group if no clear, objective, measurable, and accountable checks and balances exist. Ironically, it was just as easy to slide into “gospel-centered behaviorism” as it was to be a Baptist legalist. Though a gospel-centered life is the only way to go, which is apparent from the Savior’s teachings (e.g., John 14:6), we are never free from the danger of the best way becoming a shipwreck if our hearts are not humble, transparent, and honest with each other.

Rick shares part of his experiences with Sovereign Grace Ministries (now, Sovereign Grace Churches) where he served as a pastor. Joshua Harris was a pastor at their flagship church, Covenant Life, in Gaithersburg MD: An Appeal from a Former Sovereign Grace Ministries Pastor

The Best Gift

Humility is not as elusive as you might think. God would not ask us to be humble while making it impossible to pursue, find, and apply it to our lives. God does not swing elusive carrots in front of us. He wants humility from His children and is willing to give this critical gift. Alternately, leadership ability and a strong personality are not the essential gifts that determine God’s favor. Humility is the key to His favor. The older woman in the temple had very little to give, but her heart was humble before God (Mark 12:42).

The most affluent, famous, and listened to people in the Savior’s day were not the ones who captured His gaze. God does not accept us based on our gifting or our popularity. Humility born out of faith in God is what gets His attention (James 4:6). This characteristic is the foundation for our best lives now. It is easy to become enamored with what we see in people while not knowing who they are. It is easy to assume that what we see is what we get. In some of these situations, we don’t want to know the truth about others.

That is what our unwillingness to get into the dirtiness of a person’s life seems to indicate. “What I don’t know will not hurt me” is a lie. A humble and mature community is critical if you want gospel-centered living to thrive. Sadly, there was a clear line of division in our gospel community. What went on in private was hidden.

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Gospel in Community

The Bible and the Spirit are our best defenses for keeping in line with the gospel. Biblical submission to God and His Word are wise and good. But God gives us more than those things. He provides us with a community to help maintain our gospel edge. Gospel-centered friends are a significant means of grace if you are willing to have your life lovingly examined by those friends who care for you and the glory of God.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy (Proverbs 27:6).

No doubt, Peter loved the Lord Jesus Christ. That is not arguable. No doubt he was transformed by the gospel. No argument there as well. But Peter strayed from the gospel that he preached. Heed the warning: Peter needed a friend to bring him back to the gospel that he loved. What he did not need was an “echo chamber community” that told him what he wanted to hear. Paul was such a person.

And what did Paul do? He rebuked his friend because his friend was perverting the gospel (Galatians 2:11). No person living today comes close to what Peter was as far as true greatness is concerned—biblically defined. He walked with the incarnate One and eventually gave his life for Him. Though he denied Jesus before the crucifixion and denied Him after His resurrection, only a handful of people come close to Peter’s experience with the Savior and his usefulness in God’s story. But Peter distorted the gospel. I think we can safely conclude that you and I have the potential of twisting the gospel too. Do you have a friend like Paul—someone willing to help you walk in line with the gospel?

Who Speaks into Your Life?

How open are you to those who are willing to speak into your life? These kinds of reciprocal relationships don’t happen by chance. For me, this is the litmus test for my closest relationships. I must have folks caring for me, and I want to associate with those who will allow me to speak into their lives too. I realize this is not for everybody, which is sad, but the effect of not doing this can cause generational dysfunction. If you are looking for gospel-centered friends, here are some tips to help you think about how to pray, how to change, and what to pursue.

  • You must want to live out the gospel practically.
  • You must know that you can distort the gospel practically.
  • You must sense your need for help.
  • You must pursue others, appealing to them to help you.
  • You must create a context that invites others to speak into your life.
  • You must not assume this will happen without your insistence.

This list could be a “means of grace” that will keep you practically living in the power of the gospel for years to come. Go back over the list again and honestly assess yourself.

  • How are you doing?
  • Will you ask someone to assess you in the areas listed?
  • Do you believe you are capable of distorting the gospel?

I can’t over-emphasize the importance of these ideas. If you find a group of friends who are sincere about these issues, you are poised to dig a little deeper as you seek to build your gospel community.

Digging Deeper

The following questions are the ones my wife and inner circle talk about regularly. Our goal, hope, and prayer are not to know the gospel only but to be authentically and practically transformed by it.

  • Are you appropriately revealing the secrets of your life within the context of friends?
  • Are you approachable?
  • Are you teachable?
  • Are you correctable?
  • Do you share some of your life but hide the stuff that matters?

This last question is a way to “present humility” while “hiding it in reality” by not being humble at all. This problem is the warning and point of this article and what I ran into with by “gospel community.” The first set of questions—above—was for you. This second set—below—is a way you can serve your friends. If you want to live out the gospel authentically, you’ll need the grace and courage of Paul.

  • Are you afraid to approach those within your sphere of influence regarding who you believe them to be?
  • If you approach them and they refuse to hear you, are you willing to take it to another level?
  • Wife, if your husband will not listen to your appeals, are you willing to take it to another level?
  • Husband, are you willing to serve your wife similarly?
  • Do you pursue your friends the way Paul sought Peter?

If King David or Peter, two of the most gifted men in the Bible, could fall because of pride, don’t you think you and I can easily do the same?

  • Don’t assume your pastor has it all together.
  • Don’t assume your small group leader has it all together.
  • Don’t assume your spouse has it all together.
  • Don’t assume your Evangelical heroes have it all together.
  • Don’t assume those you hang with are not struggling.
  • And, by all means, don’t assume you’ve got it together.

The doctrine of sin informs us otherwise. While none of us want to be cynical or suspicious of others, which is sinful, God has called us to a loving and courageous discernment. There is a difference.

Two Sober Warnings

  1. It is superfluous to ask a person if they are struggling with sin. We should ask them how we can serve them in their struggle with sin. Imperfection is a given. It is an assumption. Do not assume otherwise, no matter how gifted you think someone is.
  2. No matter how right we are or how right we think we are, God is not afraid to take us down if we are proud men and women. May we learn the lesson. God will not compete with us. We must genuinely humble ourselves before our Maker—and each other.

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