The Upside of Legalism
Part 2 of the “What We Really Need Now is No” series.
“No” is the new “Yes.”
Even with Obama’s “Yes we Can” battle cry (of which, in all seriousness, I’m a big fan), I think that our society is more in need of nos now than yeses. And I think they realize it.
Detroit needs to be told no, as do greedy banks on the verge of collapse. People with bad credit and no income seeking a loan need to hear it, as do fiscally irresponsible, tax-and-spend politicians. Little boys and girls screaming for this or that at the mall need a hearty N-O from their parents, as do I when I’m in the iTunes store, preparing to buy my third digital album of the week.
We need restraint. We need to be more disciplined. We need to rediscover the beauty of not getting things we want. We need to re-introduce ourselves to the ascetic life. We need to deny ourselves daily.
I grew up in conservative Southern Baptist churches that seemed to be all about legalism. There was an abundance of things that were forbidden for members of the church to partake in: drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, having sex before marriage, watching too many R-rated movies, etc. At the time, it seemed so stupid and so unfair.
These days, there are tons of “cool” churches that allow all of the things I’ve listed above. Many of them show R-rated movies in church, have wine-tasting events for the college groups, and don’t say a harsh word when it comes to illicit sexual activities. Little if anything is forbidden, and only the happy, “love others” passages of scriptures are preached. The Gospels get emphasized a lot more than the Epistles, that’s for sure.
Obviously I am pointing out two extremes here: the hyper-legalistic and the hyper-permissive. Both are wrong, in my view. It is a shame that, in reacting against the former approach, the latter has gone so far in the other direction. I think we’ve lost a crucial aspect of Christianity in our efforts to purge it of the much-maligned “legalism.” We’ve lost the element of sacrifice. Christ called his followers to take up their cross, to identify with his suffering, to be living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to him.
And it’s not like this is a bad life. What we take as a renunciation of the worldly things we desire is really just a renunciation of the smallest, most unfulfilling part of existence. Lewis reminds us so beautifully in The Weight of Glory that it is not that our desires are too strong, it is that they are too weak—that we are far too easily pleased. In Christ, in focusing on being in him and abiding in the future glory he promises, we discover a higher longing that frames and illuminates everything else we thought we wanted.
The Christian life is a wonderful life because it requires some pretty serious “no” discipline but ultimately offers the greatest “yes” of all: an affirmation of our part in the kingdom and royal priesthood of God, the very maker of heaven and earth. In the face of God’s grace, our excuses and quibbles and struggles look pretty insignificant. As such, we should be more than happy to give up the pursuits, pleasures, and comforts we thought we wanted. God’s grace is sufficient, but it isn’t cheap.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizes it nicely in The Cost of Discipleship:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has… It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
So what does this mean for Christians? It means that we can’t be cavalier with God’s grace. We can’t live wild, hedonistic lives in which the world’s pleasures and our own deeply felt, bent urges are in competition with the call of the Christian life. We have to say no to what is wrong and stand up for what is right. We have to be willing to discipline ourselves and each other; we have to be willing to be intolerant where it is appropriate. And yes, this goes against the grain. It isn’t popular to be intolerant. But ultimately, it’s better for humanity.
Some might say that rules, boundaries, and limitations are stifling. I say they’re liberating. When individual man is the measure of morality… that’s when it’s stifling.