Legalism and Lawlessness as Two Opposite Extremes?


 In response to my Washington Post op-ed last Thursday, one commenter wrote: “Moralism in the church was a huge problem 7-10 years ago, but I honestly feel that the pendulum has swung in the other extreme full force, to a fault on the other side.” This is a pretty common objection that those of us who are committed to decrying moralism and legalism hear. The thinking goes precisely the way the commenter suggests: “Legalism and moralism is NOT the problem today; licentiousness is.”

On the surface, this seems to make a lot of sense. Just look around. One could argue that our country has never been more licentious and morally lax than it is now. Is preaching the gospel of grace what we really need? Or, to put it another way, is preaching the gospel of grace really the means by which God rescues the lawless, the unethical, and the disobedient? There are at least three huge assumptions in this common line of thinking that need to be addressed.

Legalism and Lawlessness as Two Opposite Extremes?

The whole “pendulum swing” argument is one I know well. Not only because I hear it all the time but also because I used to make the same argument. What I’ve discovered, however, is that there is one big problem with this (simplistic) argument: it fails to realize that since Genesis 3, legalism (self-salvation) has always been our biggest problem. And this problem does not shift to something else when the cultural mood shifts–it just takes one of two different forms.

Spend any time in the American church, and you’ll hear legalism and lawlessness presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid. Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law or rules, and lawlessness when you focus too much on grace. Therefore, in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium, you have to “balance” law and grace. If you start getting too much law, you need to balance it with grace. If you start getting too much grace, you need to balance it with law. This “balanced” way of framing the issue has kept people from really understanding the Gospel of grace in all of its radical depth and beauty.

It is more theologically accurate to say that the one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). In other words, there are two “laws” that we typically choose from: the law that says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules,” or the law that says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules.” Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. “Make a rule” or “break a rule” really belong to the same passion for autonomy (self-rule). We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license. So it would be a mistake to identify the “two cliffs” as being legalism and lawlessness. What some call license is just another form of legalism. And there’s always and only been one solution to our self-salvation projects: God’s salvation project in Christ.

Can the Law make us Lawful?

What is the ultimate solution to lawlessness? The assumption is that championing ethics will make us more ethical; that preaching obedience will make us more obedient; that focusing on the law will make us more lawful. But is that the way it works?

I completely understand how natural it is to conclude that, given our restraint-free cultural context, preachers in our day should be very wary of talking about grace at all. That’s the last thing lawless people need to hear, is it not? Surely they’ll take advantage of it and get worse, not better. After all, it would seem logical to me that the only way to “save” licentious people is to intensify our exhortations to behave. Therefore, what we desperately need is a renewed focus on ethics, duty, behavior, and so on. I mean, surely God doesn’t think that the saving solution for the immoral and rebellious is his free grace? That doesn’t make sense. It seems backwards, counter-intuitive.

Matt Richard describes well how naturally we take it upon ourselves to reign the gospel in when we fear too much of it will result in lawlessness:

I have found that as Christians we many times attribute “lawlessness” to the preaching of the Gospel. Somewhere in our thinking we rationalize that if the Gospel is presented as “too free, too unconditional or that Jesus fulfills the law for us” that the result will be lax morality, loose living and lawlessness. It’s as if we believe that the freeing message of the Gospel actually produces, encourages and grants people a license to sin. Because of this rationalization we find ourselves strapping, holding and attaching restrictions to the Gospel so that we might prevent or limit lawlessness. In other words, the Gospel is placed into bondage due to our rationalization and reaction to lawlessness.

The truth is, that lawlessness and moral laxity happen, not when we hear too much grace, but when we hear too little of it. In One Way Love, I share the following letter I received from a man I’ve never met. He wrote:

Over the last couple of years, we have really been struggling with the preaching in our church as it has been very law laden and moralistic. After listening, I feel condemned with no power to overcome my lack of ability to obey. Over the last several months, I have found myself very spiritually depressed, to the point where I had no desire to even attend church. Pastors are so concerned about somehow preaching “too much grace” (as if that is possible), because they wrongly believe that type of preaching leads to antinomianism or licentiousness. But, I can testify that the opposite is actually true. I believe preaching only the law and giving little to no gospel actually leads to lawless living. When mainly law is preached, it leads to the realization that I can’t follow it, so I might as well quit trying. At least, that’s what has happened to me.

The ironic thing about legalism is that it not only doesn’t make people work harder, it makes them give up. Moralism doesn’t produce morality; rather, it produces immorality. It is no coincidence, for example, that the straight-laced Leave It to Beaver generation preceded the free-love movement of the 1960s. We live in a country where the state most known for its wholesomeness and frugality, Utah, also leads the country in rates of pornography consumption and antidepressant prescriptions. We make a big mistake when we conclude that the law is the answer to bad behavior. In fact, the law alone stirs up more of such behavior. People get worse, not better, when you simply lay down the law. This isn’t to say the Spirit doesn’t use both God’s law and God’s gospel in our lives and for our good. But the law and the gospel do very different things.

As I mention here, Paul makes it clear in Romans 7 that the law endorses the need for change but is powerless to enact change—that’s not part of its job description. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. The law can inform us of our sin but it cannot transform the sinner. We can tell people all day long about what they need to be doing and the ways they’re falling short (and that’s important to keep them seeing their need for Jesus). But simply telling people what they need to do doesn’t have the power to make them want to do it. I can appeal to a thousand different biblical reasons why someone should start doing what God wants and stop doing what he doesn’t want—heaven, hell, consequences, and so on. Butsimply telling people they need to change can’t change them; giving people reasons to do the right and avoid the wrong, doesn’t do it. Grace and grace alone has the power to inspire what the law demands.

I’ve pointed out before, in Romans 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul answers antinomianism (lawlessness) not with law but with more gospel! I imagine it would have been tempting for Paul (as it often is with us when dealing with licentious people) to put the brakes on grace and give the law in this passage, but instead he gives more grace—grace upon grace. Paul knows that licentious people aren’t those who believe the gospel of God’s free grace too much, but too little. “The ultimate antidote to antinomianism”, writes Mike Horton, “isnot more imperatives, but the realization that the gospel swallows the tyranny as well as the guilt of sin.”

The fact is, that the only way licentious people begin to “delight in the law of the Lord” is when they get a taste of God’s radical, no-strings attached, one-way love.

The Focus has Clearly Shifted

The third and final point I want to make regarding the idea that what we really need in our culture of lawlessness is a renewed focus on ethics, is that it reveals the biggest problem with a lot of messaging inside the church: we’ve concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian. Therefore, our messaging has shifted from Christ and him crucified to humanity and it improved.

Ever since the fall of man in Genesis 3, we’ve been obsessed with ourselves. Add to that fire the fuel of the Enlightenment’s mantra, “Progress is inevitable”, and the “manifest destiny” DNA that has marked our country since its inception, and it’s no surprise that our man-centered culture of narcissism has seeped into the church. Whether it takes the crass form of “health, wealth, and prosperity” or the more theologically sophisticated form of an obsession with “sanctification” and “holiness”, the bottom line is, we have concluded that this whole thing is about our transformation, not Christ’s substitution. Or, to put it more accurately, Christ’s substitution is a means to an end–the end being, our transformation. I can hear the objections now: “It’s not either/or, Tullian, it’s both/and.” I’m not saying it’s “either/or” but I’m also saying that it’s not “both/and.” It’s primary/secondary, cause/effect. Those distinctions matter. A lot!

Yes, the gospel does transforms us. But transformation does not happen when we make transformation the warp and woof of our message. But that’s exactly what’s happened. Whether it’s “how to have a good marriage”, or “how to be more missional”, or “how to practice godliness more effectively”, people hear more about what they need to do than what Jesus has already done. We’ve taken our eyes off of Christ, “the author and finisher of our faith”, to focus on ourselves. Plain and simple. When the gospel of free grace is preached without “buts and brakes” and people inside the church start crying out that the deeper need of the hour is a renewed focus on ethics, it’s nothing more than a “pietistic” mask for our seeming inescapable addiction to personal progress.

In his book Paul: An Outline of His Theology, famed Dutch Theologian Herman Ridderbos (1909-2007) summarizes the shift which took place following Calvin and Luther. It was a sizable but subtle shift which turned the focus of the Christian faith from Christ’s external accomplishment to our internal transformation:

While in Calvin and Luther all the emphasis fell on the redemptive event that took place with Christ’s death and resurrection, later under the influence of pietism, mysticism and moralism, the emphasis shifted to the individual appropriation of the salvation given in Christ and to it’s mystical and moral effect in the life of the believer. Accordingly, in the history of the interpretation of the epistles of Paul the center of gravity shifted more and more from the forensic to the pneumatic and ethical aspects of his preaching, and there arose an entirely different conception of the structures that lay at the foundation of Paul’s preaching.

Donald Bloesch made a similar observation when he wrote, “Among the Evangelicals, it is not the justification of the ungodly (which formed the basic motif in the Reformation) but the sanctification of the righteous that is given the most attention.”

With this shift came a renewed focus on the internal life of the individual. The subjective question, “How am I doing?” became a more dominant feature than the objective question, “What did Jesus do?” As a result, generations of Christians were taught that Christianity was primarily a life-style; that the essence of our faith centered on “how to live”; that real Christianity was demonstrated in the moral change that took place inside those who had a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Our ongoing performance for Jesus, therefore, not Jesus’ finished performance for us, became the focus of sermons, books, and conferences. What I need to do and who I need to become, became the end game.


The late Robert Capon once memorably wrote:

The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace—bottle after bottle of pure distilate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel—after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps—suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started.

It has been roughly five hundred years since the Reformation. And looking at the church today (reading comments, blogs, tweets, books, and listening to objections and sermons) it is obvious that we are overdue for another one. Indeed, what a terrible irony it is that the very pack of people that God has unconditionally saved and continues to sustain by His free grace are the same ones who push back most violently against it: “Yes grace, but…”, “stop peddling cheap grace”, “God’s agape is not sloppy.” Far too many professing Christians sound like ungrateful children who can’t stop biting the hand that feeds them.

It is high time for the church to honor its Founder by embracing sola gratia anew, to reignite the beacon of hope for the hopeless and point all of us bedraggled performancists back to the freedom and rest of the Cross. To leave our ifs, ands, or buts behind and get back to proclaiming the only message that matters—and the only message we have—the Word about God’s one-way love for sinners. It is time for us to abandon, once and for all, our play-it-safe religion and get drunk on grace. Two-hundred-proof, unflinching grace. It’s shocking and scary, unnatural and undomesticated, but it is also the only thing that can set us free and light the church—and the world—on fire.


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