Responding to the Charge of “Legalism”

Aggressive Sanctification (part 2)

At the upcoming Equipped Conference we will be tackling the topic of “Aggressive Sanctification”. Unfortunately this sounds like heresy to many who have gained an imbalanced perspective from the recent emphasis on what some are calling “gospel-centered” sanctification. So let’s continue our look at some of the problems associated with this movement by getting back to our examination of the broadly-promoted new book by Crossway Publishers.

Another Look at “Jesus + Nothing = Everything”

In Jesus + Nothing = Everything Tullian Tchividjian tells his readers that the greatest threat Christians face is when “behavioral obligations are divorced from gospel declarations” and “when imperatives are disconnected from gospel indicatives” (p.46). [Note: “imperatives” refer to the grammatical designation of verbs which direct us to do something (i.e., to obey God’s moral commands), while “indicatives” refer to verbs which express statements of fact (i.e., what Christ has accomplished by living and dying in our place).] Unfortunately, what Tchividjian goes on to describe as his view of sanctification is not a balanced “marriage” or “connection” between “gospel declarations” (indicatives) and “behavioral obligations” (imperatives), but a comprehensive substitution of the former for the latter. And so, as the title of the book declares, we are led to see our sanctification in terms of Jesus + nothing = everything. “Resting in Jesus and what he accomplished” (p.46) is the strategy for sanctification championed throughout the book. This is Tchividjian’s explanation for how we are to understand that “the gospel is for Christians too” (p.78). And because, as he repeatedly insists, “the gospel says it’s not what you must do, but what Jesus already did” (p.140), then there is no room left in our sanctification for a biblical balance between “behavioral obligations” (imperatives) and “gospel declarations” (indicatives).

That is the essence of the problem of utilizing your theology of justification as an unaltered template for your view of sanctification.

But as J. C. Ryle was careful to point out in his 1879 book entitled Holiness, “In justification our own works have no place at all and simple faith in Christ is the one thing needful. In sanctification our own works are of vast importance, and God bids us fight and watch and pray and strive and take pains and labor.” Or more recently, as R. C. Sproul put it in Chosen by God, “Sanctification is not monergistic [i.e., God’s work alone]. It is synergistic [i.e., our work and God’s work]. That is, it demands the cooperation of the regenerate believer. We are called to work and grow in grace. We are to work hard, resisting sin unto blood if necessary, pummeling our bodies if that is what it takes to subdue them.” Of course, this is precisely what the Bible teaches as it calls us to “Fight the good fight of faith” (1Ti.6:12), “Pursue righteousness” (2Ti.2:22) and “Put to death therefore whatever is earthly in you” (Col.3:5).

This balanced focus on work and effort regarding “behavioral obligations” is why we find Paul making statements like these: “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor” (1Th.4:1-4). It goes without saying that such exhortations are certainly appropriate in calling Christians to vigorously pursue their sanctification.

Sadly though, when Tchividjian evaluates those who are concerned about “behavioral obligations”, over and against his call “to rest”, he leads his readers to disdain any efforts regarding these “obligations” through a series of subtle yet effective strategies.

Ways “Behavioral Obligations” are Maligned

Firstly, he introduces the concern about the imperatives and gospel indicatives under the topic of “legalism” (p.45). This word quickly sounds the alarm for well-taught Christians. The word “legalism”, though not found in the Bible, is usually understood as a description of those who would attempt to earn their salvation through their own good works. As such, it is the damnable problem addressed in passages such as Romans 4 and Philippians 3. Certainly any attempt at earning salvation is a tragic and satanic error, but the context in which Tchividjian makes the charge of “legalism” is amid his warning about the biggest threat regarding our sanctification, specifically “when imperatives are disconnected from gospel indicatives” (p.46). Well, if there is a proper “connection” between imperative and indicative, then appropriate effort given to these commands certainly wouldn’t qualify as the “legalism” that most people think of when that incendiary word is used.

Secondly, Tchividjian unpacks his idea of the “behavioral obligations” he has in mind, when he describes the Christian “trying to keep his or her preferred list of religious rules” (p.46). But wait, a “preferred list of religious rules” certainly cannot be equated with the biblical commands that the Scripture provides regarding our sanctification. But this is a conflation Tchividjian sustains as he quotes Mark Driscoll’s list on “How to Become a Legalist”, which begins with “Make rules outside the Bible” (p.54). The problem is that interspersed between these clear references is a discussion about “good works” (p.47) and “progress in obedience” (p.51). If this section of the book is about the other kind of “legalism” Christians refer to when they speak of people putting human traditions and preferences on par with God’s commands, then we can all agree that this a serious error (Mk.7:1-13). But if we are talking about biblical “good works” and “progress” in biblical “obedience” that should be pursued by Christians, then it is a spiritually catastrophic problem to confuse the two.

Thirdly, Tchividjian vigorously impugns the motives of those who haven’t replaced their efforts regarding the imperatives with the work of resting in the indicatives. Those who do not agree with Tchividjian’s newfound strategy for Christian sanctification he labels as being ensnared in an insidious form of “idolatry” he calls “performancism” (p.45). He describes such Christians as being on a “self-morality quest” (p.47), as being “prideful” (p.46), “anti-gospel” (p.46), “self-rescuing” (p.46), “self-righteous” (p.47), “stroking our egos” (p.47), devoted to right because we are “frightened” (p.47), and all the while being unable to see the problems because of the “versatile craftiness” of our sinful hearts (p.46). Ultimately we are told it is a problem of insecurity and our failure to believe the gospel’s declaration that we are accepted by God. So universal is this problem for those who seek to obey God’s commands that Tchividjian confesses, “I haven’t met one Christian who doesn’t struggle daily with believing – somehow, someway – that our good behavior is required to keep God’s favor” (p.49). Such indictments on every regenerate Christian’s motives for obeying God’s imperatives is unreasonable and certainly not the obsession of Christ and the Apostles who unabashedly call God’s people to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt.5:16), be “zealous for good works” (Tit.2:14), and to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb.10:24).

There is more to say, but I will leave it for next time. Over the next few posts I will seek to show the importance of rightly distinguishing sanctification and justification, and the problems that arise when we don’t. More to come.

-- Pastor Mike