On The “New Legalism”

Missional Legalism

Anthony Bradly’s “New Legalism” post has received quite a lot of responses.  If you have not read it yet, here’s the article.

Below is Ray Ortlund’s response titled “Accusations of Legalism” at The Gospel Coalition.  In the comment section of that post you’ll find Bradley’s response, which I have copied below as well.  Dr. Ortlund raises a very good caution, and I think it’s healthy to harken to Bradley’s reference as well.  Dr. Ortlund writes:

Whenever we put a qualifier in front of the noun “Christian,” we might be inserting legalism.  But we might not be.  It depends on whether we perceive that qualifier as meritorious.  Does it elevate us above other blood-bought Christians who don’t wave the banner of that same qualifier?

It is possible to be a “missional” Christian or a “radical” Christian or whatever, and that language is being used merely as a way of communicating something biblical that you want to call people to, something truly in Christ.  But it is also possible — it all depends on internal factors, difficult to discern even in ourselves, much less in others — to use such qualifiers in a way that is truly legalistic.

Legalism is a serious accusation, as is obvious from Galatians.  That makes me reluctant to use it in a targeted personal way, naming names.  I could identify a specific man as a legalist only if (1) he makes an obvious theological blunder in writing, diminishing the finished work of Christ on the cross, adding something of his own to the empty hands of faith as the way of receiving that finished work, and he stands by his stated error even after appeals to reconsider, or if (2) I can have direct personal conversation with him and really press into what he means by what he says and I find out that, yes, he really is requiring more than the cross, received by mere faith, for peace with God.  But without that clarification, legalism is an easy accusation to make, and a difficult one to prove.  And any unprovable accusation is itself a wrong — a different kind of wrong, but still wrong.

It can get complicated, and quickly.  Caution seems wise.  (Ray’s post @ TGC)

Here’s Anthony’s reponse to this post:

Yes, Dr. Ortlund, these are great points and you gave criteria!!  I agree completely.  These questions require much wisdom and discernment.  Given the noetic effects of sin I would have to say that, also, that it is possible for any well-intentioned movement to create a form a legalism.  Epistemic humility is a requirement so that we continue to test everything according to the Scriptures so as to not to harm to souls under our care.  Rev. Larry Osborn in his book “Accidental Pharisees” describes five movements tending toward a “new legalism” today.  Dr. Michael Witmer, Professor of Systematic Theology, Director of the Center for Christian Worldview at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary summarizes Osborne’s insights here.

Osborne cites five kinds of Christians who can easily become Pharisaical about what they care about most (p. 92-94):

1. Radical Christians: these people think generosity is most important, and while they are careful not to give out a list, they are suspicious of Christians who live in large houses and drive expensive cars. Their parents’ generation worried about beer in the refrigerator; they worry about BMWs in the driveway.

2. Crazy Christians: these earnest believers think that you’re only committed to God if you’re taking wild leaps of faith, getting yourself in trouble to see if God won’t bail you out. They suppose that normal Christians who punch a time clock and pay their mortgage on time probably aren’t as committed to Christ as they should be. What these “crazy Christians” forget is that they’re only free to take their risks because of the normal jobholders who have saved enough money to help them should they fall (p. 188).

3. Missional Christians: these counter-cultural Christians think the badge of discipleship is earned by volunteering in a soup kitchen, tutoring at risk children, or moving from the suburbs to the inner city. They are suspicious of anyone whose life is too comfortable (there seems to be some overlap among these first three categories).

4. Gospel-Centered Christians: these Christians are my favorites, because we care about right doctrine and everything written by John Calvin. However, if we’re not careful we can look down our noses at those believers, usually Arminians, who haven’t quite figured out the right way to think about God.

5. Revolutionary and Organic Christians: these people are disillusioned with the traditional church and think that the most committed Christians are those who attend house churches. As with the missional and gospel-centered Christians, they are often suspicious of those who attend large “seeker” churches.

Dr. Witmer, is working on a new book that will explore these ideas even further that’s due out in the Fall.  This insight from Osburn is also helpful:

“Evangelists, pastors, teachers, ministry leaders, church planters, and missionaries have a public platform that makes it easy for them to present a model of discipleship that looks an awful lot like them.  Their self-congratulatory stories and natural built-in bias toward God has called them to do can leave the rest of us wondering what’s wrong with us” (p. 173).  Again, the book is “Accidental Pharisees.”

Given the fact that I’ve had several students in my office this school with tears streaming down their faces because they have received the message in some “missional” churches in New York City (often indirectly) that the finished work of Christ is not enough for them to be fully acceptable to God (unless they are fully do works of mercy and service in the city) that we need to examine what we are reacting against and what we are communicating.  At least for me, the tears I saw this semester represented real pain and confusion about what the Gospel says about their standing before God this is causing many of us to take a step back and ask new questions.  Larry Osborne, I recently discovered, write about his a while ago but there was little reaction.

If anyone is interested they can read Dr. Witmer’s post here> http://mikewittmer.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/the-new-legalism/

What do you all think?  Any thoughts?  Please feel free to use the comment box below.  


4 comments on “On The “New Legalism”

  1. I am thankful for David Platt and the Radical movement, but I do think we have to be careful with every new emphasis that comes along. It is always easy to swing too far one way or another. That’s why I stay accountable with a few mature believers and don’t worry too much about whether or not I fit into each new trend. Each movement mentioned – Radical, missional, gospel centered- are good. Satan cannot unsave us, so he tries to confuse us or get us to emohasize the wrong thing.


  2. If I had someone in my office who was brought to tears by a sermon I’d be much quicker to ask what God was doing IN THEM than trying to point the finger of heresy at the preacher! Clearly they were under conviction & whatever it was they were being challenged to let go was potentially more important to them than Jesus, Hense the tears. I’d be quick to remind that thought it is not works that save, the faith that saves is accompanied by works. If we cry Everytime someone challenges our lifestyle, I think we may just worship a God of comfort & not the Biblical Jesus.


    • I agree, Shannon. Mark Buchanan wrote a book a few years ago called “Your God Is Too Safe.” I think that is what many Christians in our generation want. The safe God is not the God of the Bible. The true God calls us to take up our cross and follow Him. By the way, living in the suburbs can be wild and fulfilling if one will be serious about taking the gospel to one’s neighbors. There are needs all around us. I’m thankful for church’s like the one David Platt pastors and I am disappointed to see those who claim to be orthodox throwing mud on guys like David. I had a loved one in need of ministry who lived near David’s church. I called the church and they followed up with my loved one. They did not know me or my loved one, but that did not stop them from sharing the gospel.


  3. Very interesting read (original article was good, too). I see their point. But what it all comes down to is a heart issue. As it said above, if you look down on your brothers and sisters because they don’t serve the Lord in the same way you do then you have a heart issue with pride. Our hearts are prone to wickedness and Satan desires to pervert and corrupt the people of God and their work. Pride is one of the easiest ways he does that. “I’m a better Christian because I rescue girls out of human trafficking.”
    “I’m a better Christian because I homeschool my children.”
    “I’m a better Christian because….”
    Our righteousness has never come from what we do, but only by Christ’s blood.
    I praise God for leaders who are doing something different in an effort to wake up slumbering Christians. But in all things we must guard our hearts so that they do not deceive us.


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