I thought it might be helpful to expand somewhat on my last post concerning the error of approaching the Bible, a Jewish book, with a Western (Greek philosophical) mindset. Various verses from the New Testament are pertinent here:
Jesus said, “If any man will do His will he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God…” (John 7:17)
And what I want the reader to take careful note of is that to our Western way of thinking what Jesus says there appears to us to be the wrong way round. Western thought would put the intellectual process of establishing whether or not a doctrine is biblical first, and then take things from there. But Jesus reverses that approach and says that intellectual understanding is the result, and not the cause, of practical obedience to whatever biblical truth is in view. So what comes first for Him is not the intellectual process of understanding what the Bible teaches, but rather the active determination to obey it and to actually live out whatever one comes to understand from its pages. And the difference is as wide as the world! We are so conditioned in our thinking on this but it is we, and not Jesus, who have got it back-to-front.
This Jewish/biblical/divinely-inspired thinking and approach to scripture reveals just how ridiculous, and hypocritical, the Western/Greek thinking approach to biblical doctrine actually is. The idea that to be biblically and doctrinally ‘sound’ is to do with holding correct beliefs, as opposed to how we live, is completely alien to scripture. There are some other verses we need to look at in this regard:
In his letter to Titus Paul writes: “You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” (Titus 2:1-10. Emphasis mine.)
And of course the thing to notice is that, having exhorted Titus to be teaching sound doctrine, he then goes on to define what he means, and he is clearly thinking of godly behaviour and not ‘doctrinal concepts’ such as the Trinity, election, atonement etc. It is Western thinking that would use the phrase ‘sound doctrine’ to denote belief systems, not scripture!
Conversely, Paul wrote to Timothy, “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (Timothy 1:9-10. Emphasis mine.)
Here we have the antithesis! Paul’s definition of false doctrine isn’t to do with erroneous unbiblical teachings such as universalism, salvation by works, unitarianism, or whatever, but is rather to do with sinful, ungodly behaviour. So what we are seeing here is indeed precisely what I highlighted in my last post. The whole push of scripture is that a Christian can only be said to be holding to ‘sound doctrine’ to the extent that they are actually patently and clearly living out that biblical truth, as opposed to merely accepting and believing whatever the Bible teaches. As we saw last time, Satan and his hordes do that, even though they would rather not have to.
So what does all this boil down to? Simply this: The teaching of God’s Word is that ‘sound doctrine’ is when believers lay down their lives on the altar of unconditional obedience to whatever scripture may or may not teach, and only secondarily that they then seek to fully embrace such truth intellectually. The Holy Spirit then grants supernatural revelation of scripture’s teaching, thus changing our hearts and minds that we come to actually embody in the Lord what those truths necessitate and imply by way of practical obedience and a godly lifestyle. The resultant intellectual understanding will, of course, be the same in essence as that gained by the merely doctrinal ‘tick box’ approach – truth is truth, after all, and doesn’t change – but of course the difference is that the former is correct biblical thinking, whereas the latter is mere hypocrisy. I call it doctrinalism, and it is the result of a combination of the legacy of the Greek thinking of the Early Church Fathers, plus the desire of our sinful hearts, even as believers, to live for self as opposed to making the self-sacrifice of living for the Lord and for others. It is, in effect, a sort of theological jiggery-pokery by which Christians seek to justify believing one thing whilst living another.
Think of it like this: The purpose of the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is to cause us to live our lives on the basis of a significant and open sharing of ourselves with others in mutual love, service and accountability. It’s purpose is to reveal something of what the Lord is like in such regard, and therefore what we should be becoming like as well. However, all too many Christians are merely theorist ‘doctrinal Trinitarians’ living selfish un-sacrificed and unshared lives, in unbiblical churches which function in such a way so as to virtually guarantee the absence of any significant mutual personal openness, transparency or accountability.
The doctrines of atonement, propitiation and imputation; that is, what has been secured in order to grant the forgiveness of our sins, should lead us to understand that, as Jesus once said to a Pharisee of a repentant formerly loose woman, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Yet many believers, though believing these doctrines intellectually and accepting their truth, completely fail to realise just how sinful they actually are, and therefore just how much they have been forgiven, and therefore love so little as a consequence. They may well understand that the Bible teaches they are forgiven, but the true biblical heart-changing revelational impact, borne of the Holy Spirit, which leads to a life of self-sacrificial and truly practical love for the Lord and others, just isn’t there.
And as we also saw last time, there are sadly all too many Christians, church leaders included (especially, even), who, whilst completely and fully believing in the ‘doctrine’ of God’s grace, need just the slightest thing to go against them, or have someone annoy or threaten their position in some way, in order to unleash their pure ungraciousness like a godless waterfall.
So, does this mean that a correct understanding of biblical doctrine on an intellectual level doesn’t matter then? No! Of course not! I am as hot on ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ as anybody else. In fact, a good bit hotter than many believers seem to be nowadays! But the error of doctrinalism, as I am here describing it, has plagued the Christian church now for far too long. To be a hypocritical ‘carnal’ Christian (as Paul puts it in his Corinthian letter) is one thing, but to have a so-called theological justification for being so (that is, the doctrinalism of Western/Greek thought when brought to bear on the Jewish scriptures) is just a bit sick.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:14-26)
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth….We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (I John 3:16-18 and I John 4:19-21)
I rest my case!
Why are so many Christians, who by very definition believe in salvation by grace, such ungracious people? I think I might know at least part of the answer! The Christian Church has made the mistake of mostly approaching the Bible, which is a virtually entirely Jewish book, with a Gentile (by which I mean, largely Greek philosophical) mindset. This has led to the attempt to understand biblical truth in a way other than the scriptures themselves ask to be embraced. The resultant error can be put very simply: in Western-influenced Christian thought ‘sound doctrine’ is understood largely in terms of properly believing the theological and doctrinal truths of the Bible, whereas Jewish/biblical thought emphasises the practical outworking of those truths which comes as a consequence. The error of Western/Greek thinking is that it defines ‘sound doctrine’ in terms of what you believe, whereas Jewish/biblical thought, as revealed and developed throughout the Old Testament, defines it instead as how you live because of what you believe. This does not in any way imply that getting our doctrine straight on an intellectual level doesn’t matter, quite the contrary, but it does mean that the historic ‘tick box’ mentality approach to Christian doctrine that has predominated historically is itself completely unscriptural.
The simple truth of the matter is that grace isn’t a doctrine to be believed, it’s an attribute of the heart that causes the one who has received grace from the Lord to be the kindest, friendliest, gentlest, most understanding, helpful and self-sacrificial person anyone could wish to meet. It is Greco-Western thinking, and not scripture, that has led to the Christian Church getting this so wrong. Biblically speaking, to believe a scriptural truth/doctrine (synonymous terms) is not to merely accept it as an intellectual concept, but to rather understand it as being the divinely-inspired truth that sets us free to precisely become it, and to actually embody whatever it is in our lives; for the simple reason that Jesus Himself lives in us, and because biblical truth reveals what He is like and how He might live through us.. How sad that so many Christians believe and proclaim so much biblical truth that their day to day lives completely and utterly deny.
Given the whole of human history throughout which they have been able to familiarise themselves with the contents of the Bible, I’m quite sure that the average evil spirit has a somewhat better understanding of Christian ‘doctrine’ than most Christians do, but so what! And of course the New Testament makes this point rather powerfully: the demons do indeed believe, and tremble! They know and believe God’s Word all too well…and hate it with a vengeance! So much for ticking all the right doctrinal boxes then!
Strange to think that on the basis of the average Christians’ perception of what biblical orthodoxy is, one would have to say that Satan is pretty much as doctrinally ‘sound’ as it gets.
We have recently returned home from one of our extended teaching trips across the US having driven our usual 4000+ miles, and I gotta tell you, I just love my GPS. (That’s Sat-Nav to my English readers!) The vehicle we keep over there is pretty cool too, but if our Ford Explorer (we call her Dora…get it? Dora the Explorer!) keeps us comfortable then it’s the GPS keeps us sane. It makes the odd mistake, of course, but nothing like the ones I used to make when it was just me (Belinda doesn’t do maps) going at 70mph with the steering wheel in one hand, my proprietary Walmart US map in the other, Belinda screaming in my right ear in abject terror and Bethany laughing her head off in the back enjoying the show! But all that aside, I don’t think Christians are as aware as they should be of the sheer symbolic and biblical significance of these little GPS mini-TV screens that can talk you through just about anywhere from anywhere at anytime.
It Must Be Alright, the Holy Spirit Led Me!
As I am often at pains to point out, there are two equal and opposite errors concerning the relationship between the authority of scripture and the personal subjective, supernatural leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The first (as mentioned in my last post) is the completely false idea that the Holy Spirit sometimes leads people contrary to scripture. He doesn’t! Full stop! Finito! End of story! The fat lady has definitely sung as far as that one is concerned! When that happens you may know assuredly, and for a complete fact, that it is either you deceiving yourself, or the work of an actual deceiving demonic spirit. If the Holy Spirit were to ever lead but one believer to go against scripture in but one way, then that could only mean that He might lead any believer against scripture in any way at any time. And if that were the case then you would simply have no basis on which to judge anything at all, or any way whatsoever to establish whether any given action or behaviour was ultimately right or wrong. Someone leaving their wife to find a different one who fulfils them better might be the result of the Holy Spirit leading them so to do, as might also be the case for unmarried folk who are in a sexual relationship with each other.
If the Holy Spirit sometimes leads believers in ways contrary to what scripture clearly teaches, then why not regarding sexual morality too? After all, if the Holy Spirit has told a believer something, then who is anyone else to argue? It’s all very well trying to say that some ways of going against scripture are permissible whereas others aren’t, but again, on what possible basis could such be decided? It the Holy Spirit can lead a believer to marry an unbeliever, or a woman to teach and conduct church leadership, then why could He not lead some believers to live together outside of marriage, or even to conduct a homosexual or lesbian relationship? I marvel that Christians are so slow to understand what a nonsensical, and deeply sinful, thing it is when they try to pit the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit against the clear teaching of scripture.
Bye Bye Lord! See you in Heaven!
But of course you can fall off a log both ends, so there are other believers who, though clear on the authority of scripture, have little or no understanding that the Holy Spirit does want to actually communicate directly with us outside of us just reading scripture. It’s as if they think that when they got saved Jesus said to them, “Great! Glad you made it! Anyway, gotta get back to Heaven now and I’ll see you there later. I’ve given you the Bible and a brain, so you can go ahead and start figuring out what following me should look like for you. I’ve given you lots of experts to read as well, and to listen to, (they’re called Ministers, or Priests, or Pastors…or whatever!) and they’ll help you figure it out too. I know they all have completely different opinions about just about everything the Bible says, but hey, you’ll get the idea. So look after yourself, keep reading, and I’ll see you when you die, or when I come back. Happy Bible-studying! Oh yes, and don’t forget to be good!”
They’re a bit like Marxists (or Leninists or the like) who have the appropriate authoritative writings that contain the relevant teachings they need, and who then have to spend a lifetime working out how to best apply those teachings to their own situations. “Man, wouldn’t it be great,” they must think sometimes, “if Marx (or Lenin) were still around to help us out a bit and to explain things to us?” So likewise, many believers seem to live their Christian lives as if it’s just a matter of getting to know the Bible better so they can implement it’s teachings as best they can. In other words, they too have gotten it wrong, just as have those who play off the Holy Spirit against scripture!
The Answer to the Dilemma
So what’s the balance then? What’s the correct way to think about the relationship between the authority of scripture and the reality of the subjective leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit? Well, it’s actually my trusty little GPS. Let me explain!
The Scripture Only Brigade
The trouble with the ‘Scripture, and that’s all!’ folk (I call them doctrinalists) is that they have a map and a compass and that’s just about it. It is entirely down to them to figure out where they are, where they need to get to, and the best way to do it. It’s certainly better than not having a map, or having a map that is in some way incomplete or inaccurate, but it’s nevertheless not the best way of doing things. But when you have a GPS (oh, how I love my GPS) you have something much better. You still have the map – the map never changes because it is simply what is – but now you have a means of interaction with the map via a device that is actually tied in, real time, with some satellites. And these satellites enable the device to know not only exactly where you are relative to the map (which never changes), but the very best way for you to get to where you have programmed in that you need to go, all as a result of the software installed in the GPS. Moreover, not only does the GPS display the map as you travel on it’s screen, thus visually providing all the information you need, it actually talks you through the necessary directions as you proceed. In other words, it’s a modern miracle!
Such is the best illustration I have ever come up with concerning the age old miracle of the relationship between the authority of scripture and the subjective leading of the Holy Spirit. The Lord hasn’t just left us to our own intellectual devices when it comes to knowing and applying His written Word. No, He actually lives within us and is with us in person the whole time, and the Holy Spirit, amongst other things, is the means by which He shows us how to apply and obey the truth and teachings in that Word. That our intellects have an important part to play in this is not in dispute, but oh, what damage has been done by the sheer dryness and irrelevance of a Christianity that has come across to the world as mere morality to be pursued rather than an actual personal relationship with the Almighty God.
The Mapless Mystics
But of course those believers who fall off the other end of the log need to be addressed too. And their problem is not the absence of a GPS – they have had one all along! No, their problem is that they have been so reliant on the GPS they never properly consult the actual map in order to check whether or not the GPS programming they trust so much is actually accurate. Indeed, they have completely missed the fact that Satan specialises in uploading virus’ into spiritual GPS systems, thereby corrupting the software in unbelievably subtle and significant ways. Only the continuous syncing of the GPS with the ‘master programme’ can protect against this. Or, to put it another way, scripture – the actual map that never changes – remains the final authority, and never the directions of the GPS unit itself.
In other words, it is only safe to look to the Lord for subjective guidance, leading and revelation to the extent that we understand, and actually practise, that conformity to scripture is the final authority and arbiter in all matters. If something conforms to scripture, then it can be said to be of the Lord; but if something does not conform to scripture then it can never be said to be of the Lord, by very definition! Further, it is a foolish man indeed who thinks that he can access whatever biblical truth he needs to know merely on his own as an individual. That we know the Lord both personally and individually goes without saying, but in the abundance of counsellors is still safety, and anyone who just pursues growth in truth and the Lord on their own, without the accountability of significant personal and open accountable fellowship with others is just kidding themselves. They are virtually guaranteed to end up being deceived.
I have met so many Christians over the years who, if one were to compare their supposed guidance and revelation with our GPS analogy, are, so to speak, trying to get to New York from South Carolina by going via Oregon; or thinking that the way to Norwich from London is by first heading south to Hastings. In other words, their map is corrupted and their reliance on their GPS, without the safety of all the time referring to the actual objective map, has them literally all over the place. They are deceived, unstable and heading totally in the wrong direction! Why? Because they have failed to realise that, irrespective of the genuine reality of the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives, scripture remains the only final authority!
Fortunately, our choice need never be between Spirit-less and dry doctrinalism on the one hand, or spiritual deception on the other. If we seek to walk in the safety of what our GPS analogy teaches us, then we are free to hear the Lord’s voice directly whilst minimising the risk of falling into either error. Can we guarantee we will never get it wrong? Of course not! We are deception-prone sinners still! But by sticking as closely as we can to the Lord, scripture and other godly believers, we are given the best chance of increasing in holiness and maturity in the Lord, as we live by His every Word to us as individuals, as we’ll ever have.
Balance is everything – and if you don’t believe me just drink too much alcohol and then try to walk somewhere! Or even better, try riding a bike! It’s obvious really, isn’t it? (Not that I have ever done so myself, of course! Or at least, not for a great many years!) Yet many Christians fail to realize the importance of applying this principle in a spiritual sense aiming constantly to be a balanced disciple. Indeed, there are things concerning which believers are, as drunk men do, so to speak, falling down all over the place. And one of the most important – outside of stuff like being balanced husbands, wives, parents and the like – is being balanced in regard to our relationship to the Word of God. You can fall off a log two ends, and in exactly the same way there are mostly two equal yet opposite errors regarding varying biblical truths. We will look at two areas of biblical understanding where such errors are common, the aim being simply to do everything we can in order to get the balance right.
Example Number One: The Twin Errors of Doctrinalism and A-Doctrinalism
The Error of Doctrinalism
I am doubtless not alone in having come across Christians who, though rightly believing scripture to be our final authority in all matters, seem to live their lives as if discipleship was merely a matter of ascertaining what scripture teaches about various things, and then just outwardly adhering to what it says it as if it were just some kind of religious system of objective ethics that we should be enacting. I do not suggest for one moment that such folk are not genuine believers, of course not, but they do seem to go about things as if apprehending the teaching of scripture was a purely academic and intellectual affair, rather than the means by which we can get to know Jesus better and better both personally and subjectively.
One of the things the Lord was keen to make clear to people concerning His written Word was that, as well as being true, accurate, and infallible, and all that stuff, it was also the means by which people can come to know and experience Him. Or to put it another way, it’s all about Him and not just doctrine. Biblical truth is the means, but the ‘ends’ is coming to know Him more and more – and it is the ‘ends’ that matters here and not the actual means. The moment you make the ‘means’ of the scriptures more important than the ‘ends’ of an ongoing ever-deepening subjective relationship with Jesus, you have pulled out the rug from under the true faith and ended up with little more than merely a doctrinal and religious system. What you then have is no longer true biblical Christianity, but rather what I have come to term mere Doctrianity.
As long as our perception of biblical truth is that of academic intellectualist understanding and theological systems, we are falling short, or, rather, falling off the spiritual log. Let me sum up the totality of Christianity, biblical theology and doctrine in just one word: Him! And if you add anything else to that, or think for but one moment that there is anything more to the above than simply Jesus Himself, then you err. The scriptures indeed lead us to Him, and are simply a ‘means’ – though the primary ‘means’, to be sure – of being able to know Him more and more; but when it becomes just about scripture, then it is no longer about totally Him, and Him only, and we, however unwittingly, drift away from Him.
Doctrinalism is indeed an error, and a very serious one too. It is also deeply subtle, because it is the way in which Satan deceives and distracts those who are, absolutely properly and correctly, serious about scripture. And of course it is obviously those of us who precisely do take scripture seriously who are the greatest threat to him, and who therefore most need to be neutralized.
We turn now, however, to the equal, yet opposite, error into which have fallen those Christians who, by way of contrast, fail to be as serious about the teaching of scripture as they ought.
The Error of A-Doctrinalism
Now by this I mean the attitude which creates a false dichotomy between the Bible and a relationship with the Lord, and which inevitably results in the rejection of whatever biblical teachings don’t suit one. Or, to put it another way, the emphasis is on a subjective and personal relationship with Jesus as opposed to being tied down by the any verses such as one doesn’t like in the Bible.
The reason this is an error, and an extremely serious one as well, is its failure to realize that even though we are believers, we are still massively prone to deception by the enemy. Indeed, as Jeremiah points out, our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, and we are therefore incapable in this life of having any kind of ‘hotline to God.’ Therefore, as long as deception is such a distinct possibility: indeed, such a distinct probability, our greatest need is for an objective and definitive declaration of what is and what isn’t God’s will, written down in black and white in plain English for all to access. We have it, of course; and it’s called the Bible. And it’s pertinent in the extreme to take note of the simple fact that the one thing Christians are warned against in the New Testament more than any one other thing is precisely the danger of false teaching and deception.
There is therefore only one ultimate test as to whether or not any idea, doctrine, understanding, personal leading or guidance is of the Lord, or a deception of the enemy, and that is by the test of conformity to scripture. The Holy Spirit wrote the Bible, albeit through the numerous third parties whom He inspired and, being also the Spirit of Truth, will never contradict Himself, or lead and guide anyone in any way contrary to what has been revealed through what He has written. And whenever we have ideas and notions that are in any way contrary to biblical teaching, then the principle is simply this: the Bible is right and I am/you are wrong! That is simply the end of the matter and all there is to it!
This is why, for instance, no matter how convinced people are concerning it, the Lord is not raising women up into church leadership. This is why also, irrespective of whatever ‘leading’ or ‘guidance’ is being claimed, the Lord is neither leading people who have been un-biblically, and, therefore, illegitimately, divorced to re-marry. This is further why no believer ever has been, or ever will be, led by God to marry an unbeliever, even though there are deceived Christians who will argue black-is-white that the Lord leads some of His people to do all these things. The principle by which we must live and order every aspect of our discipleship is so simple it’s beautiful: anything that goes against the teaching of scripture is, by definition, wrong, and is being instigated by deceiving spirits and not the Lord.
In our modern feministic, family unfriendly and relationship commitment-loathe culture, many Christians are selling out to like never before, and doing everything they can in an effort to make Christianity more palatable to everyone. Well, I gotta tell you, what scripture teaches never has been, nor ever will be, palatable to unregenerate sinners. But to those who truly love the Lord, and who realize that loving Him equates to being obedient to Him, and therefore obedience to His Word (there is, after all, no other way to know what He wants), what it teaches is pure delight. I am delighted, for instance, that when I became a believer the Word of God showed me that feminism was wrong. I am delighted that it showed me that marriage is for life, and that nothing is more sacred than godly family life, and God’s patriarchal order for it.
We are all unbalanced in different ways, and one of the reasons we need both scripture and other brothers and sisters to be accountably learning from it with, is that none of us can be trusted to go it alone. Indeed, the very basis of church life is for all to take part in church gatherings and for all to share together, plus for decision-making to be collective and consensual; and this is so precisely because no one person can ever be balanced enough, and therefore trustworthy enough, to get things right on their own. We need each other precisely in order to be constantly balancing each other up.
As yet-sinful individuals we are prone to every imbalance and error under the sun, and so are we corporately as churches too. Our only hope is to constantly look to Jesus, embracing the fact that discipleship is about Him, and Him alone, and that the only way we can know what He wants is ultimately through the teaching of scripture. He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14v15) It really is that simple. To say we love Jesus and to then not obey Him is a contradiction, and I think we would all agree with that; but many believers get round it by precisely setting up the false dichotomy we have already noted of it being either Jesus or the letter of scripture. They disobey Him by, ironically, claiming that He is actually leading them to do so. What utter nonsense! What scandalous nonsense too! The only way we can know anything of what the Lord wants is through the teaching of scripture, written by Him. It is our final authority in all matters, and if something does not conform to it, then it is a deception and therefore wrong, pure and simple.
Rather like election and free will (for a fuller examination of the balance between these two strands of biblical teaching see my video series, “Embracing Biblical Truth Biblically” at http://www.house-church.org/movies_main.htm), this is strictly a both-and situation, with the errors we have examined arising when believers try to make it an either-or one instead. My prayer is that Doctrinalists come to know the Lord in a genuinely personal way, and that the A-Doctrinalists stop messing about and start getting serious about being in obedience to what the Bible teaches in it’s entirety. In Acts Paul told the Ephesians that he had taught them ‘the whole counsel of God’ and it is time that we did likewise, and stopped picking and choosing which bits of the Bible we like and which we don’t. To be unbalanced is, by very definition, to be indeed heading for a fall.
Example Number Two: The Twin Errors of Legalism and License
I think it’s pretty much the case that most Christians are aware of these two errors, and that they are actually erroneous, but there is so much confusion about what each one actually is that we would do well to put on our thinking caps and really get it sorted out in our minds once and for all. You see, the thing that so often goes wrong here is that you just end up with legalistic Christians pitching into licentious ones without realizing that what they are doing is coming out of their legalism, whilst licentious Christians pitch into legalistic ones without realizing that they are reacting from their position of licentiousness. Indeed, it’s further the case that Christians who are actually biblically balanced get labeled by legalistic ones as being licentious concerning certain things, and by licentious Christians, to be legalistic concerning others. (Let me make clear that I am not here using the word licentiousness in regards to it’s primary meaning of sexual immorality, but in its secondary sense of people claiming a license; that is, the freedom, to go against the teaching of scripture.)
The Error of Legalism
I will define legalism thus: the error of legalism occurs when Christians demand more of, and from, each other than does scripture, failing to limit demands and requirements to the terms and conditions of the New Covenant. Whether it be the imposition of things specific to the Mosaic Law, or things completely outside of specific scriptural purview, legalism seeks to put restraints and limitations on people that the New Covenant does not. This error usually falls into two categories.
Firstly, it needs to be realized that the Mosaic Law and all of its requirements applied to Israel as a nation, and not to anyone else. Moreover, even Jews are now free from it, it having passed away as a result of Jesus’ death on the cross, being both superseded and replaced by the New Covenant, as revealed primarily in the New Testament. Therefore, such things as tithing, Sabbath keeping, sacred places and/or buildings etc have no place in the New Covenant. They therefore have no part in either individual or church life, being excluded from the New Covenant and replaced by entirely different requirements, terms and conditions.
Secondly, requirements that are not dealt with in scripture, and concerning which there is a complete absence of chapter and verse, are to be seen as purely matters for the conscience of each individual, and not, as legalism does, made either compulsory or forbidden. I include here such things as watching TV, playing games, participating in sports, home schooling, plus a gazillion other things. Paul deals with this quite clearly in Romans 14, and if there is no chapter and verse mandate, either commanding or forbidding a particular thing, then whatever that thing might be, it is entirely an individual matter and must never be made an issue for enforcement. Simply put, if there is no clear chapter and verse commanding something, it must never be made mandatory, and if there is there is no clear chapter and verse prohibiting something, then it must never be forbidden. Therefore, anything that clearly falls under the banner of black-and-white chapter and verse, such things, for instance, as stealing, lying or drunkenness, are to be forbidden, and believers are to hold each accountable pertaining to such, whilst anything where there is not such black-and-white chapter and verse is to be left a matter for individual conscience, others having no right to pronounce disciplinary judgment concerning it. It is obviously valid that we are free to disagree with each other regarding such things, and to debate them, but only as long as it is in love and mutual tolerance, and as long as we never break fellowship concerning them.
Legalistic Christians, therefore, are those who seek to make mandatory such things as scripture does not, for example, Sabbath-keeping or tithing, or who seek to forbid such things as scripture does not, such as, for instance, playing games, dancing, doing sport, sending their children to school, or anything else not clearly specified in the New Covenant.
The Error of Licentiousness
It should be easy for the reader to now see why legalism and licentiousness are always at war with one another, being polar opposites plus the positions of believers who are, merely as people, let alone as Christians, the opposite ends of each others spectrum. But having seen the error of the legalists, we now turn to the equal and opposite error licentiousness: and if it is the case that legalism demands more than does scripture, then licentiousness is the equal and opposite failure of Christians to demand from each other as much as scripture does. Thus do we have the worldly and carnal compromising Chrisians, the Lord’s fair-weather disciples who buck against the comprehensiveness of holy living, and who want things to be other than as are taught by scripture, being soft not only on their own sinfulness, but also wanting to friends with the world and to be at peace with their surrounding culture by putting mere human philosophy above God’s Word.
Here are the Evangelical Feminists, plus the divorced church leaders who lack the integrity to have stepped down from their role as a result. Here too are those believers lax concerning sexual morality, and who are cool with Christian marriages ending without biblical warrant and with bestowing the freedom for those so doing to just go ahead and have a second or third crack of the whip once the latest divorce proceedings have been completed. Here are the Christians who tolerate other Christians marrying unbelievers, and who are both terrified and disapproving of even the mere mention of accountability and church discipline. To them, those of us who are serious about scripture, by which I mean those who are so in the balanced way we are arguing for, are considered too extreme, divisive and troublesome. But of course! You see, they think we are dangerous legalists!
Not for them Paul’s ‘difficult’ verses about women not being permitted to teach or be church leaders, or about husbands being the heads of their families, or those irksome words from Jesus about illegitimate re-marriage being adultery. Oh no! That’s just all too extreme! It’s apparently not loving or tolerant enough, even though what the Lord Himself actually believes. Whether in their seeker-friendly evangelism or their fellowship and Bible study together, repentance is virtually never mentioned; unless, of course, it is the need for people like me to repent of our alleged legalism. I have, for instance, heard and read countless examples over the years of genuinely Christian Bible teachers who, whilst completely ignoring the verses concerning women being in submission to their husbands, and not being allowed to teach or have authority over men, castigate those who actually believe and obey what Paul wrote, condemning them outright as bigoted chauvinists and oppressors of women, and duly demanding their repentance. Crumbs! Do they seriously believe that people like me are going repent of actually believing and obeying what scripture teaches? Just what kind of nonsense is this that we are up against today?
Such Christians are licentious because they turn the freedom we have in Christ into the liberty and license of being free to disobey scripture, and to sin, whilst yet claiming to be in obedience to the Lord. The love of God is virtually all they talk about, whilst His anger against sin and disobedience, including the unrepentant sins of His people, is never mentioned. These folk would never home in on, for instance, the third chapter that James wrote, because it depicts the wrong kind of ‘God’ for them and is just all too negative and legalistic. Theirs is a ‘god’ who just loves everyone to bits, and who and is cool with just about anything and everything; and anyone who teaches to the contrary, even though actually quoting chapter and verse from scripture itself, is said to be unloving and judgmental. But of course they are! You have to understand, you see, that to quote chapter and verse, should it be one of those chapters and verses they don’t like, is what they define legalism as actually being. When a verse says something they like, then they happily claim the authority of scripture for themselves, but when it’s a verse that says they don’t like so much, and that they don’t approve of, such as women not being allowed to teach, then it’s apparently just ‘the letter of the law’ and not the Spirit, so they don’t have to comply because the Lord is leading them in other ways. And of course the verse in question here (2 Corinthians 3v6) and has become what I term the So-Called Biblical Charter of Christian Licentiousness, and is, of course, being completely twisted. The context in which Paul makes the contrast between the ‘letter’ killing and ‘the Spirit’ giving life is not various written words of scripture versus the leading of the Holy Spirit, but the Old Mosaic Covenant versus the New Covenant. Paul isn’t teaching a (completely false) dichotomy of between either scripture or God’s leading, but is contrasting the fact that whereas the Mosaic law can only condemn one for being sinful, the New Covenant, due to the death of Jesus, and through the agency of the Holy Spirit is granting us spiritual rebirth when we repent of our sins and believe on the Lord.
So there you have it, the equal and opposite errors of legalism and license. And let’s not have any nonsense either with debates concerning which one is least serious and the error that least matters. You might as well ask if stealing is better than lying, or whether fornication is all right because it’s not adultery. When we have two options for error in front of us the response is simple; we reject both. I spend quite a lot of time in aeroplanes, and in particular at 37,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, and they all have two wings from which, theoretically, I could choose to hang. But hey, guess what? Yes, you got it! I invariably settle for a nice warm safe seat at the centre of the plane in the fuselage. Remember, you can fall off a log two ends, but how much better to just hang on for dear life in the middle.
I don’t suggest for one moment that any of us are completely free of either one or the other of these errors; or indeed, from being subject to a bit of both of them at the same time, just regarding different things; but what I do say is that it is quite straightforward, as well as perfectly possible, to recognize any significant leanings in such regard such as we might have in either, or both, directions, and to put things right before the Lord, balance up and make ourselves accountable to others so that they can assist us in so doing. It is, indeed, just ‘A Question of Balance’; and as well as being one the best albums of all time by The Moody Blues, it should also be one of the major quests of our discipleship.