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It's Legalism!

Updated: Mar 23, 2019

by Dave Miller

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I once had a conversation with full-time missionaries where they confessed evangelism was not their gifting or the desire of their heart. They felt called to support local pastors and train them in theology. I agreed it was a noble task. We were however, sitting in the homeland of hundreds of millions of unreached peoples. The leaders in the region had been pressing for gospel shares so that pastors could be raised up from the harvest and trained. One of the missionaries expressed frustration with the pressure to share Jesus. The reasoning? If there was no desire in a heart to share the gospel, then to do so was legalism and was not gospel centered. Prayer and time was needed, they argued, so desire could lead to action. Evangelism would then be an act of worship rather than a legalistic duty. I must admit, in that moment, I wanted to “share a few words.” But in all honesty, it wasn’t long ago when I thought the same way.

Submission, duty, and work carry a strong connotation of legalism in our culture. I have already written of John Piper’s influence in my life. He speaks of the dangerous duty of delight, which I highly recommend. But somehow between the Christian Hedonism movement and the gospel-centered movement, at no fault of the leading voices, there has begun a strong propensity to avoid or outright ignore the teachings of Christ when one’s heart and affections are not inclined to obey a specific command.

Outright disobedience has become acceptable, because action without heart or affection is considered Pharisee-ism, a man-centered outward religion without inner relationship. This of course, in many young Christian minds, is the greatest of all sins. Which of course makes sense as our reactionary Christian pendulum swings far from the supposed affectionless, duty-driven religion of our parents and grand parents. When, however, we understand our purpose for existence as ambassadors entrusted with the spread of the glory of God in all the earth through gospel proclamation, obedience actually becomes the purest form of worship precisely because we demonstrate we trust Christ and His ways alone. As Putnam pointed out:

“If our acceptance of Jesus begins in the head and extends to the heart, it leads to a change in what we do with our hands.”[1]

But that doesn’t mean the distance between acceptance and action must be months or years. In fact, the distance from head through heart to hands can be mere seconds.

Decisions to obey Jesus don’t have to be in line with affections, just in line with faith.

You may be waiting days, months, or even years to obey Jesus because your heart isn’t in it. I was there not to long ago. Be very cautious of any theological system you follow that allows us to willingly live in disobedience to Jesus, perhaps even justifying disobedience. It may be a bit of a soapbox, but some conversations among the gospel-centered movement are doing just that. [2]

I trust at this point you understand the gospel is not a part of disciple making. The gospel is the center of disciple making. Gospel-centered theology has brought a much needed restoration to Paul’s thesis in Romans 1:16-17:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The gospel-centered movement has chipped away at the hyper-fundamentalist “do it because it is right whether you like it or not” Christianity that many in my generation have avoided. It has taken a hammer to religious externalities without inward change. It has refocused our attention on our identity in Christ, the work he accomplished, and the glory he alone deserves. The list could go on, and I am personally changed because of the influence of the gospel-centered movement. Most importantly, the movement has challenged the idea that my obedience or disobedience affects the love God has for me. As JD Greear wrote:

“In Christ, there is nothing I could do to make you love me more; nothing I have done that makes you love me less.” [3]

But we should not allow the gospel to become an excuse rather than the power of God unto obedience.

Heart change is necessary and accomplished only through the Holy Spirit because of Christ’s finished work in his death, burial and resurrection. Jesus made clear the heart is the wellspring of life. A good heart produces good fruit and a bad heart produces bad fruit. The entire Sermon on the Mount challenged external religion apart from inward thoughts, feelings, and motivations. So where is the breakdown? Why isn’t gospel centrality catapulting all to obedience to the Great Commission?

Dallas Willard said it well:

Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone. Many people don’t know this, and that is one major result of the cutting down of the gospel to a theory of justification, which has happened in our time. . . . Many people today understand justification as the only essential result of the gospel, and the gospel they preach is—and you will hear this said over and over by the leading presenters of evangelical faith—that your sins can be forgiven. That’s it! [4]

Once we learn that grace is not opposed to effort (action)—though it is opposed to earning (attitude)—the way is open for us to “work out” all that is involved in our salvation, not only “with fear and trembling” but also with the calm assurance that it is God who is at work in us to accomplish all of His goodwill. [5]

Willard is of course referring to Philippians 2:12-13 where Paul wrote:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

This verse troubles many believers who wrestle with earning salvation or rightfully avoid trying to earn salvation. But when you understand that Paul is not just talking about the declaration of God, justification, but your becoming what Christ has declared you to be, sanctification, it makes sense. Grace, as Willard taught, is opposed to earning not effort. Work out your salvation. Join the Holy Spirit’s work in your life as he molds you into the image of Christ.

I have five children. Each of them has the last name Miller. The reason they have that last name is because they are my kids. The name Miller comes with a certain identity. We are country folk. Rural America is in our heart no matter where we may currently live. There is a “Miller way” to do most everything. Starch is always welcome in liberal amounts on any clothing we wear. Tea is required at every meal, beef is the finest meat ever created by God, tractors must be green, trucks must be Chevy, cows must be Hereford, and college football allegiance is with the OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS! People matter. When you can, help, when you can’t, help anyway. Above all else, do what is right, even if it hurts.

My five children aren’t Millers in action yet, but the name tells them who they are. Over time, repetition, discipline, and encouragement will mold a Miller kid into a Miller adult. The Miller name was worked out in me, and it will be in my children as well. Your family has its quirks and traditions, just like mine. Generations reflect the identity of the family and naturally mold the next generation to do the same. So it is with Jesus.

Take responsibility. We become who Christ has declared us to be, image-bearing ambassadors with all its rights and responsibilities. This is not legalism this is family. This is who you were born again to be. Willard again is helpful:

When you see a person who has been caught on fire by grace, you are apt to see some of the most astonishing efforts you can imagine (1 Cor. 15:10). Of course, the evangelical tradition is filled with effort—for example, the great missionaries (Judson and Carey and others) who went out. Some said to them, “Don’t you believe God is going to save who He is going to save?” And they would reply, in effect, “Yes, that’s exactly why I am going. I want to be there when it happens.” Grace is a tremendous motivator and energizer when you understand and receive it rightly.[6]

Some have become so focused on running from the attempts to earn God’s favor through legalism, that we have cheapened God’s grace with inaction. We have claimed the power of the gospel so strongly that we blame the results of our disobedience on God. The gospel changes the man, but it is the man who is responsible to partner with God for the world. Men are God’s method. [7] Men empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Until there's #NoPlaceLeft...


[1]Putman, Jim; Harrington, Bobby; Coleman, Robert (2013-04-23). DiscipleShift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples (Exponential Series) (p. 49). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[2]Ryan Smith, Why I Don't Share The Gospel,Accessed 2/5/2016. one public example among many private conversations.

[3]JD Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revelutionary, 2011, 1?

[4]Willard, Dallas (2009-10-13). The Great Omission (Kindle Locations 971-976). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[5]Willard, Dallas (2009-10-13). The Great Omission (Kindle Locations 2001-2004). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[6]Willard, Dallas (2009-10-13). The Great Omission (Kindle Locations 2452-2456). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[7]Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism, 21 via EM Bounds


Sentergy: When Jesus, People, Practice and Theology Collide

Chapter 1: The Glory of God


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