One of the big themes of evangelical Christianity during my lifetime has been the rejection of “legalism.” But the rejection has been so complete that maybe we’ve swung too far in the other direction. “These days,” says Jen Wilkin on The Gospel Coalition, “obedience has gotten a bad name“:
As a response to this skewed view of Law, some have begun to articulate a skewed view of grace—one that discounts the necessity of obedience to the moral precepts of the Law. I call this view “celebratory failurism”—the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt. Furthermore, our failure is ultimately cause to celebrate because it makes grace all the more beautiful.
Interestingly, Jesus battled legalism in a different way than the celebratory failurist does. Rather than tossing out the Law or devaluing obedience to it, he called his followers to a deeper obedience (Matthew 5:17-48) than the behavior modification the Pharisees prized. He called for obedience in motive as well as in deed, the kind of godly obedience that is impossible for someone whose heart has not been transformed by the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather than abolish the Law, Jesus deepened his followers’ understanding of what it required, and then went to the cross to ensure they could actually begin to obey it.
Celebratory failurism asserts that all our attempts to obey will fail, thereby making us the recipients of greater grace. But God does not exhort us to obey just to teach us that we cannot hope to obey. He exhorts us to obey to teach us that, by grace, we can obey, and therein lies hope. Through the gospel our God, whose Law and whose character do not change, changes us into those who obey in both motive and deed. Believers no longer live under the Law, but the Law lies under us as a sure path for pursuing what is good, right, and pleasing to the Lord. Contrary to the tenets of celebratory failurism, the Law is not the problem. The heart of the Law-follower is.
Obedience is only moralism if we believe it curries favor with God. The believer knows that it is impossible to curry favor with God, because God needs nothing from us. He cannot be put in our debt. Knowing this frees us to obey out of joyful gratitude rather than servile grasping.
Many people just have a hard time believing that they could ever be more Christ-like when they are so painfully aware of their own sinful nature. They despair that they could ever change, so “celebratory failurism” starts to look really good.
I am crazy enough to think that God loves us. That being the case, I don’t think He wants to set us up to fail. When you doubt yourself, remember that the same guy said this:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Schizophrenic? No, just a man pursuing both obedience and God’s grace.