Sometimes things that appear to be poles apart are actually as close as two peas in a pod.
I am currently about halfway through Frank Viola’s latest book ‘Insurgence’, and what I have read so far has brought back to mind to two related issues.
Frank describes the two well-known polarities of Christian religious belief and practice – Legalism and Licence (which Frank calls Libertinism). He defines Legalism as ‘the human attempt to gain God’s favour by keeping rules, regulations, laws, and expectations’. He describes Libertinism as the polar opposite of Legalism and although he does not define it, he captures the essence of what he understands by the term with the words; ‘The gospel of libertinism teaches that because we are under grace, anything goes’. He then proposes a third ‘gospel’, the ‘true’ Gospel that stands between these two false gospels, which he calls the Gospel of the Kingdom, the good news that Jesus Christ is both Saviour and Lord.
There is of course nothing new in these classifications but one of the things that engaged me as I read was the question,
‘Are Legalism and Licence really on two opposite ends of a scale with the ‘true’ gospel in a middle position?’
I have often observed how truth claims that seem to be polar opposites of each other are often so equally false that we should regard them as a cohabiting couple rather than enemies. For instance, Legalism is a rules-based religion and Licence is a rule-less religion, but they are both false reflections of true Christianity. Also, when we regard them as opposites, then we tend to relegate Truth to a form of compromise between the two. Yet Truth is not a mediation between two forms of error and nor is it a middle-ground hybrid of both; Truth stands opposed to error.
So here is another way to look at things like this. Imagine taking a rope, labelling one end Legalism and the other end Licence, and then looping it into a circle. The two ends of Legalism and Licence now join at one point and Truth is at the opposite position on the circle.
The other similar thought that I pondered as I read, is the contrast often drawn between the ‘solutions’ to the perceived opposite problems of Legalism and Licence.
Frank describes Legalism as ‘white-knuckle, performance-based Christianity’ and Libertinism as ‘anything goes’ Christianity. So, is the antidote to Legalism simply learning to loosen up on rules, and the antidote to Licence learning to apply some rules? The linear model (figure 1) tends to suggest this because in terms of this model a person can move from either end of the line towards the middle Truth position. However, moderation, in this sort of scenario, will not bring one closer to the truth because Truth is actually somewhere else on the circle (figure 2), not somewhere between the two errors of Legalism and Licence. No, if we want to move from error to truth then we need to move to an entirely new position on the circle. Frank identifies Legalism as embracing the Lordship of Jesus Christ while rejecting Him as Saviour, and Libertinism as accepting Him as Saviour but not as Lord. This analysis leaves one feeling a little like a spiritual plank-walker trying to find the balance between these two positions. A step to the left and the plank tilts to Legalism and a step to the right tilts it to Licence. Perhaps the idea fits into the linear model, but it does not fit into the circular concept.
The legalist will attempt to find favour with God by working hard to obey whatever scripture or denominational teaching impose. The Libertine enjoys being ‘in Christ’ by relying on God’s grace to replace most, and sometimes all rules implied in the Bible. Both approaches are essentially useless in that all they do is inch us along between the short gap on the circumference of the circle between Legalism and Licence. No, what we need is a radically new approach, a complete leap over to the other side of the circle to a new position in Christ Jesus.
Legalism regards Christians as slaves owned by a master. Libertinism regards Christians as masters and Jesus as a faithful slave-servant. Neither is a reflection of biblical truth and there can be no true merging of these two positions. My understanding of the biblical revelation is that we are sons and daughters who serve. We desire to project our heavenly Father’s life through a Spirit-empowered conformity to the image and likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our transformation is not the result of self-driven adherence to rules and nor is it a fatalistic belief that God will do everything for us, including sanctification. Rather, our life in Christ is an expression of a loving and dependent cooperation between The Triune God and Spirit-born obedient children. This spiritual ‘partnership’ is neither a form of works-based Legalism nor a self-indulgent Libertinism.
I do hope that what I have written here is helpful to you and not just a philosophical indulgence. I think it is a vitally important subject worth exploring in as many ways as possible and I have written about it before both here and here.
Perhaps I will comment again after I have finished reading Frank’s book, but in the meantime, I would love to interact with you on this, so please use the comments facility under this post.