Is the Greater Threat to the Church Liberalism or Legalism?

Wes  —  March 1, 2017
  • Sumo

Liberalism says something like this, “Because I am accepted by God, I can do pretty much whatever I want.” On the other extreme, legalism says, “I am accepted by God because I am a good and obedient person.” Both of these positions are wrong, yet you probably consider one of them to be more dangerous than the other, don’t you? Which one do you consider the greater threat to the church?

Which One is the Greater Threat?

Think of Christianity as a road and the church as a group of people headed down that road. On one side of the road is the ditch of liberalism. Individuals and congregations drift toward this ditch when they start to believe God accepts them no matter what they do. They stop talking about “sin” or “repentance.” They dismiss the ideas of punishment and God’s wrath. They drift further and further toward lawless immorality.

And on the other side of the road is the ditch of legalism or moralism. Individuals and congregations drift toward this ditch when they start to believe they are accepted by God because of their obedience or because of their moral goodness. They either feel an overwhelming sense of dread about eternity, because they’re afraid they haven’t been good enough; or else they feel like they have earned a ticket to heaven because they kept all of the important rules.

Everyone has a tendency to drift toward one of these ditches. And here is the secret: you are probably drifting toward whichever ditch you fear the least. In other words, if you feel like liberalism is the greater threat to the church, you will likely drift toward legalism. Or, if you feel like legalism is the greater threat, you will likely drift toward liberalism.

What Can Keep Us From Drifting?

If you drive down the road, focused on the dangerous drop-off on the left side, you will likely hug the right side of the road. You need something to keep your focus on the road, rather than the ditch on one side or the other. You have to look straight ahead. For the church, the cross of Jesus Christ is the only thing that can keep our focus centered where it needs to be.

The cross reminds us that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).

And the cross also reminds us that just because we are under grace, rather than law, is no reason to think we can continue in disobedience. When we were baptized with Jesus, we died to sin. We were raised up from the water to live as “slaves of righteousness” (see Romans 6:1-23).

The cross of Jesus teaches us that because we are saved by His sacrifice on the cross, we must freely give ourselves to Him in humble obedience.

Preach the Cross

When we fear liberalism more, we have a tendency to just preach, “Obey!” When we fear legalism more, we have a tendency to just preach, “You’re accepted!” Both statements are true. We should obey and we are accepted in Christ. But if we fail to preach the cross, we will drift away from Jesus and into one ditch or the other.

The New Testament has a message for those who seek to be justified by their obedience to law AND the New Testament has a message for those who try to pervert grace into a license for sin. The message is exactly the same, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Let us keep that message at the forefront of our minds today and every day.

I love you and God loves you,

Wes McAdams