Legalism and Worldliness: A Pastoral Approach

  Pastors are always fighting on two fronts: legalism and worldliness (antinomianism).  I would like to briefly address both of these.  I am going to approach it as a pastor, but it applies to parenting as well.

                Pastors should aim to make every man mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28)  This means that the flock should have a true and growing faith in Christ that shows itself in obedience to God’s Word. However, we like to separate true faith in Christ from obedience to God’s Word. This is where the problems come.  Let me explain.
                Some people emphasize obedience to God’s Word. Some temptations for this particular group are a judgmental attitude, emphasis on outward behavior without concern for inward heart issues, and separating relationship from obedience.  This group is in danger of divorcing obedience from a true and growing faith in Christ. But of course, obedience which does not flow out of faith in Christ and is not for the glory of God is not true obedience.
                Others emphasize faith in Christ. They use the word “grace” like it is a magic charm. They love the word “love.”  This group is not so concerned about obedience. In fact, for them obedience is usually a bad thing because it shows that you are trusting in your works and on your way towards legalism.   This group is in danger of divorcing faith in Christ from obedience to God’s Word. But of course, faith that does not lead to obedience is not faith at all.
                My point is simple: We tend to drift to extremes. On one end is legalistic conformity to a law (usually our own) without faith and love. The other is worldliness in the name of grace and faith. Pastors should address both of these of temptations in their flocks.  Why? Because both the legalist and the worldly exist in every church, and often in every heart. 
                How should a pastor address these two groups?  By preaching and teaching all of God’s Word, which will naturally address both legalism and worldliness and bring balance to the Christian life.  Let me give you two examples of how a pastor could address this.  
                First, anyone who preaches through a book of the Bible will have opportunities to address both legalism and worldliness. From Genesis to Revelation these two attitudes of the human heart are present. For example, I recently preached through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  It begins with grace, the “poor in spirit,” and ends with obeying Jesus’ commands. (See Matthew 5:3 and 7:24-27) There is no divorce of grace and obedience, of faith and works.  Some books of the Bible might lean more heavily one way or another. If you want to specifically address legalism, Galatians might be a good choice. If you want to specifically address worldliness, I John would be a good choice.  But in Galatians you will find good works and in I John you will find faith in Christ. So any man who preaches regularly through books of the Bible will address both of these tendencies. If he doesn’t he is missing something.
                Second, a pastor could address both these mindsets in a particular sermon.  Obviously, this is not necessary for every sermon.  But when he comes to certain passages he would be wise to remember both the legalist and the worldly minded. 
                Let me illustrate by using I Peter 3:3, which is one of two passages specifically addressing modesty in the New Testament.  If the pastor is preaching 1 Peter then the verses must be preached. He cannot avoid them or explain them away.  He must preach them.  But how?  Well he first exegetes the text explaining what it means. Then he must apply the sermon to both groups in his body.  Here is how that might work.
                The legalist assumes they know what modesty means. They know it means that you only wear skirts or that skirts must come below the knee or that any sleeveless shirt is a sin. The pastor must get the legalist to see that their judgmental attitude is contrary to the Scriptures. He must get them to see that physical modesty flows out of a love of Christ. If their modesty is a hammer to bash others or a source of pride instead of the adornment of a Christian woman, it is not pleasing to the Lord.  He must get them to see that modesty is not whatever they think it is. Some types of dress are obviously immodest.  Others are not so obviously immodest.  Sometimes to decide between the two requires wisdom. The pastor should remind them that love covers a multitude of sins.  
                The worldly minded Christian assumes that their love of Christ does not have to reflect itself in their dress. They do not want to be thought of as legalists.  Even if they dress modestly, they rarely, if ever, judge anyone else as immodest. They believe that by not addressing issues like modesty they will show the world the love of Christ. They do judge those judgmental Christians who think modesty is a matter of dress instead of a matter of the heart.  The worldly minded Christian must be taught that our love of Christ will be reflected in concrete ways, including how we dress.  Modesty begins with a gentle and quiet spirit, but is reflected in a gentle and quiet dress.  They need to be taught that just because there are no specific modesty standards in the Scriptures does not mean anything goes.   They need to be reminded that that there are good ways to love the world (John 3:16) and bad ways to love the world. (I John 2:15)  They need to be reminded that in a pagan culture like ours we should expect to look differently. Some types of dress are obviously modest.  Others are not so obvious. To determine between the two requires wisdom.  The pastor should remind them that love covers a multitude of sins, even the sin of legalism.
                In a sermon like this I would try to address both dangers. To fail to do this is pastorally naive and will keep the church from maturing in Christ.