House Rules & Legalism

One the truths Doug Wilson has repeated throughout his family books is the difference between house rules and God’s rules. A house rule is a rule put in place to keep order and manage the home, but is not one of God’s rules. For example, take your shoes off before coming inside. Or we only watch movies on Friday night. Or we read our Bible before breakfast. Legalists take house rules and make them into God’s rules. They take the application of God’s Word to their lives and make it the equivalent of God’s Word. We all have good reasons for what we do. There are reasons why we clean the fridge on Saturday, wake up at 6:30 am, go to bed at 10 pm, brush our teeth three times a day, or take a walk several times a week. But none of these are God’s rules. A healthy Christian life and the ability to live in unity with other Christians is impossible if we confuse house rules and God’s rules. When we do this every issue becomes a hill to die on. Everything we do becomes a matter of holiness.

Christians would be wise to consider how many of their house rules they have made into moral imperatives, things other people have to do. But I wanted to focus on exercise and healthy eating. Earlier I wrote a post on how many women are in bondage to the legalism of being thin and attractive. Husbands have told wives and fathers have told daughters that if you want my favor you must stay thin. So women walk around feeling like God is displeased with them and does not accept them because they weigh too much, are not attractive enough, or ate an extra piece of pie. Our culture, including Christian culture, has put our wives and daughters in bondage. It is a grievous sin.

After that post several people asked me, “But is it wrong to exercise or to eat healthy?”  No. But it is not right either. It is not a moral issue. Paul says, “Food does not commend us to God.” (I Cor. 8:8) What does that mean? Well it means food does not commend us to God. Therefore exercise is a house rule. I run three times a week. I only eat dessert on Friday. I eat organic. None of those are God’s rules. Even keeping your body in shape is not one of God’s rules. You could deduce from passages on stewardship and nature that it might be best to try to be healthy. But there is little emphasis in Scripture on being healthy. Exercising and eating healthy are decisions you make for your life and for your family, which will vary dramatically from culture to culture, house to house, and person to person. We cannot confuse our rules for exercising and eating right with God’s rules. But because we think something is best for us we assume that it must be best for everyone.  If I run three times a week, then my fellow Christian, if he cares about his body and loves his wife will make sure he exercises as well. If I eat salad for lunch to stay thin, then my sister in Christ should avoid dessert so she stays thin. If we do not keep our legalistic minds in check, our house rules will slowly morph into God’s rules. God’s laws which are not burdensome are blotted out with our laws, which are burdensome.

Here are some questions to see if you have made the house rule of exercise one of God’s rules.

Do you look down on overweight people, particularly women? When you see an overweight person at Wal-Mart what is your gut reaction?

Do you feel like you sinned against God if you fail to exercise?

Do you look at other Christians who don’t exercise and think them less holy? Less able to fulfill God’s purposes for them? Destroying their witness for Christ?

Do you watch what other people eat and how much? When someone piles their plate high do you give a side long glance of judgment?

Do you think children wicked for wanting a second piece of dessert?

Do you try to impress others with your healthy eating or your exercise?

If someone has health problems do you assume their sinful choices have caused those health problems? If you have health problems do you assume your sinful choices have caused those?

Do you believe if you exercise, eat right, and love God you will have good health?

None of this is an argument against exercise and eating healthy. But these must be kept in their proper place. We should not make exercise, eating healthy, losing weight, etc. into a sin issue. Nor should we judge our fellow Christians based on these issues. We should make the best choices for our family and let our brothers and sisters exercise Christian freedom in these areas.  If we can’t do this then we will be putting others in bondage.

The Whole World Our Banqueting Table

The first six items are here.

7. It is a doctrine of demons to encourage abstaining from foods because you think they are sinful. I Timothy 4:1-5 are very clear on this particular point. Teachers were saying you were unholy if ate certain foods and had sex. Paul denounces these men and calls them the voice of demons. This passage is emphatic and strong. Nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving. If someone doesn’t want to eat meat that is fine. But if they don’t eat meat or anything else because they think it is evil, sinful, or less holy they are teaching false doctrine. All things can be eaten, provided they are sanctified by the Word and prayer.  Colossians 2:20-23 and I Timothy 4:1-5 are foundational texts for understanding what use food has in our lives.

8. A lot of Christians use “the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” argument from I Corinthians 6:19 as an argument for healthy living. However, we must remember that Paul is talking about having sex with a prostitute. So if you think drinking soda or smoking cigarettes or refusing to exercise is “defiling the temple” then you are saying that these are the equivalent of sleeping with a prostitute. Is that really what you want to say? Is that really biblical? No doubt this is in the top ten most misused verses in the whole Bible.

9. To refuse fellowship with another brother or sister over food is a great perversion of the Gospel. To divide over organic vs. inorganic, natural vs. processed, meat vs. veggies, hormone free vs. hormones, exercise vs. non-exercise, white vs. wheat, etc. is to deny Christ who has made us one body in the Spirit. We lean towards self-righteousness, which means we lean towards false lines of holiness where we are on the holy side. Food is one of the ways Satan tempts to look down on other believers. Food is not usually a barrier between churches, but it is often a barrier between Christians. We don’t put in our vision statements: “No short, bald, fat guys allowed.” But with our attitudes, who we like to hang out with, and our treatment of men and women we make it clear that thin, healthy people are preferred.

10. This one will make some people mad, but here goes. Many of the current food fads in Christendom are promoted by women. I know this has not always been the case, but it is now. Most of the best-selling “Christian” exercise books and “Christian” eating books come from women. Most of the pastoral problems about food stem from women who pester their husbands to bring up the issue to the pastor. Pastors and husbands need to teach the women in their flocks and homes a Biblical perspective on food and exercise.  I would encourage beginning with I Timothy 2:11-15.

11. It is easy in our culture to see exercise as a means of holiness. Men and women who exercise should remember I Timothy 4:7-8, which follows very closely on the heels of the I Timothy 4:1-5. Paul says that physical exercise is of little value or possibly it could be translated is only valuable for a short time. Paul is not saying exercise is wicked. But he is saying that we should keep it in perspective. Exercise is of limited value in this life and of no value for the next life.  In our sports and super model saturated world it is difficult to keep our exercise in perspective. Go without exercise for a week or a month and see what that does for you spiritually. Did you feel guilty? Do you feel less holy? If so, your perspective is off. I am not saying stop exercising. Exercise is good. But keep it in perspective and remember that it does not make you more holy.

12. Remember that our culture is obsessed with physical appearances and living a long life. Our culture spends billions each year on beauty and health, promoting items, such as tanning, implants, hair dyes, gym memberships, organic food, etc.  The world believes you will be happier if you are thin. And of course, their pockets will be fatter as well. The world wants to live forever. But for us death is gain. (Philippians 1:21) The newspapers and magazines and sitcoms are not neutral observers, but preachers for a materialistic, Godless world, where the only thing that matters is living as long as you can and being as beautiful as you can be. But for us pouring out our lives, including our bodies, is what we are here to do. (See Romans 12:1-2 and Matthew 10:38)  As Nate Wilson said, “Self-preservation is not a great virtue in [our] story.”  Do not buy into the false gospel they are preaching. Pour yourself out for those around you with little concern for self-preservation.

13. Last, but certainly not least, your view of the Lord’s Supper says a lot about your view of food. Is the Supper a banquet, where we feed upon the body and blood of Christ? Or is it a place where we do penance, hanging our heads in sorrow?  A low, somber view of the Lord’s Supper can lead to or come from a low view of the created world, including food. This is a huge topic, but a brief word will have to do.  The only place outside the Gospels where the Lord’s Supper is discussed extensively is I Corinthians 11:17-34. There the picture is not one of somberness, but of so much food and drink people were getting drunk. Paul does not tell them to tone it down. But rather he tells them to wait on each other. The Lord’s Supper is a feast. (c.f. I Cor. 5:8) Once we see that, then I Timothy 4:1-5 makes perfect sense and the whole world becomes our banqueting table.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

I recently preached on Luke 18:9-14. Here are various thoughts from the sermon.

The Text
The problem for the Pharisee was not perfection. He would not have thought of himself as perfect. The problem was a “I am better than you” attitude. He was comparing himself to those around him and thinking, “Compared to those folks I am a pretty good guy.” The Pharisee thought he deserved to be in God’s presence. He deserved a place at the table. He was not like other sinners. He was not like whores or thieves or liars. He was a good example to others. He was holier than his neighbors. Sure he he wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty good and certainly better than those guys. It reminds me of this Tom Petty song. 

You better watch what you say
You better watch what you do to me
Don’t get carried away
Girl, if you can do better than me, go
Yeah go but remember

Good love is hard to find
Good love is hard to find
You got lucky babe
Yeah, you got lucky babe

When I found you-



God got lucky when the Pharisee joined up. 

Jesus makes it clear that this man trusted in his own righteousness. The word for “trusted” is often translated “persuade.” The Pharisee had persuaded himself that he was righteous. He even declares in his list of what he does not do that he was not “unrighteous. But he was deceived. His view of himself was flawed. In the end he leaves unrighteous and the tax collector leaves righteous. The text does not say, but knowing the human heart my guess would be there were two reasons why he thought himself righteous. First, he compared himself to the people around him instead of  to God’s law. Second, he focused on external action instead of internal affection.

The Pharisee has religious zeal. He was serious about God, worship, prayer, fasting, and giving tithes. He was the guy who would be at all the church functions, follow all the rules, make sure he gave exactly 10%, and prayed fervently in public. Using other texts he probably carefully observed the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-7), was careful who he associated (Luke 5:30, 7:39), and careful about not being tainted by the culture (Luke 11:37-38). Yet despite all his religious fervor he is condemned by God.

The Pharisee was not just worse than the tax collector. He was totally rejected by God. The tax collector was justified. The Pharisee was not. This is not a matter of degrees. The Pharisee’s attitude cut him off from God. God can forgive legalism and hypocrisy, but this man did not leave forgiven.

The conservative, church going, tithing, man who was  viewed as a good example to the neighborhood and a wonderful blessing to his church goes home unrighteous while the whore who has slept with ten men and is notorious for her sexual immorality goes home justified.

Why? The Pharisee trusted in his own righteousness, believed he was a good guy, and thought God owed him salvation. The tax collector knew he was a vile sinner that could only lean on God’s mercy. 

Application
Pride is one of the greatest obstacles to salvation. Therefore one clear sign that the Spirit has given a man a new heart is humility.

External religion is nothing without heart religion.  We can do many righteous things and still be separated from God. Too many Christians in their desire to escape the navel gazing of our fathers have lost the concept of heart religion. External actions can become substitutes for internal affections. When this happens we have become hypocrites. What we see here and in other passages (Matthew 7:21-23, 15:7-9) is a man can look like a Christian and do many of the things Christians are supposed to do and yet not be saved. I wonder if we even think this is possible. Here is a man who jumped through all the hoops, yet went home condemned.  As Christians we need to remember this from time to time.

We have nothing to offer God ever. Our Bible reading, our prayers, our worship, our sexual purity, our parenting, our tithing, our hard work, our kind words, our evangelism, our submission to our husbands, our love of our wives, our homeschooling, our fruitfulness, our preaching and any other good deed cannot earn us one lick of God’s mercy. At no point in time does God ever owe us.

The beginning, middle, and end of our walk with God is the forgiveness of our sins. While we do grow as Christians, we never get past God’s mercy shown to us sinners by forgiving our transgressions because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  In then end, we can only beat our breasts and say, “God be merciful to us sinners.”

Pride before God leads to contempt of sinners. Jesus makes this connection in Luke 19:9. The word translated despised or contempt is only used one other place Luke. In Luke 23:11 Herod and his men dress Jesus up and treat him with contempt. Proud Christians end up  looking down on the sinners around them. Luke is filled with examples of the Pharisees’ disdain for sinners. In Luke 5:30-31 the Pharisees complain because Jesus was feasting with tax collectors. In Luke 7:39 Jesus is eating at a Pharisee’s house, but the Pharisee is disappointed that Jesus allows a sinner to touch him. In Luke 19:7 they complain because Jesus went in to eat with Zacchaeus, a tax collector. Proud Christians refuse to associate with sinners. They are afraid of being tainted. They are afraid of dirtying their reputations. Jesus never excused sin. But sinners were not treated with contempt. All were called to follow him. And no matter how great or ugly the sin a person who looked to Christ for mercy found it. Unfortunately, as Christians, we are not always so kind to sinners. 

Christ’s mercy does not come to those who view themselves as pretty good people who are in need of a little boost. 
Christ’s mercy does not come to those who think God is lucky to have them on His side.

Christ’s mercy does not come to those who trust in their own righteousness to save them. 

Christ’s mercy comes to those who know they are sinners in need of repentance (Luke 5:31-31). As Luther said, “We are beggars; this is true.” All of us are tax collectors, blasphemers, thieves, and whores. Once we realize that we will stop posing like the Pharisee and flee to the cross for mercy.  

Problems with the Pharisees

1. They majored in the minors, neglecting what matter most.
2. Their casuistry [misleading subtle reasoning] negated the law’s spirit and aim.
3. They treated traditions of practice as part of God’s authoritative law, thus binding consciences where God had left them free.
4. They were hypocrites at heart, angling for man’s approval all the time.
(J.I. Packer in Concise Theology, p. 176)

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.