I’m teaching a class to older homeschoolers on the writings of C.S. Lewis. I’m doing it for two reasons. First, Lewis is great fun to read. I’ll take any excuse to read him. There are few times when work and joy are so tightly linked together. Second, he is profoundly wise. Right now my students and I are reading through The Screwtape Letters. This little book is a collection of letters by a senior demon advising a junior demon on how to deal with his “patient,” a human under his diabolical ministrations. Lewis’ goal is not so much to show us how the devil operates (though he does such a fine job one gets the eerie feeling that he might have attended some of Satan’s highest strategy meetings) but how the human heart tends to operate. Our tendency is to jump lightly out of the frying pan and into the fire. Of course it may be that demons help. One thing we do learn about Screwtape and his young nephew is that they do not give up easily. If the patient does this, they counter with that. If he goes the other way, they nudge him over here. A good demon doesn’t despair; he just keeps coming.
There is, perhaps, nothing that smells more like sulfur than legalism. We ought to be able to detect it from miles away. More still, there is little if anything that the apostle Paul warned more sternly against. Writing to the Galatians, who had stepped knee-deep into legalism, Paul admonished, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). Has Paul made himself sufficiently clear? He doesn’t think so, for he adds in the next verse, “As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (v. 9).
The Galatians had been foolish enough to add to the gospel the requirement of circumcision. We, of course, would never be so foolish. We have been warned. But having failed to seduce the Galatians with this form of legalism, the devil did not give up on it. He no longer uses circumcision, but he still uses legalism.
The broadest attack of the devil is out among those in the world. The world is full of people who believe they will make it into everlasting paradise simply by being good, or at least better than the next guy. This is legalism in its silliest, yet most powerful, form.
But that doesn’t describe we who are inside the church. We know better than that, or else we would not have professed our need for Christ. One cannot cry out, “Jesus, save me,” and still think one either saves oneself or doesn’t even need to be saved. If, however, we are in a liberal church, we may think that the Christ we need is simply the Christ who shows us what goodness is, who points the way. Jesus becomes not our Savior but our moral example. What would Jesus do with this thinly veiled false gospel? Let it be accursed.