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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.

There is, perhaps, nothing that smells more like sulfur than legalism.

But we’re evangelicals. We confess the Evangel. We understand that Jesus didn’t come to show us what to do. Instead He came to do what we cannot do, keep the law, and so earn the blessing, and take the curse that our disobedience earned. We’re not like those silly Galatians, thinking some rite will earn our salvation. We’re not like those in the world who think they are good. We’re not like those in unbelieving churches who affirm that Jesus came to help us be good. By now, for sure, the devil has stopped trying to tempt us with this foolishness, right?

Perhaps not. Isn’t it possible that we have expunged the leaven of the Pharisees from our tongues, but not from our hearts? Isn’t it possible that the devil and his minions have not quite given up on us? The world is full of evangelicals who are persuaded they have eluded the trap of legalism because they say they are justified by faith alone, but who, somehow in their hearts, can’t help but believe that God is really pleased with them because they have been so faithful in keeping their quiet times. There are those in the evangelical church who go door to door, telling the lost not to trust in their own righteousness, who, again only in the quiet of their hearts, trust in the fact that they go door to door for the sake of the gospel, to earn God’s favor. There are those who weekly sing the praises of God’s grace, who sing with vigor about the grace that saved “a wretch like me,” but who, deep down, think that God thinks they’re just ducky because they feel so bad about being such wretches. Our demons nudge us from thinking on God’s grace and our own sin to thinking about the fact that we are thinking about God’s grace and our own sin. They move us swiftly from humility to pride.

Surely, though, we who are Reformed manage to avoid this trap. Aren’t we the ones who have championed justification by faith alone for the last five hundred years? Aren’t we the ones who so forcefully affirm man’s total depravity? Aren’t we the ones who make it a point of contention that even the faith we have was given to us, that in ourselves we can do no good thing? That’s a mighty fortress against the assaults of legalism. What could possibly scale such walls? Only the most exceedingly persistent demons.

The Reformed tendency is not to think that God is pleased with us because we are so faithful in our quiet times. Our success here may be because we know better, or it may simply be that we know we aren’t so good with our quiet times. We don’t think we’re good with God because of the warm fuzzies we feel when we sing campfire songs in church. But that is either because we don’t sing campfire songs or because we work so hard to not feel anything. Our peculiar brand of legalism is at the same time less subtle and more foolish and hypocritical than the version common among other evangelicals. We think that God loves us, not because we tell people about justification by faith alone (because we don’t), but because we understand justification by faith alone. Our temptation is to think that we earn favor with God because we are so good at parsing how it is that we have favor with God.

We figure out something that we’re able to do, and then, even while our lips might say otherwise, hold that up as the standard.

It almost seems as if we think that the reason God chose us was because He peered down the corridor of time and saw that we would be Reformed. We’re proud of the depth of our understanding of the depth of our sin. How Satan must relish that.

Do you see the pattern here? Whether it is the Galatians, the world, the unbelieving church, the evangelicals, or the Reformed, in each instance what we do is figure out something that we’re able to do, and perhaps do well, and then, even while our lips might say otherwise, hold that up as the standard. This thing, the one we do well, that’s what really pleases God. We are all, by nature, Pelagian, even we who are card-carrying members of the Anti-Pelagian League. We all want to contribute something, to take some credit, to share some of the glory. But God has said He will not share His glory with any other.

There is only one cure for Pelagianism—death. It begins as we begin to die to self. We must let go of the search for glory. We must look deep into our hearts of darkness, and fight the urge to pat ourselves on the back for doing so. We put to death our own concept of what is right, and then, with reckless abandon, we seek to live in fidelity to the law. We put to death our own visions of Jesus the example, and pick up the cross of Jesus the Savior. We put to death our own reputations, and so live for the building of His kingdom, discipling the nations. We put to death our intellectual lethargy, and become people of theological care. But in doing so we take the care to remember what our careful theology always tells us—it is only and always the grace of God.

It ends with death. Only then will there be no more self-seeking. Only then will we be fully free from our old nature that clamors for credit. Only then will all that is flesh be cut off. Only then will we be secure in the true Mighty Fortress. Satan no longer will tempt, for he will finally give up and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. Only then will we be fully sanctified, such that our lips, our hearts, our minds, our hands, and our feet all affirm and believe that it was all Jesus, all along the way.

The Traditions of Men

The Scarlet L

Keep Reading Bound by Men: The Tyranny of Legalism

From the August 2002 Issue
Aug 2002 Issue