“Thus says the Lord,” declares the preacher. “You are a legalist,” comes the resounding response.
Did the pastor preach a sermon calling the believer to obey Jesus Christ? Did he counsel someone with a portion of the Word of God that calls for a change in behavior? There are times when the pastor must preach the “do not” language of Scripture even if he has to endure cries of “Legalism!”
The pastor must remember his responsibility to “ ‘shepherd the church of God which He [Christ] purchased with His own blood’ ” (Acts 20:28). The inspired Word of God says the pastor must “preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). A patient shepherd will be faithful to God’s call by doing his utmost to fatten the sheep with spiritual nourishment.
However, the pastor may patiently, diligently, and faithfully preach and teach the full counsel of God only to see it fall on deaf ears. For instance, I preach by exposition through books of the Bible. When I started preaching through Hosea, several people in the congregation were very uncomfortable with the application of the Word. I finally preached on “Biblical Repentance” from Hosea 12. A lady greeted me after the service and said: “I’ll be glad when you finish Hosea. I don’t like it. I like to hear the love of God.” The implication was that the love of God militates against God’s call to obedience and repentance. She interpreted God’s mandates in terms of legalism.
The cries of legalism come in the strangest forms. “The pastor of our church wants to take us back to the rules of Puritanism in the seventeenth century,” said one elder. The Puritans were reformers, not just rule-makers. They were not legalists for their pursuit of rigorous doctrinal purity in the church. They believed in the necessity to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Thus, they sought to glorify Him by preaching, teaching, and interpreting the Bible by “Scripture alone.” And they mused over the latest developments in science while they tasted the most recent run of home brew or the best sherry in the colony. As with the Puritans, the gross misconceptions of legalism will still caricature pastors who preach the full counsel of God and enjoy His goodness.
Disputes, conflicts, and arguments are natural to fallen man. Unbelievers do not have an objective standard for resolving disputes, so they make rules to maintain order. Christians have an objective standard—the Word of God. And the only way to maintain peace and harmony in the church is to obey God’s objective standard.