(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.] An article from which the chapter is drawn can be read here. Note: In this post, Piper speaks so forthrightly that I have chosen not to add my own musings. Please simply hear Piper and grasp the significance of what he is saying.
The reason some Pharisees tithed and fasted is the same reason some German university students take off their clothes and lie around naked in the park in downtown Munich…. So the first meaning of legalism is the terrible mistake of treating biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to show our moral prowess and earn God’s favor. It is a danger we must guard against in our own hearts every day. (153).
The second meaning of legalism is this: the erecting of specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for full participation in the local family of God, the church. This is where unbiblical exclusivism arises… (154).
These two uses of the term legalism have a common root. On the one hand, legalism means treating Biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God’s favor. On the other hand, it means erecting specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for local church membership.
In the first case, we use our own power to make ourselves moral. In the second case, we use our own power to make the church moral. In the first case, we fail to rely on the power of God for our own sanctification. In the second case, we fail to rely on the power of God for the sanctification of others (154).
It seems beyond doubt that God hates legalism as much as he hates alcoholism. And I believe is a literal understatement that legalism has brought more people to eternal ruin than alcohol has, through the devastations of alcohol are huge…. Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn’t look like one. Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world. Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one. Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength. Alcoholics don’t feel welcome in church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church.
Therefore, what we need in this church is not front-end regulations to try to keep ourselves pure. We need to preach and pray and believe that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither teetotalism nor social drinking, neither legalism nor alcoholism is of any avail with God, but only a new heart.
The enemy is sending against us every day the Sherman tank of the flesh with its cannons of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. If we try to defend ourselves or our church with peashooter regulations, we will be defeated even in our apparent success (155-156).
If you erect enough regulations and build a big enough endowment, an institution can endure for decades after the spiritual dynamic that brought it into existence is gone…. On the contrary, by imposing a restriction which the New Testament never imposes, this entrance requirement, in principle, involves us in a legalism that has its roots in unbelief. It is a sign of the faded power and joy and heart righteousness that once was created by the power of Christ but cannot be preserved by laws (158).