In my previous post, I started a short series on ‘missional lifestyle’, and set out a basic framework for discussing what that might look like. But before I jump into the details, I thought I ought to write a second ground-clearing post—this time focusing on the relationship between lifestyle and legalism.
There is a lot of overlap between the sort of teaching on lifestyle that the New Testament commends and the sort of legalism that the New Testament condemns. Both are interested in the way you ‘walk’ day by day in the details of life (e.g. Eph 4:17; Mark 7:5)—things like eating and drinking (e.g. 1 Cor 10:30-31; Col 2:21), working and resting (e.g. 2 Thess 3:6-15; Mark 2:23-28), spending and giving (e.g. 1 Tim 6:17-19; Luke 18:12), and so on. Both can involve ‘commands’ and ‘rules’ (e.g. 2 Thess 3:10; 1 Tim 6:17; Col 2:20-23; 1 Tim 4:3). Both can involve strict self-discipline and self-denial (e.g. 1 Cor 9:24-27; Col 2:23).
But the extent of the overlap and the danger of lapsing into legalism should not make us timid or squeamish about teaching the principles and practicalities of Christian lifestyle. We should not be so frightened of legalism that we fail to make any attempt to help one another apply the wisdom of the cross to the way in which we ought to exercise the freedom that we have as Christians.
There are big and important differences between a Christ-exalting, grace-motivated, gospel-centred way of teaching Christian lifestyle, and an enslaving, self-justifying legalism. The way of life that we are taught (and the manner of teaching that we are encourage to use) in the Bible is one that relies not human merit-making (e.g. Luke 18:9-14), but on God’s grace alone for salvation. It seeks God’s glory, not the good opinion and approval of others (e.g. Matt 5:16, 6:1-18). It recognizes that God is the ultimate judge, not us, and refuses to condemn or exclude fellow Christians over differences of judgement on disputable matters (e.g. Rom 14:1-23). It recognizes the difference between weightier matters and less weighty matters (e.g. Matt 23:23-24), outward things and inward things (e.g. Mark 7:15), and man-made rules and God-given commandments (e.g. Mark 7:8).
But it is still purposeful and deliberate about “stir[ing] up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24). It still involves teaching and training in the practicalities of Christian lifestyle, addressing the particular opportunities and challenges of various different life situations (e.g. Titus 2:1-15; Luke 3:10-14; 1 Tim 6:1-2, 17-19). It still requires concrete, lived examples, not just vague, abstract principles (e.g. 1 Cor 4:8-17; Phil 2:19-30; 2 Thess 3:7-9; 1 Tim 4:15-16; Heb 13:7). It can still include very specific, detailed instructions and policies to give guidance on the ‘how to’s of obedience (e.g. 1 Cor 16:1-2).
In short, fear of legalism must not leave us silent about lifestyle.