Legalism, License, and the Narrow Gospel Road

Unless you're a Navy Seal or a Tough Mudder contestant, you probably have no reason to be running in ditches. They're dirty, full of snakes, ridden with mosquitos, and they invite all comers to turn an ankle or tear an ACL.

Why on earth would anyone run in a ditch? 

While we may find acceptable answers to this question hard to come by, the truth is, many professing Christians find themselves running in spiritual ditches that are infested with potentially disastrous spiritual hazards.

Running to Win the Race

Along the narrow road with Jesus, there are two ditches that the Christian must take care to not fall into: legalism and license (Matthew 7:13-14).

The New Testament in several passages uses the metaphor of "running" or "running a race" as it moves to help the reader visualize what it means to "walk as Jesus walked" (1 John 2:6). The Bible sometimes uses the idea of "walking" as a word-picture for how we actually live the Christian life.

One passage where the idea of "running" is used is 1 Corinthians 9:24, where Paul wrote, "Don't you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize" [emphasis mine].

Paul was not, of course, advocating a works-based righteousness by instructing his audience to "run." He wasn't speaking to non-Christians, but to believers at the church in Corinth. His category was not justification but sanctification

What's interesting about Paul's command is not only that he instructs Christians to run, but that he suggests that there's a proper way to do it. Or, for the purposes of this post, there's a proper place to run and at least two places (ditches) to avoid.

Sticking with Paul's "running" metaphor, think of a jogger who is running along a paved road. There may be a few bumps along the way, perhaps even a pothole or two to avoid. These hazards may or may not exist along any given stretch of road, and yet most would still agree that the jogger is safe (or safest) to run in this environment.

Metaphorically, the paved road is like that spiritual place along which believers seek to "run" with Paul (2 Timothy 4:7). It's paved not with blacktop, but with a saving faith that has learned and is continuing to learn to trust and rest completely and utterly in the finished work of Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of sin and eternal life. 

This is the doctrine of "justification by faith alone" (sola fide; Romans 1:17; Ephesians 2:8-9).

How important is this doctrine to the Christian life? Well, according to Martin Luther, it is the "hinge upon which religion turns." R.C. Sproul shares more in this video.

Stay Out of the Ditch

What then of the two ditches that we call "legalism" and "license"? The Bible addresses these issues at various points because those who are given over to them are at great risk of having their professions of faith proven false by Christ himself on that last day (Matthew 7:23). 

Both of these spiritual errors are dangerous precisely because they are opposed to the Gospel.

In the first, "legalism" (or what we might also call self-righteousness), we find a heart that is trusting not in the completed work of Christ on the cross but in the keeping of God's law. It's an erroneous type of faith that is infected by the belief that at some level or in some way salvation is connected to human merit, that is, that it can be earned.

To run in the ditch of legalism is to run in direct opposition to the teaching of Scripture. In Galatians 2:16, for example, Paul wrote that, "No one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ."

Secondarily, there's the ditch that we call "license" or "licentiousness." This is where the heart is tempted to believe that since God promises to extend (and has extended) grace, mercy, and forgiveness to his people, that more of his grace can be experienced as the lusts of the heart and pleasures of sin are indulged.

At the bottom of this ditch is what theologians call "antinomianism." This is the theological error of seeing God's moral law (i.e. the Ten Commandments) as irrelevant or non-binding for New Testament believers.

The Puritans, to include Anthony Burgess (d. 1644), " ... condemned those who asserted they were above the law or that the law written in the heart by regeneration 'renders the written law needless'" (A Puritan Theology).

If that sounds bad, it's because it is. Paul addressed this issue not once, but twice in Romans 6:1-2 and again in Romans 6:15-16. 

Should believers who have been saved by grace alone through faith alone to the glory of God alone continue to live in sin? Paul declares, "Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it?"

Application to Counseling

These issues, while not observed as legitimate categories of counseling in secular settings, are of great importance to biblical counseling precisely because they speak to man's relationship to God and his hope in Christ.

Frequently (but not always), the difficulties that are presented in counseling are not medical, but spiritual and find their genesis in choices or actions that are in some way at odds with Scripture. Spiritual depression, anxieties, and relational difficulties often follow as the fruit of self-righteousness or licentious living.

Part of the biblical counselors task is to listen for evidence of these and other issues which may indicate an under-developed understanding of the Gospel at a minimum, if not an altogether unbelieving heart.

Speaking the truth in love then, the biblical counselor invites the counselee to see the truth of which ditch they've been running in (legalism or license in this case) and in turn calls them to run along the road of faith in Christ alone and to the obedience which follows as a fruit or consequence.

Join the Discussion

1. How have you been tempted to legalism or license?

2. How do you counsel others away from these ditches and toward the paved road of the Gospel?

For an excellent resource that further addresses these and other discipleship issues, see "The Gospel-Centered Life."


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