Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Weird Modern Desire for Legalism (And How Some People Don't Even Know They Have It)

I have for a while believed that the generic Osteenish faith of popular Christianity is really just legalism warmed over. That seems counterintuitive, because the smiling face that self-help "Christianity" puts on evangelicalism claims to be setting followers free from rules and judgmental religion. But really, by making discipleship about helpful hints and positive power for successful living, it's really just making a works religion in our new image. In an odd twist, the Oprah-ization of the faith is really just optimistic legalism. Because what is Pharisaical legalism, really, but self-help with bad p.r.?

And people love this stuff. They want to be told religion is not about rules and regulations while at the same time being told each week which four steps (with helpful alliteration) they need to do in order to achieve maximum what-have-you. They want to be reassured that works don't merit salvation while at the same time convinced salvation is about trying really hard to do things that unlock the power or secret of God's such-and-such. (And I've never seen what is such Good News about following a list of instructions in order to button-push God into granting me His favor.)

What I have also found is just how against-the-grain confusing it is when one simply and primarily teaches/preaches what Christ has done. In my little world, there's nothing more exciting or inspiring than knowing that Jesus has accomplished salvation and that all He has and all He has done is given to me in Him and through Him. I love talking about this reality. It is the true "anti-religion," and yet I can sense, subtly and innocently, a minute disappointment in some people that I'm not just giving them "stuff to do."
I mean, I talk about obedience and repentance and what real discipleship entails, and yet despite the amazing wonder of proclaiming that honestly, actually, there's nothing you can do to unleash your inner whatever because Jesus Christ has done it all and assigns His accomplishment to you in your favor for your benefit, there are still some people who are waiting to be inspired. Meaning, they want four fill-in-the-blanks instructions on What To Do.

If we cannot be inspired and challenged and called to action simply by hearing Christ crucified and resurrected, the evangelical problem is even more dire than originally thought.
But unlike some, I don't see this reality and get discouraged. It doesn't make me desperate. I spoke one Saturday with two very nice door-to-door servants of my small town's newest Baptist church who found me mowing my backyard, and after learning that I was indeed a believer, they went on to lament the sad state of our nation and culture, and how we're in a great war with the forces of darkness and that it's so hard to be holy these days, to which I responded not with sympathetic assent but with the idea that I'm actually hopeful that the state of our world, being rather close in spirit and temperament to the world Jesus lived in, is ripe for the radical and foolish message of the cross.

I'm not a "post-" anything. I'm an evangelical who finds it really exciting that we live in a time when the real Gospel is an incredible scandal even to people inside the Church!


jul said...

Great post. I liked how you said "the real Gospel is an incredible scandal even to people inside the Church!" So true! But I'm with you in being hopeful, because knowing the God of the real Gospel, shoudn't we be?

Milton Stanley said...

Well said.