Many churches today still deal in legalism. We just don't think of it that way because it is a happy and hip legalism, it speaks of grace, and it is not explicitly condemning. But every time churches focus primarily on How To ________, or Six Steps to a Successful _________, they are dealing in legalism, because what is legalism but a gospel of works?
This new focus on our works distorts the pure joy to be found in the true Gospel. What it does, in message format for instance, is spend the majority of its time giving us stuff to do to achieve something, and then tacks on at the end a brief message about choosing Christ's free gift of salvation. In my estimation, this is bass ackwards. A Gospel-driven message focuses on Christ's work, on God's work on our behalf, and then moves to an exhortation or application. In most sermons in evangelical churches, the focus breaks down to 90% Helpful Tips and 10% Jesus Did it For You (if that much). But I think the reverse should be the standard.
The result in our present gospel misfocus is a practical legalism. It's just legalism with a better marketing plan. It's legalism that sells better than the old kind, because it promises practical, worldly benefits. It promises results.
And that's the real demon in this false gospel. Even as the new legalism pays lip service to grace, as it plays up the need to do this, this, and this to achieve success or victory in your work/marriage/life, it sets up success and happiness as the goal of the Christian life. Those are not bad goals, but they are not specifically Christian goals. The problem with focusing on our work with the promise that it will produce results is that we end up working for results, rather than out of joy in Christ. And when results are slow (or nonexistent), it only breeds dissatisfaction, and ultimately, despair.
An illustration, using the most controversial passage I could think of: Whenever ministers cover the touchy subject of wifely submission, they inevitably try to soften Paul's instruction here by saying to husbands, "If you will love your wife as Christ loved the church, then she will be more inclined to submit to you." This makes the call to wifely submission somehow more palatable because it now hinges on a husband worthy of being submitted to.
This is true as far as it goes. Meaning, it is (usually) true that a husband who is loving, sacrificial, servant-hearted, tender, and safe will be easier for a wife to submit to than one who isn't. But what happens when he a husband is not perfect? Does the wife get to opt out? Can she slack off on submission if he's lacking in the "deserving it" department? If he's only 80% sacrificial, is she only obligated to 80% submission?
What happens when a wife is not perfectly submissive? Does the husband get to opt out of laying down his life for her? Is his sacrificing for her contingent upon her submission?
The new legalistic approach to this situation, and others akin to it, cannot adequately answer this problem. Because it does not address sin. It is focused on results, on what "works," and therefore sets up a person to person dynamic that is, again, a distortion of the Gospel call to righteous living.
The real Gospel of grace, however, calls us to submit to each other out of reverence to God. A wife should submit to her husband not because her husband is deserving of being submitted to (because no husband really is), but because it honors God. A husband should sacrifice his life in service to his wife not because she deserves it, but because it is a reflection of how Christ loved us. The difference is that we do these good works -- all good works -- not because they will get us stuff or make us happy, but because they are done for and by and unto God Himself. They aren't steps to __________; they are done out of reverence for Christ.
This is because the new legalism, for all its talk of grace and love and tolerance and anti-condemnation, is just like the old legalism in that it tells us not to be satisfied with Jesus. Don't be satisfied with Jesus' work on your behalf, it suggests. That's not enough. Do more, be more, become more. Because the real goal is not satisfaction with Christ, but success in life. I can't think of anything more "anti" the testimony of the New Testament. Health, wealth, prosperity, conquering dysfunction -- the Bible just isn't really concerned with this stuff. At least, not in the ways the modern church is.
The Bible is concerned, however, with our finding joy and peace and satisfaction in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is about life being Christ and death being gain. The new legalism says living is gain and Christ is for after death. The real Gospel just isn't sexy.
A slightly edited version of this post appeared at BCC is Broken in July 2007.