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Legalism or Progressivism: Which is Deadlier to Faith?

Since 2002, I’ve been advocating for religion-free Christianity, as well as warning of the dangers of allowing legalism to invade our faith-walk. Over the years, I’ve been accused by fundamentalists of being “soft on sin,” preaching “greasy grace,” and failing to understand the importance of the Law.

I’ve been physically assaulted on two separate occasions, I’ve been labeled a “radical” and a “heretic,” placed on false teacher websites and have been blacklisted from several churches due to my views on sovereignty, the believer’s authority, and faith-righteousness.  Through all of that, I’ve stood strong for the message of the New Covenant, the finished work of the cross, and the righteousness of the believer through faith.

Recently though, I’ve received a new form of opposition. Despite my very public (and considered in some circles to be “radical”) stance on grace, I’ve now been accused of being a legalist. How did this happen you may wonder?  Let me explain.

For the last several years, I’ve been addressing a theological phenomenon known by some as spiritual extrapolation.  Spiritual extrapolation is the process by which one attempts to discover a deeper revelation of the Word by starting with a biblical truth, but over time extrapolating the revelation of that truth, until the end doctrine has progressed beyond what is found in Scripture, and the individual ends up in error.

The main concern of spiritual extrapolation is not simply that one now holds to the error, but that he has let go of the value and importance of the Word in establishing a right belief about God.  This form of extrapolation, rooted in Gnostic thinking, gives preference to reason and logic over biblical inerrancy.  Thoughts such as, “If God is really good, then there would be no hell,” sound good on paper, but they violate foundational truths of the Bible, such as freewill, personal responsibility, and the empowerment of the believer. Don’t be fooled, a God that gives no choice, cannot be truly good.

I understand the attraction to this line of thinking, especially by my grace brothers and sisters, many of whom have been deeply wounded by denominational thinking and Pharisaical Christianity. Like many in the grace community, I too, have experienced firsthand the negative effects of legalism, adherence to tradition, and the damage that a faulty view of God can cause to one’s emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.

It makes sense to me that those of us who have been wounded by religion would have the tendency to set sail for greener and freer theological pastures.  And in many cases, this has proven to give birth to wonderful theological renewal.  New insights into the meaning of the cross, a greater understanding of the purpose of the Mosaic Law, and powerful personal revelations of the unbreakable and everlasting covenant with our God through Christ abound. But not all “so called” revelations are good, as is the case with progressive thinking that inevitably leads to extra-biblical extrapolation.

Think of doctrine like a buoy floating in the ocean. Fixed to the bottom of the ocean floor by a strong cable, the buoy is free to float along the surface of the water. It can float a little to the left or a little to the right, but ultimately, it remains safely anchored to the seabed.

In the case of doctrine, our opinions regarding specific scriptures may float, if you will, between various individual interpretations and theological variations, but assuming we are still connected to the Bible and the Lordship of Jesus, we can remain fixed within the broader bounds of orthodoxy, free from the devastating effects of heresy.

However, if our belief and connection to the infallibility of the Word of God is somehow lost, like a buoy ripped from its foundation, we, too run the risk of floating out into the life-threatening waters of false doctrine. This is exactly what happens in the case of spiritual extrapolation and it is the trademark of progressivism.  (For more on spiritual extrapolation, click HERE.)

Verses that used to serve as the final authority on a given topic, are now treated with contempt – marginalized, criticized, or suggested to be inapplicable to a New Covenant believer in the modern era.  All this is just a vain attempt to justify holding onto false doctrines and man-made opinions over the Word of God.

Furthermore, since our new doctrines inevitably violate the Word of God, our belief system creates a tension in our heart.  The need to resolve this tension only further propels us into distancing ourselves from the Bible.  If we begin to hold to a particular belief and wrongly elevate it over the truth of the scriptures, eventually, something has to give.  Unfortunately, our pride usually prevents that from being our own belief system, so by default, our dependence on the scriptures is often the first to detach.

“But isn’t progressivism better than legalism?” I was asked recently. To be completely honest, I had to think about that question for a minute, until I eventually found myself answering it with a resounding, “No!” Here’s why.

In Romans 3:19, Paul writes, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.”

Additionally, Paul adds in Galatians 3:23-24,

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.”

According to Paul, the purpose of the Law was to silence man before God and to reveal his need for a savior.  In fact, any real effort at attempting to fulfill the Law, should eventually lead a person to a deep surrender to the lordship of Jesus.

If man were truly to attempt to fulfill the whole law, he would quickly realize that he could not, and therefore, would call out to God for help.  In reality, mixture is infinitely more dangerous than adherence to the Law, because the worshipper falsely believes that with just a little bit of law and a little bit of God’s grace, he could accomplish righteousness on his own.

But in the case of progressivism, the worshipper must reject allegiance to the written Word of God, which is supposed to confirm and validate the person of Christ and the truth of God. Through humanistic thinking, a progressivist simply follows his own vain imaginations and theological ponderings.  Floating detached from truth, he begins interpreting Scripture with what feels like divine inspiration, yet with each new wave of “revelation,” he floats closer to the shores of agnostic skepticism, before eventually running aground on the rocks of atheism.

These theological drifters have exchanged the Holy Spirit’s prompting for the comfort of their own wit, and by doing so, have lost the opportunity to be reined in by spiritual conviction and God’s rebuke.  Though once enlightened, the tether that was at one time attached to their source of truth has been severed – cut by their own egos.  As a result, progressivists exist in an extra-biblical world, outside of the covenants and separated from the Word of God.

For example, some progressivists suggest that the apostle Paul had only a partial revelation of grace, thus, “his words can’t be fully trusted.”  Anyone who adheres to this thinking is like one who makes the “doctrine of the month” his new authority. His own lack of confidence in the word testifies against him.

Contrast this with the legalist, who, even though he preaches a “ministry of death,” remains loyal to the very law that was intended to lead a man to Christ.  Ironically, through this strict adherence to the Law, there’s actually an opportunity for faith to lead such a person to the hope found in the Gospel.

Does this mean that we should stop speaking out about the hazards of legalistic thinking, because it’s not as dangerous as progressivism?  Personally, I’m not even sure that this is the right question.

Whenever legalistic thinking and/or progressive thought present themselves as an affront to the message of the cross, we do speak – but not with humanistic partiality.  As New Covenant believers, our purpose should not be defined in what we are against, but rather in what we are for – and that is the reconciliation of the world to God.  As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

The frequency with which grace-oriented believers are turning a blind-eye to the grievous errors of Universalism, yet vehemently splitting hairs over minor doctrines such as the tithe is appalling.  It is like jumping over a canyon in order to condemn a crevice.

Some might falsely think that I’m proposing that it’s never right to challenge tradition or to distance ourselves from so-called orthodoxy, but anyone who has read any of my past works knows that I often challenge traditional commentaries on various passages and present “new” meanings to verses. True orthodoxy, however, should never be mistaken for deceptive interpretations or a misrepresentation of God’s intentions.

So how can we as believers protect ourselves from the blind oppression of legalism or the subtle deception of progressivism?

Here are a few questions to consider when approaching doctrinal differences, both old and new.

  • Is my understanding of this belief based upon the sum of God’s Word?
  • In order to believe some new idea, am I forced to ignore certain scriptures or invalidate entire books of the Bible?
  • Is my belief based upon scriptural context or shaped by my pre-formed assumptions?
  • Does my embrace of Jesus as the Word of God force me to distance myself from the Bible as the Word of God?
  • Does my view of God’s goodness rob man of his own right to choose?

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