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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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The Shack: A Story of Freedom or Force?

 

As a Christian it may be less controversial at the moment to offer an opinion about current politics, than it is to express one’s thoughts of the film, The Shack, based upon WM. Paul Young’s book of the same title.  Honestly, I, myself, have tried very hard to avoid sharing my two cents about the book or film, but after reviewing the author’s newest book, Lies We Believe About God, I figured it was time I added my voice to the theological stratosphere.

But before I do, allow me to add a few disclaimers.

I think that it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that believers often behave like the disciples in Mark 9:38. You remember the story. It’s where John informs Jesus that they saw someone else “driving out demons in your name” so they told him to stop.  Jesus rebukes them and uses the moment to reveal that the kingdom is bigger than their egos.  I think this is a lesson that the church needs to collectively relearn today.  It’s no secret that as believers, we have a tendency to shoot our own.  Every theological difference it seems provides opportunity for tearing one another down or spiritually posturing ourselves in hopes that all will see that we are really God’s favorite.

I should perhaps also mention that I know that millions of people have been impacted by The Shack, whether through the book or box office, and in sharing my perspective about the message of the film, I’m in no way desiring to negate the experience they’ve had.  I believe God speaks through a plethora of mediums, film included, and I’ve been a champion for finding God in some of the most unique places.  (I still hold that Avatar transformed how I think about eternity, and I’m also of the viewpoint that AMC’s post-apocalyptic sensation, The Walking Dead, has better theology about God than most Christian churches.)  I point these examples out to express that I’m not a religious prude and that God is able to give revelation even beyond that which may be intended by the writer or director – and The Shack is no different.

But although inspiration can be found in the most unique places, we should still remember that inspiration doesn’t always equal truth.  As Christians, all revelation must always pass through the lens of scripture to ensure that we don’t drift into theological half-truths that can damage our faith.  Film, books, and television can inspire, but only the Bible can offer doctrine.

With the renewed interest in the book, my concern is not that people will ascertain their beliefs about God from the film, but rather that the film will introduce people to additional teachings and materials from the writer.

The challenge for me in Young’s writings, as both a storyteller and theologian, is that they only partially uphold Biblical ideas about God’s nature, such as his goodness, grace, and mercy.  For this reason, it’s easy for the new believer to miss the subtleties of Young’s extra-biblical message, and, perhaps even for the more veteran believer, to mistakenly label Young as a modern Christian reformist who is merely kicking over sacred cows of Christian tradition.

But true reformation is always rooted in absolute truth – specifically that of scripture.  Young’s deconstructionist tendencies, mostly absent of scriptural support, prove that his intention is not only to kick over sacred cows, but also to vacate the farm all together.

Although it’s been speculated in the past that Young held to a form of Christian universalist theology (that all are saved or will be saved apart from faith), Young seems to have clarified his stance in his new book, Lies We Believe About God, which also contains a foreword from known universalist Baxter Kruger.  In the book, Young states, “Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation? That is exactly what I am saying!”  As you can see, Young leaves little question as to where he stands on the topic of universal salvation and even goes on to describe Hell by saying, “I propose the possibility that hell is not separation from Jesus but that it is the pain of resisting our salvation in Jesus while not being able to escape Him who is True Love.”

The Shack’s blurred gospel message, along with his association with Kruger, are perhaps enough to theologically villainize Young, but this isn’t the point – nor should it be.  Despite his post-Christian leanings, Young isn’t the villain.  The bigger issue is that Young’s stance reveals and represents the binary choice that religion all-too-often presents to its adherents – either God is angry and fault-finding or he’s all-inclusive and universally accepting. The first option is easy to debunk as it is rooted in judgment and legalism, but the second choice, universalism, is challenging to refute without one sounding unloving in doing so.

As I’ve pointed out before, although the universalist ideology appears to offer a loving solution to legalistic Christianity, in reality, its message is one of force.  Much like Rob Bell’s distorted gospel message in Love Wins, Young’s God rejects the biblical concept of freewill and “loves” you so much he’ll force you into the kingdom.  Personally, I believe God is better than this.

This in no way means that one cannot enjoy The Shack as a film, but it should not be used to shape our understanding of God any more than Dante’s Inferno should shape our view of Hell.  With that being said, I do agree with Young that the common religious understanding of God is quite flawed, but instead of departing from the truth of the Word and the foundations of Christian faith, as I believe he does at least in part, I have proposed a reformation of thinking that is based upon scripture and a renewed understanding of God shaped by gazing into the person of Christ.

It is for exactly this reason I wrote the book, Good God:  The One We Want To Believe In But Are Afraid To Embrace.  Upon releasing Good God, there were those who in fact immediately labeled me a heretic, but the difference between my stance and that of Young’s, is that my presentation of God was not just based upon whimsical thinking or fantasy, rather on specific verses of scripture and teachings of Jesus.  While Good God indeed kicked over many sacred cows of traditional theology, it remained loyal to the inerrancy of the Word, the love of the Church, and Jesus’ teaching on the final judgement.

Although I hope Young recognizes how far he’s slid in his post-Christian thinking, I’m more concerned now with the masses who have been influenced (or will be) by his teaching and universalist agenda.  My hope is that people recognize that viewing the Father from each of these extreme spectrums has the tendency to expose one to error.  The only way one can truly construct a proper theology of heaven, hell, love, and judgment is by beginning with the solid and trustworthy revelation of Jesus Christ.

For those looking for an alternative to the narrowed-minded view of God offered by legalism and tradition, but who still value the foundation of scripture, the message of Christ, and the truth of the gospel, I would invite you to consider the almost too-good-to-be-true God that I present in my book, Good God.

 

 

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The Human Connection Part 2, Day 1

In Review:

This is a both/and series. The point is divided into two parts: how we relate to one another and on the spiritual plain – how we relate to God.

And just how does this thing called connectivity relate to God?

Part of this series is philosophical and psychological. So, why talk about it in church? Something doesn’t always have to have scripture and verse next to it to be true. Scripture encompasses all truth. But, there are principals we can’t tie to just one verse. We’re looking at the whole chasm of scripture in how we relate to one another.The example of this is when Jesus related to others and how we do so in this natural world in which we live now.

Rom. 1:20

 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse

You can look at the natural and physical world and glean spiritual understanding and truths.

There’s a connection there – to this natural world because it’s a shadow we use to point to or connect to thespiritual world.

I want to be careful to say this is not a doctrinal thesis. I’m sharing these things as I understand them and invite you to grow and learn with me.

In the first part of the series I introduced the topic or idea of the kingdom of God. This is different than thekingdom of heaven which refers to the physical rule and reign of Jesus Christ.  When Scripture refers to the kingdom of God it’s talking about this invisible realm in which we connect to God and each other.

Luke 17:20-21

 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of thekingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ becausethe kingdom of God is in your midst.

 

The kingdom of God is within you. Christ in you – where spiritual interactions transpire.  I also talked about theimportance of connecting with one another. We need to connect for relationship and synergy. If you look at thedictionary definition, it explains synergy as the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements…Together we can do so much more than we can on our own. We want to be able to shape those around us in a positive way. To impact those within our personal sphere of influence as well as exponentially through the relationships we build with others.

I intertwined some exciting side notes about quantum physics as well. When we talk about quantum physics it points to the kingdom of God. Not because quantum physics is the kingdom of God, but because God has made himself known through what he has created. It shows us there’s a more true, if you will, physical realm with spiritual laws. It shows us the consistency of God.

In Grace we have a fear of anything that calls itself or is known by law. But God operates by laws.For instance:

He will never violate your will.

He won’t force himself upon you.

Those are laws by which he governs himself. That’s not legalism. Those are principals by which he operates around.

When the Bible says we’re free from the law it means we’re free from using the law as a method by which we obtain righteousness. It’s not that the law no longer has truth in it as though we can disconnect ourselves from it. It’s that it’s not the source of our righteousness.

The kingdom of God works every single time we let it.

Prov. 13:20

Walk with the wise and become wise,  for a companion of fools suffers harm

The entanglement theory is this: every time two things interact they will become connected to some degree. God’s principles and laws are consistent. It all points to the fact that we’re all connected and need each other. And how cool is it that we can be entangled in what Jesus did on the cross because he became a man and those who put their faith in him become entangled in him and we get what he deserves because he got what we deserve? That’s powerful.

 

So, what does all of this mean? We’re going to look into that in this part of the Human Connection series. We’re going to talk about making contact.

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