If you don’t read any other post in this series, read this one. This one is the most important. In this series, I’ve been reviewing the book “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace” by Kevin Pendergrass. If you’ve been reading along, you know that I have several disagreements with Kevin.
You can go back and read those earlier posts here:
- The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)
- Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)
- What I Appreciated the Most About Kevin Pendergrass’s Book on Legalism (Legalism, Part 3 of 14)
- An Overview of Kevin’s Argument (Legalism, Part 4 of 14)
- The Major Flaw in Kevin’s Book (Legalism, Part 5 of 14)
- A Different Kind of Legalism (Legalism Part 6 of 14)
- A Different Kind of Emphasis on the Gospel (Legalism, Part 7 of 14)
- A Different Kind of Response To the Gospel (Legalism, Part 8 of 14)
- Does Faithfulness Destroy Grace? (Legalism, Part 9 of 14)
- Important Questions Raised (Legalism, Part 10 of 14)
I disagree with Kevin’s definition of legalism (parts 5 and 6). I disagree with Kevin’s emphasis on the gospel (part 7). I disagree with how Kevin separates faith and works into two separate categories (part 8). And beyond this one book I know I disagree with Kevin on several other points of doctrine as well; points of doctrine that I believe are important.
And yet, despite all our disagreements, I believe that Kevin’s book on legalism is ultimately a step in the right direction. This post explains why.
As Kevin describes his younger days, he describes himself as dogmatic, closed-minded, and inconsistent in his approach towards scripture. He was divisive, harsh, and argumentative in his approach towards people (p. 208).
Even though I didn’t want it to be, my Christianity up until this point had been very ritualistic. I thought what I was doing was true Christianity. I got used to going through the motions… I found myself having a checklist mentality. I noticed how ritualistic everything in my Christianity had become. (p. 203-204)
Keep in mind that Kevin does not make this statement as a blanket accusation against the church. In fact, throughout his book he comments on multiple occasions how his cold, ritualistic Christianity, and the divisive, harsh, argumentative attitude it produced, was frequently met with concern from others in the church (yet, without being able to provide him with satisfactory answers to the questions I mentioned in part 10).
But at the same time, I don’t believe Kevin is the only person who has ever struggled with this problem. For those out there who, like Kevin, approach their Christianity as simply a list of things to “get right”, this book represents a big step in the right direction.
As Kevin grew in his faith, he soon came to realize that he was missing something very important.
The major problem in legalism has always been with people knowing about God, but never knowing Him deeply and intimately… I never knew Jesus, but I just knew He was “the guy” for whom I worked in order to “gain” heaven. I now realize that Christianity is all about relationship with Christ…. Until you view Christianity through the framework of a relationship with Jesus, you will never experience Christian living the way Jesus intended. (p. 205-206)
Our approach to Christianity will drastically change when we realize it is about a relationship and not a ritualistic system. It will become transformative instead of merely informative… Relationship is about caring for one another. It is about trying to please the other. It is about sacrificing for the other. No, it is not because of fear or obligation, but because of love and desire. In relationship, we find God and delight in His will (Ps. 119;47; 1 Jn. 5.3; 1 Cor. 10.31). It is in ritual where we lose God and forget what Christianity is all about. (p. 214-215).
Kevin is exactly right. It all comes down to loving God and loving others. Kevin is again, quick to emphasize that this doesn’t reduce the need for obedience. If anything, it should increase our desire to please Him whom we love (p. 209). Loving God and loving others isn’t just kind of important. It is central to what Christianity is all about. This theme runs throughout the whole Bible.
It would be easy to denounce Kevin because we think he is wrong on several important things, and then proceed to attack him and dismiss anything and everything he may teach. But writing a book to encourage a deeper relationship with God is not wrong. This isn’t a soft or wimpy approach, diminishing the importance of the gospel; this is the gospel. If God loves us, if Jesus is Lord, and we are His disciples, our life must be characterized by genuine love both for God and for others.
You have heard that it was said, “‘You shall love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 5.43-45 (see also Lk. 6.27-28; 31)
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22.37-40 (See also Mk. 12.29-31; Lk. 10.25-28)
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. – John 13.34-35
Do you want me to keep the list going? Just click a few of these hyperlinks and keep reading!
- Deuteronomy 6.5
- Deuteronomy 10.12
- Deuteronomy 11.1
- Deuteronomy 11.13
- Deuteronomy 11.22
- Deuteronomy 13.3
- Deuteronomy 19.9
- Deuteronomy 30.6
- Deuteronomy 30.20
- Joshua 22.5
- Joshua 23.11
- Psalm 31.23
- Matthew 6.24
- Matthew 20.25-28 (see also Mt. 23.8-12; Mk. 10.42-45; Lk 22.24-27; Jn. 13.14)
- John 14.15
- Romans 12.10
- Romans 12.18
- Romans 13.8-10
- 1 Corinthians 13.4-7
- Galatians 6.2
- Ephesians 4.2-3
- Philippians 2.3-4
- James 2.1; 8-9
- 1 John 2.5
- 1 John 4.7-8
- 1 John 4.10
- 1 John 4.16, 19-21
- 1 John 5.3
- 2 John 5-6
- Mark 10.17, 21 (see also Mt. 19.21; Lk 12.15; 12.33-34; 18.18, 22)
And for a slightly different, but related list, describing how that love should impact our behavior towards one another, read:
- 1 Timothy 6.17-19
- Hebrews 13.1-5
- Romans 13.13
- Galatians 5.16; 19-26
- Ephesians 4.25-32
- Ephesians 5.3-4
- Colossians 3.5, 8, 12-14
- James 3.13-17
- 1 Peter 3.8-9
- 2 Peter 1.5-7
I’m going to step out on a limb and claim that our relationship with God and our relationship with others is supposed to be governed, not by a cold checklist mentality, but rather by genuine love.
This isn’t liberalism. This isn’t conservatism. This isn’t simply a “warm, fuzzy, soft” version of Christianity. This isn’t just a marketing plan to make the church sound more appealing to the world around us.
This is what it means to recognize that Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord, and that we have given our faithful allegiance to Him.
This isn’t at the expense of truth. This isn’t at the expense of obedience. If anything, it drives us to a deeper desire for truth and obedience. Yet we must recognize that without genuine love for God and love for one another, all our doctrinal precision, our obedience, our speaking, our giving, and our serving, is for nothing (1 Corinthians 13).
Cold ritualism will not be destroyed by simply giving microphones to the most talented singers in our worship service, serving better coffee, having more talented preachers, or investing in better graphics for our marketing material. Dogmatic attitudes will not be destroyed by avoiding doctrinal disagreements, avoiding the hard questions, or by keeping things shallow. Divisive attitudes will not be destroyed by simply focusing of doctrinal perfection. Sectarianism will not be destroyed by turning “love” into a sectarian weapon used to bash other congregations for not being loving enough.
“Legalism” (by any definition) will only be destroyed by being people who genuinely love God with all of our hearts, love others, even those whom we disagree with, and who make that love evident in our lives. The “checklist mentality” will only be destroyed when we give our lives in faithful allegiance to Jesus.
Just as faith and works cannot be separated, neither can love and faith be separated. Faithfulness demands love.
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