Stopping the Pendulum

Sometimes when I think of issues of error, I imagine a pendulum. What I mean is that there is often an overreaction to error that leads to a contrasting overreaction.

For example, imagine a group comes to a conclusion that their services of worship lack zeal and joy; they are too formal and stiff. What will the reaction be? Often, the response will be to throw off reverence and swing dramatically too far toward a service that is chaotic. Later, perhaps years later, that same group will recognize the disorder and chaos in their services and strive for reverence. But, in doing so, this group might in fac, sap the joy and zeal from the services. The pendulum swings.

Or, take as another example the issue of eschatology. For a time, a church might avoid all discussion of end times theology. Suddenly, the leaders recognize that they have been neglecting this doctrine. The swinging pendulum then leads to a group, if they are not wise, talking end-times non-stop so much so that the focus seems to be totally on the return of Jesus with little focus on living in faithfulness and hope in the present. Then, if the group corrects its course, it may again find itself putting the topic of eschatology away too much and acting as though prophecy simply is not a part of the New Testament.

The picture of a swinging pendulum is one that comes into my mind when I think of issues relating to legalism, especially the moralistic side of legalism. How does the Christian respond to the commands of God? We know God’s word is good. We know that his law is perfect, and his commands are always, absolutely right. But we probably have been in places where a focus on the commands of God has led to a moralistic religion.

I certainly have been among believers who focused so much on rules that they became quite similar to the Pharisees. These folks took simple commands of God and expanded them well beyond biblical intent to prescribe a particular code of conduct for believers that could not be found in the word. You will find such things in commands that appear arbitrary among groups—don’t play cards, don’t listen to music with a syncopated rhythm, don’t ever touch alcohol, here is the dress code for all people at all times, etc.

But what happens if we see a pendulum swing away from such moralism? We need to see that swing stop before it goes too far. Otherwise we end up with antinomianism, a throwing off of all law or commands. You will see this in groups that become so radically grace focused that they are unwilling to call anything sin. You see it in groups that so revel in being “real” and being “authentic” that they refuse to speak out against the actions of anyone in their group for fear that they will come off as not gracious, the only sin they seem to continue to acknowledge. You will see it in groups who claim to be Christians, but who completely ignore the word of God when it comes to social issues or modern morality.

How do we avoid a dangerous pendulum swing between legalism and lawlessness? The answer is in the word. Love the word.

Psalm 119:20, 24

20 My soul is consumed with longing
for your rules at all times.
24 Your testimonies are my delight;
they are my counselors.

Look here at how David speaks of God’s law, his rules. He longs for the law of God. He finds the law and testimony of God his delight. There is a genuine love of the word of God—yes, the rules and commands of God—that is present in the heart of a genuinely godly person.

So, if your pendulum is swinging away from Scripture, there is a big problem. If you look at the commands of the word as things about which to be embarrassed, you are headed toward lawlessness. If you see what God says about our lives, our marriages, our sexuality, our finances, our self-control, our eternities and you find it off-putting, you must recognize that there is a problem with your love of the Lord.

But how do we avoid a pendulum swing toward legalism? This is actually simple: love the word. When you genuinely love the word of God, you do not find any reason to think you need to improve upon it. You see God’s affirmation of modesty and his prohibitions against immorality, and you will govern how you dress and behave by that word. You will see God’s word speaking out against drunkenness, and you, when you are of age, will make your own decisions about whether or not drinking at all is wise for you. You will see God’s word speaking about the church being full of reverence, full of joy, living as a family and a body, and you will develop life in accord with biblical commands. As you love the word, you will watch the word counsel you to seek the counsel of other lovers of the word in your local church to help you make word-centered, godly decisions. The more you genuinely love the word, the more you let the word speak, the more that the word alone is your final standard, the more you will avoid both errors of moralism and legalism.

Love the word. Love the word so much that you deeply desire to obey the word. Love the word so much that you do not in any way want to add to it to try to improve it. Stop the pendulum from swinging toward moralism or toward antinomianism, toward legalism or lawlessness, by loving the word of God, all of it.

A Key to Fearing God

Christians, if we have been biblically taught, we know that we are supposed to be God-fearers. But we do struggle to know what that looks like. I have suggested in the past that fearing God for the believer is different than fearing God as a non-believer. We do not desire to run and hide from the Lord. We are not those who cry out to the mountains to fall on us and cover us from the sight of the Lord. While we are in awe of the Lord and we know that we cannot stand before him without his covering of grace, our fear of the Lord leads us to fall to our knees and cry, “Holy!”

What does fearing God look like in a Christian’s daily life? What will it change? I thought of those questions while reading through Psalm 112. Look at the parallel of the first verse, and see what the psalmist equates with fearing God.

Psalm 112:1

Praise the Lord!
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who greatly delights in his commandments!

How do we know who fears the Lord? The man fears God who greatly delights in God’s commandments. This is evidence of being a God-fearer.

How do you feel about the commandments of God? Are you one who constantly points out the fact that following God is not about rules and commandments? Are you one who looks for the minimum of what you might call mere Christianity? Or, as you know God, do you delight in his commands, all of them? Are you embarrassed by God’s standards when you talk with the lost? Do you wish you could hide God’s word from them? Or do you see that the word of God is perfect, his laws glorious? No, I’m not talking about any form of legalism here. But I am suggesting that a God-fearer loves even the commands of God.

A true God-fearer delights in God’s commandments. That means that, as we know and love the Lord, as we properly reverence and honor the Lord, we will also love his ways. God commanded nothing in history that was not perfect. If we allow ourselves to be ashamed of the commands of God, we show that we do not yet properly fear God. God’s rules for life are worth more than thousands of gold and silver pieces. God’s word is perfect, reviving our souls. God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. God’s word is precious in every way. And God’s standards, even those most hated and despised by the world around us, should bring us delight.

Christian, fear God. How? Delight in the word of God. Delight in the ways of God. Delight in the commands of God. And any time you feel yourself wanting to shrink back from the word of God, remember that God is holy, and God-fearers delight in his word and his ways.

The Gift of God’s Law

The title of the book of Deuteronomy literally means second law. Moses is reiterating for the people of Israel the commands of God. The nation left Egypt nearly four decades ago, an entire generation lies buried in the desert. And now it will be time for the people of God to enter and take possession of the land.

Before the nation enters the land, God will use Moses as his spokesman one final time. God will have Moses remind the people of the laws of God that the nation received when they were still children, fresh out of Egypt. For the first 3 chapters of this book, Moses reminded the people of their basic history. In chapter 4, Moses begins to point to the law. And what Moses has to say is beautiful.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2 – 1 “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 2 You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.

As God prepares to send Israel into her land, he points them directly to his word and his promise. He has promised them the land. But he has also shown them, as a people, how to live so as to be under his favor. And it all centers on the word of God.

Moses tells the people not to add to or take from the word of God. They are not to make up new commands, laws, or styles of worship that God did not command. They were not to adopt the religious practices and pagan moralities of the people living in Canaan. Nor were they to bring to the table new, fresh, never-before-seen ideas about who God is and how he is to be considered. They were to stick with the revelation of God they had received.

Neither was the nation to take from the word of God. It was not for Israel to enter the land and then ignore what God had commanded them about sacrifice, about marriage, or about justice. They were to worship as God prescribed. They were to shape their society as God had prescribed. And they, if they were to continue to be in God’s favor, were to keep his law without cutting it down.

As Christians who live under the New Covenant, we are not necessarily required to obey the laws that God gave to Israel about camping in the desert or the laws of sacrifice that were a shadow of the perfect sacrifice of Christ. But we would be fools not to see that the law of God shows who God is and what are his standards. God’s law teaches us about justice, genuine justice. God’s law teaches us about marriage and family. God’s law teaches us about God’s requirements for human sexuality. God’s law teaches us about God’s holiness. God’s law shows us that no sin has ever been forgiven without a substitutionary sacrifice, a perfect sacrifice—the sacrifice of Jesus—making atonement.

When God had Moses tell the people to keep his law and neither to add to nor take from it, God was showing the people that he had blessed them greatly. God had given them the information they needed to live as his people. This is a kindness from God beyond what we can imagine. God is not required by any external standard to let us know who he is or what he desires. God has every right to cast us into hell for sin even if he never tells us what sin is. But God chose to graciously reveal himself in his word. God chose to graciously reveal his worship, his standards, and his ways in his word.

May we never be a people who do anything less than treasure God’s word. Yes, from time to time we will need to examine Old Testament law closely to learn what is the timeless principle for today’s application. But there is such a thing. God’s law is perfect. God’s word is good. And we as the people of God love the law of God because that law reveals to us the God we worship if indeed we worship the true God. Never let any part of the word of God go. Never stop loving the word of God. Never change or twist the word of God. Let the law of God reveal to you our God and lead you to worship Jesus, the Son of God, who perfectly fulfilled the law of God on our behalf.