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.