Legalism, Lawlessness and Pastoral Ministry

The grace of God in the Gospel safeguards against legalism and lawlessness

Just as the grace of God in the Gospel safeguards against legalism and lawlessness, so God has appointed ministers to wield the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ, in their lives and doctrine, in such a way as to help the people of God avoid these two perilous ditches. We must, at all costs, be vigilant to avoid embracing legalism in a cloak of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5) and lawlessness in the cloak of grace (Titus 2:11-14). God has given us the Gospel and ministers of the Gospel to help keep us on the straight and narrow.

 

In recent years, many have enthusiastically welcomed the resurgence of interest in the Marrow Controversy for the simple reason that there is no greater need that any of us have at any given time in our Christian lives than the need to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of legalism and lawlessness. The Gospel keeps us on the straight and narrow path of grace unto holiness in Christ alone. We are not received by God on the basis of anything that we do; neither are we left in a state of sin and rebellion once we have been made the recipients of God’s grace in Christ crucified and risen. This is not something that we learn once in our Christian life; rather, it is something that we are always needing to be reminded of as we make our pilgrimage to glory.

Yesterday, I took time to read through the pastoral epistles. As I made my way from 1 and 2 Timothy into Titus, I noticed something that I don’t think that I’ve ever noticed before in these portions of God’s word. In giving his final words of instruction to Timothy and Titus–for the strengthening of the hands of these young ministers and for the equipping of future generations of pastors–the Apostle everywhere presses the need that the pastor has to guard against both legalism and lawlessness in doctrine and life.

The pastoral epistles open somewhat abruptly, with Paul charging Timothy to understand that everything he is writing is meant to encourage “love that issues in a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” He then warned his young protégé about those who have “swerved from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” The rejection of teachers of the law then resurfaces throughout Paul’s first and second letters to Timothy, shedding light on some of the features of this particular brand of legalism.

In 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Paul exposed legalism for what it is in fact–nothing less than the “teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:2). He then explained that those teaching it were “forbidding marriage and requiring abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” Paul reminds Timothy at this junction–as he does elsewhere in the pastorals–that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5). So serious was Paul about the evils of legalism that while warning against the rich trusting in their wealth (a warning against the lawless love of money), the Apostle shifted gears to ensure that no one would then fall into the opposite ditch of legalistic aestheticism. He wrote: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).

Of course, the foundation of our freedom from legalism is the saving work of our mediator and Savior, Jesus Christ. Paul constantly returns to this throughout these letters. Paul never took one step forward in Christian and pastoral imperatives without ensuring that we are clear about the nature of God’s unmerited grace in Christ. In the introductory section of 1 Timothy, he laid the groundwork for understanding the importance of the free grace of God in Christ when he gave that biographical summary of his own conversion and calling into ministry:

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