Category Archives: legalism
The gospel always leads to righteousness. Grace always leads to life. Having been reconciled to God by Jesus’ death, we are enabled to practice love, justice, mercy and peace through the indestructible power of his life.
Grace that fails to produce such righteousness is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It rests on the illusion that grace involves endless affirmation and endless forgiveness. It conflates salvation with justification, the gospel with the forgiveness of sins. It seems loving to us, but it expresses the easy kind of love that costs us nothing. It proclaims the comfort of the gospel but robs it of its power to give life.
Christians often counter the danger of cheap grace by emphasizing that, having been saved through Christ, we are now called to demonstrate our gratitude to God by obeying his law. Yet emphasizing a return to the law merely distorts our understanding of the Christian life. It tempts us to view our practice of righteousness merely as a response to the gospel, rather than as the working of the gospel itself in our lives. It turns the practice of righteousness into a burden, an endless debt of gratitude that we can never possibly repay.
Just as dangerous, emphasizing a return to the law inevitably leads us to associate Christian discipleship with judgment and fear rather than with liberty and life. Confusing the call to righteousness with the demands of the law, we once again come face to face with its pronouncement of death. We become ashamed of our inevitable failures before one another. We bristle against those who would seek to keep us accountable. We resist the rigor of discipleship because we fear that it will rob us of the peace of God’s grace.
In these ways we lose sight of power of grace. We forget that by walking in the power of the Spirit, as hard and difficult as it is, we are walking the path of “life to the full” (John 10:10). We forget that while the way of sin and injustice is the way of slavery and death – even now, even during this life – the way of the Spirit is the way of liberty and life – even now, even this side of Christ’s return.
In short, we lose sight of just how much we are missing when we ignore the gospel’s active power to change and heal us, and so cease spurring one another to pursue the fullness of life in Christ with every fiber of our being.
The apostle Paul felt a tremendous burden to communicate this truth about the life-giving power of the gospel. Christ has not merely justified us by saving us from the wrath of God, he insisted. Rather, he has given us the gift of righteousness in order that we might “reign in life” (Romans 5:17). God raised Jesus from the dead in order that “we too may live a new life,” even now, even this side of the resurrection (6:4).
“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” (6:15) That is the temptation of cheap grace. It is the call always to affirm a person, regardless of how miserable she might be in her way of life. It is a curtailed gospel, a gospel robbed of the power to grant life. It is well-intentioned, to be sure. It balks at calling a person to walk the hard path of discipleship because it fears that such a call will be heard as one of judgment and death.
And yet, Paul shows us, what calls us to the hard path of discipleship is not the law, but grace. It is not death, but life. After all, no benefit accrues to a person who continues to live in slavery to sin and its desires. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” (6:21) Or as he puts it later, “The mind governed by the flesh is death” (8:6).
What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is not merely that God affirms them, regardless of their sin. What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is that God empowers them toward life in the Spirit. They need to know that the church will bear their burden with them as they walk this path.
There are far too many people in the church who “have a form of godliness but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). There are far too many who through their teaching “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4). We need to recover our confidence in the gospel’s truth that “if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness” (8:6, 9-10).
To be sure, we welcome all who confess their sins in a spirit of repentance, no matter what the sin. We celebrate the power of forgiveness even when it has already been granted seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18). We never give up on anyone.
But we remain the body of those who confess that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). At its core, our faith is in one whose life was so powerful that not even death could contain it. The good news is not only that we have been forgiven. It is that we are being changed.
And so, as sinful we remain, as much as we have to confess our sins and repent again every week, even every day, we do so in a spirit of hope. As much as the Christian life is inevitably a life of suffering and self-denial, we take up our cross and follow our Lord because his is the way of life. As Paul put it,
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, … the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs … if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:14-17).
I once heard the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Atlanta proclaim from his pulpit that “the essence of the Christian life consists in one word: lawkeeping.” It was a statement that reflected that pastor’s consistent emphasis in his ministry, and over time it devastated his congregation. I am yet to meet another pastor who agrees with the claim that the essence of the Christian life consists in lawkeeping.
And yet, I find the spirit of the claim reflected in sermons, books, and online articles over and over again: The heart of the Christian life is obedience to God’s law. The purpose of our justification is sanctification to God’s law. Christians need not fear putting God’s law at the heart and center of our lives because now that we have been saved, we can obey that law out of heartfelt desire rather than out of fear.
Now, let me be clear. There is an element of truth to all of these statements if they are understood correctly. Jeremiah promised that in the new covenant God would write his law on his people’s hearts (Jeremiah 31), and Jesus told his disciples, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The problem with the constant emphasis on the law, however, is that too many Christians utterly fail to grasp the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus. And no, I’m not talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as far as our justification is concerned. I think most Reformed Christians get that. I’m talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s moral character and will.
Jesus, not the law, is the ultimate expression of God’s will for humanity. Jesus embodies what it means to be a true human being. In his character and virtues we see what true human flourishing looks like. We see the sort of love and sacrificial service that creates genuine communion. We see the mercy and justice that brings reconciliation. We see the piety and patience that testifies to peace with God.
The New Testament pounds away at this theme so often it continues to baffle me that so many Christians miss it. On the one hand, some Christians worry that shifting our emphasis from the law to Christ constitutes some sort of antinomianism (lawlessness). On the other hand, some Christians fail to grasp just how thorough of a transformation the gospel calls us to, as individuals and communities, as the Spirit makes us like Jesus.
Take a look at a passage like 2 Corinthians 3, on which I heard an excellent sermon by Tom Groelsema just yesterday. Paul explains in vivid language how we are no longer under the law written on tablets of stone, what Paul calls the “ministry of death,” a covenant whose glory was terrifying even as it was ultimately fleeting. Rather, we have received the far more glorious ministry of the Spirit, the Spirit who gives us freedom as he transforms us, not according to the law, but into the likeness of Jesus. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all … beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
This is just one passage, but the New Testament pounds at this theme over and over. We could literally cite dozens of statements. We might as well declare that our prooftext is the entire New Testament. So why do so many Christians – and so many Christian pastors – miss it? Why does the “so what?” portion of so many Christian sermons sound like a return to the law? Why do so many Christians reduce their engagement with nonbelievers to witnessing to the law?
We are living in a time when most of our neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens no longer receive Christian moral teaching – especially when it pertains to matters revolving around sexuality – as conducive of a good life. When they hear Christians talk about life they primarily hear a message about arbitrary rules and judgment. God’s wrath is upon us because we have disobeyed his law, they hear, and only believing in Jesus can save us so that we can get back to the business of obeying his (seemingly arbitrary) law once again. The narrative starts with law and ends with law, and though there is some profound talk about Jesus and grace in the middle, it’s not with Jesus that this story usually ends.
People don’t become Christians because they fall in love with the Ten Commandments.
If we expect nonbelievers to hear the gospel as good news once again we need to recover our focus on Christ from the beginning to the end of our message. The Christian life does not consist in a story of law-gospel-law. We aren’t saved simply so that we can be placed back under the law once again. And the essence of the Christian life and of Christian witness does not consist in a witness to God’s law. The misery of sin need not have any dominance over us because we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). We can experience the fruit of the Spirit through “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” because “against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). We can walk in faith, hope, and love, rather than according to the desires of the flesh, which “keep you from doing the things you want to do,” because “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18).
This freedom is what the Christian life is all about. It’s what so many of our family members, neighbors, and coworkers so desperately need to hear, because from beginning to end, it is truly good news.
History is full of examples of people who were so zealous for the honor or glory of God that they justified great evil in the name of advancing that honor and glory. Christian crusaders killed Muslims by the thousands to defend the holy land from the pagan horde. Catholic inquisitors tried and executed numerous Protestants to purify the church from heresy. Scottish and English Protestants waged war against one another and against their Catholic neighbors with sometimes horrifying brutality all in the name of establishing and preserving a godly commonwealth.
Of course, one could think of numerous less violent examples of the misguided nature of religious zealotry, examples ranging from the self-righteous legalism of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day to the Protestant fundamentalism of the 20th Century, both of which tended to raise their own moral practices concerning food, drink, dress, gender relations and more, to the level of the law of God himself. Today the same zeal for God sometimes translates into the strident activism that seeks through politics to reestablish America’s Christian character.
Much of this kind of zeal has been recognized by the zealots themselves, or at least by their heirs, as misguided at best, and as outright evil at worst. But it is easy to judge the sins of the past. The question is, how do we know if our own zeal for God is real? How do we discern if we are simply using it to justify our own agendas, evil intentions or judgmental attitudes? As Paul notes in Romans 10, it is possible to have a zeal for God that is not according to righteousness.
Of course, there are numerous possible answers to this question, and many of them contain an element of truth. Are the practices justified by your zeal Scriptural? Do they tend to point people to the gospel, or to the law of God? But it seems to me that the most important test of whether our zeal for God is genuine is whether it expresses itself and stems itself in genuine love for the people around us according the example of Jesus, whether our brothers and sisters in the church, our neighbors, or our enemies. Simply put, are you more zealous for your conception of God, or for the practices you believe he demands, then you are for the people whom God has placed in your lives? Have you fallen into the error of thinking that you can love God while acting unjustly toward the person created in his image? Does your zeal express itself in arrogance or judgment, or is it a communication of the love of Christ?
The New Testament teaches this principle in numerous places. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls his disciples to love not only their brothers and sisters and neighbors but even to love their enemies. The expression of this, he says, is prayer and the giving of good gifts, in imitation of our Father in heaven who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). He calls his followers to avoid worshiping God until they have first reconciled with one another, abstaining from judgment and division (Matthew 5:21-26). He demands that Christians take responsibility for the sin of their own hearts rather than judge the failings of others (Matthew 5:27-30; 7:1-5).
Later Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for presenting their own religious or moral rules as the doctrines of God (Matthew 15:1-20), a tendency that led them to emphasize these rules rather than “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Luke records Jesus as declaring to the disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For … I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).
The gospel and writings of John emphasize the same point, stressing especially the importance of conformity to the example of Jesus. In John 13 Jesus performs the actions of a lowly servant by washing the feet of his disciples. This action is not intended as a display of his own uniquely messianic calling as the one sent by the God who “so loved the world,” he makes quite clear. Rather, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:14-16).
Later Jesus explains this teaching in the form of a new commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The call to imitate Jesus, in fact, goes beyond service and even to the point of suffering. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). Those who say they love God but do not love their brothers and sisters are liars (1 John 4:20).
Of course, we could pile up passage upon passage, exhortation upon exhortation. The New Testament is clear that Christians demonstrate their love and zeal for God primarily through their love for one another in conformity to the example of Jesus. But Paul sums it all up quite nicely in Philippians 2:5-8:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Reformed types are often critical of the old “What would Jesus do?” bracelets because, as they point out, we are not Jesus and aren’t called to perform his messianic mission. We should focus on obeying God’s law, they say, because that’s what Jesus did.
But perhaps we should not be quite so hasty. In the passages above it is not simply God’s moral law we are called to fulfill. It is the example of Jesus. It is not simply Jesus’ obedience to God’s law that we are required to follow. It is Jesus’ unique display of love, service, and sacrifice. “What would Jesus do?” may not be such a bad question after all.
As Christians we often get in feisty debates or fall into conflict with one another over various moral, practical or doctrinal issues. We wage great moral, cultural and political campaigns that lead others to criticize us. But if we want to test whether our own zeal in these struggles is actually a genuine zeal for God, we might want to ask ourselves, does my zeal translate into love and sacrificial service after the example of Jesus, or does it look more like the domination and lordship characteristic of the world? Or to put it another way, do I care more about the abstract principle or practice at stake, or about the actual person, made in the image of God,with whom I am disagreeing, and whom I am called to serve? Remember, the servant is not greater than his master.
When I wrote my posts about women’s modesty a few weeks ago (here and here) I made the point that although immodesty conducive of sexual immorality is a very real danger facing Christians today, legalism is just as grave of a danger. I suggested that Christians who are rigid and dogmatic in their insistence that women cover up certain parts of the body are in danger of falling into just the sort of attitude that Muslims hold who require women to wear burqas.
The reason why I said this was that some of these Christians speak as if the only principle of modesty is that women should cover up and obscure their beauty and sexuality so that men will not lust after them. And while some Christians limit this to the parts of the body covered by a two-piece swimsuit, others extend it further, speaking about the knees, the ankles, any curves, the neck, and even the hair. In short, if this is the only principle guiding our practice of modesty, there is no rational or logical reason why women shouldn’t wear burqas all the time. Consider my argument a sort of “slippery slope” argument.
But, you may say, these other parts of the body clearly are not sexual. We should simply follow the strict principle that what is sexual should be obscured, and what is not sexual may be shown.
The problem with this is that it is based on the false premise that certain parts of the body are sexual, whereas others are not, and it ignores the power of culture in shaping our perceptions of what parts of the body are sexual and what parts are not.
Underlying much of the concern of my critics, however, was the sense that legalism is not a danger we should be worried about. No Christians have ever said women should wear burqas, right?
Wrong. Not only have many Christians throughout the centuries stressed that women ought to cover themselves up in a way analogous to what Muslim cultures stress today, but this was common teaching in Jesus’ day, about the time when in the Sermon on the Mount he emphasized that the burden of guilt for lust falls on the one who is lusting in his heart, not on the woman after whom he is lusting.
As one scholar writes,
It is true that Jesus’ attitude toward women is different from that reported about many rabbis. According to them one must avoid unnecessary contact with women … One is not to speak unnecessarily with a woman, not even with one’s own wife. One is not to walk behind a woman on the street, not to greet her, not to be served by a woman, not to be alone with another woman, because even a woman’s voice and hair are lewd. Naturally one should not look at a woman, not even at an unmarried woman, because by doing so one is in danger. These Jewish statements are part of an increasing tendency in that day to exclude women from public life, including religious life. (Luz, Matthew 1-7, p. 246; emphasis added)
Note that in that day even the hair and voice of a woman was considered to be sexual. The same was the case in much of the broader Greek culture of the day. In contrast to this, Jesus included women among his most devoted followers, associated with prostitutes, and even allowed one such woman to wipe his feet with her hair. The early church boasted of certain female prophets, although this was not the regular order, and it permitted women occasionally to prophecy or pray publicly as long as they wore proper coverings (coverings designed to affirm the headship of a husband over his wife, not the need to obscure a woman’s hair) (1 Corinthians 11).
But did Christians ever fall into the sort of legalism of which the Pharisees were guilty? They certainly did. One excellent example is that of Tertullian. You can find his writings on women’s modesty here, but here I will simply quote from Kent Brower’s scholarly summary.
In his treatise On the Apparel of Women, he begins by saying that proper Christian women should ‘go about in humble garb, and rather to affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve – the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of human perdition.’ Christian women, therefore, should not only abstain from enhancing their beauty through apparel, ‘but that of even natural grace must be obliterated by concealment and negligence, as equally dangerous to the glances of (the beholder’s) eyes.’
He also puts together a lengthy case for the veiling of virgins. He writes, ‘Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but also the face also, so entirely, that they are content with one eye free, to enjoy rather half the light than to prostitute the entire face.’ In Tertullian’s mind, this was not a matter of personal opinion. Rather, it is the consequence of a revelation from the Lord. Again he writes, ‘To us the Lord has, even by revelations, measured the space for the veil to extend over. For a certain sister of ours was thus addressed by an angel, beating her neck, as if in applause: “Elegant neck, and deservedly bare! It is well for you to unveil yourself from the head right down to the loins, lest withal this freedom of your neck profit you not!”‘ (Brower, “Jesus and the Lustful Eye: Glancing at Matthew 5:28,” EQ 76:4 (2004), 307-308.
Christians are not immune to legalism, they are not immune to the tendency to shift the burden of the male heart to the woman’s body, and no, they are not even immune to the appeal of the burqa. But this is not the way of the gospel.
As Halee Gray Scott bemoans on the Her.meneutics Christianity Today blog,
In Christian circles, the conversation centers on modesty and accountability rather than on how to become the type of person for whom sexual indiscretions and perversions are but sickening substitutes for the pleasures of real intimacy…. Along with teaching behavioral modifications like modesty in clothing and fidelity in marriage, Christians need to emphasize the spiritual transformations of whole persons, men and women alike, into the likeness of Christ.
That’s what makes the Christian approach to modesty different. We need to make sure that in our attitude toward dress it is the gospel to which we are bearing witness, not simply the depravity of our hearts.
In his excellent book on New Testament ethics, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, possibly the most significant book on New Testament ethics to be published in the past two decades, Richard Hays writes,
Many of his Jewish compatriots, including fellow Jewish Christians, were scandalized by the freedom with which Paul dismissed the particular commandments of the Torah, fearing that his preaching provided carte blanche for the flesh. (It is a peculiar irony that in the modern – and ‘postmodern’ – world, Christianity has come to be regarded as narrow and moralistic. Originally, it was quite the reverse: figures such as Jesus and Paul were widely regarded as rebels, antinomians, disturbers of decency.) (36-37)
Hays points out that Paul tended to resist the emphasis on rules or even on moral striving per say, preferring to emphasize the example of Christ and the good of the Christian community on the one hand, and the work of the Spirit on the other.
[T]he sanctified conduct Paul expects of the Galatians is not so much the product of moral striving as that of allowing the mysterious power of God’s Spirit to work in and through them. Where God’s Spirit is at work, Paul contends, the result will be peace and holiness, not moral anarchy. (37)
Paul was well aware that his gospel was viewed as antinomian by some, but he was not generous to those who misrepresented the freedom of the gospel as leading to moral relativism. As Hays puts it, commenting on Romans 3:7-8, “At this stage of the letter, Paul does not really answer the objection except by rejecting it as a ‘slander’, a reprehensible misconstrual of his gospel.” (37)
Nevertheless, and this is important, Paul does not tone down his rhetoric about the radical message of the gospel. In Romans 5:19, Hays points out, “Paul provocatively restates his message of grace in terms perilously close to the ‘slander’ he had rejected earlier” (38):
But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through [Christ’s] righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20b-21)
Paul goes on to demonstrate why it is precisely the freedom of the gospel that brings about genuine righteousness in the next few chapters of Romans. Hays summarizes,
The great difficulty with the Law of Moses, according to Paul, was that it could only point to righteousness, never actually produce it… Consequently, even where the hearer of the Law applauds the vision of the moral life conveyed by the Torah – as indeed we should, since the commandment of the Law is ‘holy and just and good’ (Rom 7:12) – the Law can produce only condemnation and frustration. (44)
The solution, for Paul, is the gospel, and the Christian life is one that is lived according to the Spirit, not according to a written code of rules and regulations.
For God has done what the Law – weak on account of the flesh – could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1-4)
One of the very important implications of this fact – that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that changes lives – is the sobering and yet often ignored reality that man-made rules and regulations designed to protect righteousness – often with the best and most pious of intentions – entirely fail to create true righteousness. In fact, insofar as they distract us from the power of the gospel itself, these human rules might even be detrimental. As Paul writes echoing Jesus’ warning against those who teach as doctrines of God the commandments of men (Matthew 15),
If with Christ you died to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)
Protecting the church from being dominated by human rules and regulations is no minor obligation. It is essential not simply to protect the gospel. It is essential if we actually want people’s lives to change, if we want to help them to stop the “indulgence of the flesh.” Even love for the weaker brother, in that sense, demands that we help them get to the heart of the matter, rather than focusing on externals.
Taking a gospel-centered approach to the Christian life may well result in you being called an antinomian and a relativist at times. And that can be as discouraging as it is frustrating. But don’t worry. You are in good company with the likes of Jesus and Paul, and you are standing up for what really saves. That’s worth it.
I have to admit, I had no idea when I wrote my recent post warning against legalism in our standards and judgments regarding women’s modesty that it would be read by so many people, nor that it would be interpreted as a scandalous defense of relativism at best, immodesty at worst. Some people thought I was arguing against an article in which a woman explained why she liked wearing skirts most of the time. Another person thought I was saying that women should be free to show their breasts. A few people were worried that I didn’t suggest my own concrete standards for modesty, presumably to be imposed upon others, as if my wife and I do not think carefully through the principles that will guide what my wife will wear.
I have clearly touched a nerve here, and I am grateful for the very many of you who indicated your appreciation for my defense of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is absolutely essential to the gospel. Is it really the case that one cannot raise warnings about legalism, and seek to point people to the importance of focusing on the gospel, on the heart, and on the virtues and practices that flow from a sanctified heart, without being considered an antinomian? Perhaps it is the case. Jesus was widely judged to be an antinomian, a friend of prostitutes and drunkards. As Paul reported in Romans 3:8, he was charged by some with saying, why not do evil that good may come? And Paul called this “slander.”
Certainly the fullest response to my post appeared today by Rebecca VanDoodewaard on The Christian Pundit. And yet, like so many others, VanDoodewaard seems to assume that because I was criticizing legalism that means I was defending antinomianism. The reality is, I agree wholeheartedly with her basic argument, which seems to be summarized in the following paragraph:
There are some biblical standards for Christian women, and each family and couple must have their own dress code in order to help daughters, wives, and yes, sons and husbands, to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, open to the local church’s teaching and leading on this issue. That is not legalism. And though Scripture does indeed place the burden of not lusting on men, that does not give us ladies leave to bare what we want.
Yes, I agree with this, and I thought I made that quite clear in my article. But the purpose of my post was not to construct standards and principles and rules for modesty. The point was to warn against legalism. And here it is important to make a clarification about how I am using the term legalism because clearly people are using that term in different ways. VanDoodewaard defines legalism as “the belief that we can merit favor with God by our own actions.” That is certainly one form of legalism, but that is not the only form. Legalism also happens when, out of our concern to protect genuine righteousness, we take our own human rules and laws, which we have necessarily worked out as guides for our own life, and we judge others on the basis of them, turning the commandments of men into the law of God. This was a fundamental part of the error of the Pharisees, and it is a basic denial of the Christian liberty that we are given by nothing less than the gospel itself. Note, I am not saying that devising standards of dress is legalistic. I am not even saying that devising strict standards of dress is legalistic. I am simply saying that assuming that your standards are God’s standards – unless they are actually revealed to us in Scripture – and therefore imposing them upon others self-righteously is legalistic.
VanDoodewaard seems to agree with this (though she does not understand that this is what I am arguing), because in much of her article she seeks to articulate some basic standards from Scripture. So what does she prove? She shows that according to Scripture women should not display parts of the body Scripture associates with sexuality, including their breasts. On the other hand, she points out that we have no right to judge one another in terms of other parts of the body, because beyond these basic biblical principles Christian wisdom is required.
So if you feel that showing your knees is immodest, you are free to cover them, but if your conscience is not bound in this area, then you are free to wear clothes that do not hide your knees. We can’t make rules for each other where Scripture is silent, but are free to follow our own consciences.
But if you are paying close attention, is it not clear at this point that VanDoodewaard has established very little about the contemporary discussions over modesty in her appeal to this basic biblical standard? All she has proven conclusively is that women should never appear in public wearing any less than a modest two-piece swimsuit or bikini. Everything else, she seems to be arguing, is in the realm of Christian wisdom, though we should err on the side of caution. And I strongly doubt that there is any serious Christian who would disagree with her basic position here. I certainly would not. And I would hope that Christian women would generally wear far more than seems to be demanded by this basic biblical standard. But the fact is, the “more” that they should wear, according to the biblical standard of decency and moderation, is not outlined for us in Scripture, it is to a significant extent influenced by our culturally influenced minds (including what does or does not provoke us sexually), and it is therefore an area in which we should be very careful not to judge one another.
For all of her rhetoric in criticizing my article, VanDoodewaard’s position is not really different from mine. For that reason, I wish she would have written her article with a little bit more charity, paying a little bit more attention to what I was actually saying, rather than portraying it in the worst possible light. She points out that I noted the problem that one can always be stricter than the next person, but she entirely ignores the fact that I said that there is a problem on the other side as well. To quote myself, I wrote, “On the other hand, once one opens the door to Christian wisdom and liberty, where do you stop? In some cultures women freely show their breasts, even in church. Even in Victorian England it was suitable to show significant cleavage but not your ankles.”
For some reason VanDoodewaard suggests that I was presenting these examples as “a viable cultural option.” She writes, “referencing the Victorians to prove that showing some breast is a culturally relevant option is an untenable argument.” Of course, as a quick gland at my article will demonstrate, I was not arguing that Victorian modesty is a culturally relevant option. I was citing the Victorians as an example of why people are tempted to turn to legalism as a way to avoid the seeming relativism of Christian wisdom. In my view the Victorian view of modesty is no more of a valid option today than are Muslim burqas.
But the way of escaping the polar options of legalism and antinomianism is not to focus on rules, nor is it legalistically to impose our own rules on others. It is to focus on what both Scripture and the gospel focus on, the heart. It is to recognize that the gospel takes the human heart, lustily focused on its own selfish desires and idolatry, and reorients it by the power of the Holy Spirit to concentrate on demonstrating love for others. It leads men to stop viewing women as objects for their own satisfaction, blaming them for their own problems of lust, and it leads women to dress in a way that highlights the beauty God has given them without provoking the sexual desire of others. It leads both men and women to devote their lives to compassion, encouragement, and the practice of forgiveness, while refraining from judging others in areas in which God has given them liberty.
Van Doodewaard offers up the following excellent conclusion:
We must be careful to dress in a way that does not inflame lust in the men who will see us, both out of love for them and because we are caring for our bodies as temples of the Spirit. But we do not have to dress is a way that prevents the most lecherous man around from lusting – someone determined to lust regardless of clothing is not our responsibility.
This is precisely what I argued in my own conclusion:
Again, the point is not that women should wear whatever they want without thought to modesty, or that they should dress provocatively. The point is that we should be very careful not to make arbitrary external rules our obsession, rather than the heart and the actions that stem from it, and that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of implicitly viewing women and their bodies as evils that are to be avoided or hidden. As a virtue of the gospel, modesty calls us to sanctify our hearts even as we celebrate that what God has made, including women created in his image, is very good.
Do Christian people really disagree with this?