I’m reading through Kevin DeYoung’s new book, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, and though I’m still too early into the book to know if he’s successfully navigated these challenging waters, I found one of his initial assessments on why the pursuit of godliness is often lacking in churches to hit quite close to home.
These past two summers, I’ve preached through sections of Proverbs because I knew it would be hard to do so in a gospel-centered way. Oh sure, Proverbs is easy if one is simply looking to exhort people toward wise living. But if one is seeking to uphold the law/gospel distinction and not drive people to despair with the force of Proverbs’ instructions, providing both sufficient instruction and sufficient comfort is a tough balancing act. I struggled with how to preach Proverbs; interested readers can listen to the sermons here to decide if I was successful or not.
But this assessment of why churches are often not overly passionate about the pursuit of godliness was good:
Among conservative Christians there is sometimes the mistaken notion that if we are truly gospel-centered we won’t talk about rules or imperatives or moral exertion. We are so eager not to confuse indicatives (what God has done) and imperatives (what we should do) that we get leery of letting biblical commands lead uncomfortably to conviction of sin. We’re scared of words like diligence, effort, and duty. Pastors don’t know how to preach the good news in their sermons and still strongly exhort churchgoers to cleanse themselves from every defilement of body and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1). We know legalism (salvation by law keeping) and antinomianism (salvation without the need for law keeping) are both wrong, but antinomianism feels like a much safer danger.
Of course, I’d nuance this a bit. Conservative Christianity doesn’t automatically lean the way of antinomianism – I know many conservatives who think the biggest problem out there is antinomianism and actually believe the way of legalism is the safer danger! But he’s right in that true gospel-centered Christianity can err on the side of antinomianism. (Though even this could be nuanced!)
I wonder, however, if the terms “legalism” and “antinomianism” are tossed about too much these days more as bogeymen than as meaningful descriptions of different emphases. We might not think someone is behaving in as pious a manner as we’d like, but does that automatically make them some stripe of antinomian? We might think someone is too stodgy in their Sunday observance, but does that make them a de facto legalist?
Kevin does touch on something I’ve struggled with though. I know how the law minus the gospel can crush the bruised reed so I seek to wield that law with great care. And yet some imperative passages are so filled with emphatic particles and expressions that it is bordering on dishonesty to preach them with less force than the original. This takes wisdom.
May God continue to guide us all as we preach both the law and the gospel unto his glorious name!
Christ Reformed Church (Anaheim, CA)