How Do You Plead?

One of the challenges of old hymns is understanding what the words mean. I don’t mean the old-fashioned words that we just don’t use anymore, like “thou” or “surety” or “foe.” Those we can recognize as not part of our regular vocabulary. So we take a moment to figure out or look up or learn their meanings, and move on.

The tough words are the ones we still use, but with a different meaning from the one that was intended when the hymn was written centuries ago.

One of the most misunderstood words in some of the best hymns is the word “plead.” It shows up in several of my favorite hymns about Jesus’ ascension and intercession.

            Before the throne of God above

            I have a strong and perfect plea,

            a great high priest, whose name is love,

            who ever lives and pleads for me


             Five bleeding wounds he bears,

            received on Calvary,

            they pour effectual prayers,

            they strongly plead for me.


            Alleluia, Bread of Heaven, thou on earth our food, our stay,

            Alleluia, here the sinful flee to thee from day to day.

            Intercessor, Friend of sinners, earth’s Redeemer, plead for me

            where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.

These words sometimes raise objections, because in our normal usage, “pleading” means begging, imploring, piteously arguing with someone who is reluctant to grant our request. This, of course, is not a biblical picture of Jesus’ intercession with God. The Father is not unwilling to forgive us – he sent Jesus to die for us so that he could do just that! And the Risen Lord is not a beggar.

So it’s not surprising that some people have tried to change the wording of these hymns. In one hymnal I have, the second to last line of “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus,” has been changed to, “Intercessor, Friend of sinners, earth’s Redeemer, hear our plea.” This removes the offensive image of Jesus begging a vengeful God to let us off the hook, but at the cost of making us plead with Jesus himself.

Advokat,_Engelsk_advokatdräkt,_Nordisk_familjebokBut this is really unnecessary, simply because that’s not what “pleading” meant when these hymns were written. In the British legal tradition, “pleading” is the activity of a legal advocate arguing a case in court. It does not imply begging or imploring, but simply urging the judge to decide in favor of one’s client.

We still use “pleading” this way in the American court system when we are asked, “How do you plead?” The judge does not want to know what it sounds like for us to beg. He just wants to know whether we are going to maintain our innocence, or accept the charge against us.

The good news is that we don’t have to plead for ourselves. We don’t have to convince God that we are innocent, or deserving of forgiveness. We don’t argue our own case. Because Jesus, eternal God and glorified man, has ascended to the right hand of God the Father, we have an unfailing Advocate who never stops interceding for us before our Judge. There, in the heavenly courtroom, Jesus our High Priest, Mediator, and Advocate speaks on our behalf.

How do you plead? If you trust in Jesus as your Advocate, you don’t have to. He does it for you.

Not guilty.

            My God is reconciled, his pardoning voice I hear,

            he owns me for his child, I can no longer fear

            with confidence I now draw nigh,

            and “Father, Abba, Father!” cry.



Image credit: Public Domain,


Once and Always


The work of Christ is finished. And it never stops.

At it’s heart, the message of Christianity is good news. Unlike other religions which claim to instruct us in the best way to save ourselves, the gospel offers us a salvation which we cannot achieve on our own, which comes to us as a gift from God to be received by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our own works cannot save us; rather, we are saved by the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

The good news of Jesus centers on two events: the death of Jesus on the cross, and his bodily resurrection on the third day. This pair of events is what Christians around the world celebrate in Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

At various times, Christians have been tempted to make either the death or resurrection of Jesus subordinate to the other. Among some of the eastern church fathers, for example, there was a tendency to downplay the public crucifixion of Jesus as a mere prerequisite for his saving resurrection. Conversely, many protestants in recent years have treated the resurrection of Jesus as mere validation of his saving death.

These views fall short of the biblical message that we are saved by both the death and the resurrection of Jesus. Both-and. Thus the same Paul who begins his first letter to the Corinthians asserting that Christ crucified is the saving power of God  (1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 23; 2:2) closes by declaring that without Christ’s resurrection, our faith would be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Jesus both died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). His death did not merely prepare the way for his resurrection, and his resurrection did not merely prove God’s acceptance of his death. Rather, each of these events has an essential and distinct role in our salvation.

Jesus’ death and resurrection both save us, but in different ways. One way of understanding the difference between these twin facets of Jesus’ work is through a reflection on two key biblical phrases: “once” and “always.”

Jesus’ death is described by several biblical authors as having occurred “once for all” (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 9:12; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18). Unfortunately, this phrase is a confusingly translation for modern English speakers, who usually understand it as asserting two distinct things: 1) that Jesus died one time; and 2) that he died on behalf of all people (or all believers). Our focus often then turns to the universal offer and sufficiency of Christ’s death, leaving the fact that Jesus died on just one occasion on the sidelines. This is a complete misunderstanding. “Once for all” is actually an old-fashioned translation of a single Greek word – either hapax or ephapax, which both mean simply “once” or “on one occasion.”¹ Of course, there are places in the Bible where Christ’s death is described as having taken place “for all” (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15), but that is not what is being taught in the phrase “once for all.”

The death of Jesus occurred just once. It will never be repeated. For Paul, this means that death no longer has dominion over Jesus (Romans 6:9) and sin no longer has dominion over us (Romans 6:11). For Peter, it means that we also can have the courage to share in Christ’s suffering in expectation of the glory that follows it (1 Peter 3:17-4:1).

The book of Hebrews digs deepest into the theological significance of the fact that Jesus died “once.” More than anywhere else in the New Testament, Hebrews explains the saving power of Christ’s death through the sacrificial imagery of the Old Testament. It is this framework that makes the fact that Jesus died “once” so significant. Unlike the animal offerings of the old covenant which proved their insufficiency by the fact that they had to be repeated over and over again, Jesus’ sacrifice worked the first time (Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:10-14).

Christ’s suffering is finished because his sacrifice is complete. Nothing needs to be added to it. Our sins have been paid in full, cancelled out and washed away in the precious blood of Christ.

And yet, Hebrews joins the rest of Scripture in insisting that the saving work of Christ still continues through his risen life. This is not a mere add-on to the cross, but an absolute necessity. If we did not have the risen Jesus as our high priest, our mediator, our representative, we would have no hope of salvation. Why is Jesus “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him”? Only because “he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Always! Why are we secure from condemnation? Not only because it is Jesus who died — “more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).

Right now, the living Jesus is interceding for you. Always. This means that you do not need to come to God on your own. It is not your job to make your own case, to remind God of what Jesus did on the cross. It is not up to you to somehow make a connection with an event that happened ages before you were born. The same Jesus who died on the cross is alive at this moment, and you come to God “through him” (Hebrews 7:25; John 14:6). He is the one who serves as your advocate with the Father on the basis of his own cleansing blood (1 John 2:1; 1:7). As eternal God and living, glorified man, he alone can act as the mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5). Through his sacrificial blood and his never-ending priestly intercession, you can come to God with complete confidence (Hebrews 10:19-22; Ephesians 3:12).

Jesus is both sacrifice and high priest, both substitute and representative. His sacrifice never needs to be repeated; his substitutionary work is done. But his role as our representative lasts forever. By his death he took our place; by his risen life, he secures our place. So our faith both looks back to a finished salvation and looks up to a living Savior, enthroned at the right hand of God. And because that Savior lives forever, our faith looks forward with confidence to the day when we will share fully in his glorious life.

That is what this Holy Week is all about. This Friday, believers in Jesus commemorate his perfect sacrificial death, that single atoning work which has decisively and finally paid the penalty for our sins. Once. Just once. Never to be repeated again.

But on Sunday, we will celebrate with gladness and gloriously unspeakable joy that our Savior is alive, and evermore will be, that he never ceases to intercede for us, that his resurrected humanity provides us with access to God that can never be blocked off or taken away, that he serves as our representative and advocate and mediator and priest for all eternity. Always. Without fail. Yesterday, today – and forever.


¹ In other contexts, hapax is translated simply as “once,” such as when Paul asserts that he was stoned “one time” (2 Corinthians 11:25), or when he recalls how the Philippians sent him financial support more than “once” (Philippians 4:16), or when the author of Hebrews states the obvious fact that each person is destined to die “only once” (Hebrews 9:27). None of these statements have any suggestion that the action is undertaken “for all.”


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Not a Prophet, Priest, or King (Part 2)

Holman_Furniture_of_the_TabernacleIn my last post, I cautioned against using the biblical titles of Prophet, Priest, and King to describe the role of a pastor. My goal is not to quibble over terminology; I know most pastors who use those terms intend them to express the genuine pastoral tasks of teaching, caring, and leading. But I am convinced that such a use is confusing, both because it departs from the biblical meaning of those titles in some significant ways, and because it can reinforce some common misconceptions of what a pastor is.

I have already explained how it’s inappropriate to confuse pastoral ministry with the biblical office of Prophet. This post continues with an exploration of the differences between pastors and the offices of Priest and King.

A pastor is not a priest. A pastor certainly is called to attend to and care for the spiritual needs of his flock. But calling this “priestly” ministry is confusing on two counts. First, this work of caring for others was not the role of priests in the Old Testament. In biblical categories, a priest “is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1). A priest was an official mediator, representing and interceding for the people in the worship of the temple. The entire book of Hebrews is an explanation of how Jesus fulfills and surpasses the priesthood of the old covenant in this sense. This priestly role is then extended to all believers, as we offer ourselves to God (Romans 12:1) in lives of praise to God and service to others (Hebrew 13:15-16). This means that we all may approach God directly, both on our own behalf and on behalf of other believers. We have “confident access” to God in Christ (Ephesians 3:12).

So, calling a pastor a “priest” because he cares for people misses the biblical picture of what a priest is. This confusion may stem from the fact that Roman Catholic priests perform pastoral care, which brings us to the second kind of confusion that arises when an evangelical pastor calls himself a “priest.” Catholic pastors are called “priests” because of the traditional teaching that the Lord’s Supper is an atoning sacrifice which can only be performed through the miraculous grace bestowed on ordained clergy. This is taught nowhere in Scripture, which is why the reformers rejected “priest” as a special clerical title. Calling the caring work of a pastor “priestly” thus not only departs from biblical categories of priesthood, but it risks blurring the difference between the biblical model of pastoral elders and traditional conceptions of a special clerical caste distinct from ordinary, “lay” Christians.

Being a pastor does not make me a priest. Caring for the flock certainly is part of pastoral work, but that is not the biblical conception of priesthood. Ordination does not confer some special access to God which other believers do not have. Every believer is a priest before God through Christ.

Finally, a pastor is not a king. Too many pastors have failed to recognize this, and their arrogant abuse of authority has led to the wounding or even dissolution of too many churches. The elders of the church do indeed have real authority within the church, and believers are called to respect, submit to, and even obey those God has placed in those positions of leadership (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Corinthians 16:16; Hebrews 13:17). But this authority – like all authority – must yield to the authority of God himself (Acts 4:19-20). In any case, the relationship between a pastor and other Christians is not that of king to subject, nor of father to child, nor even of teacher to student, but of brother to brother (Matthew 23:8-12). Pastors are to lead not by domination, but by example (1 Peter 5:3). My role as pastor does not place me above other believers, but below them as their servant.

I am not a prophet, nor a priest, nor a king. Those are Jesus’ job titles. He is the one through whom God has spoken his ultimate revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). He is the one whose sacrifice gives us access to God (Ephesians 2:18). He is the one who rules over the church, enthroned at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20-23).

But, as a pastor, I do share one title with Jesus. “Pastor” is just the Latin word for “shepherd.” Jesus, our Prophet, Priest, and King, does care for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep. He feeds us on his word, supports us in our struggles, and leads and directs us in obedience to him. As I serve as an elder and overseer of a local congregation, I also am called to feed, tend, and lead the flock of God in obedience to Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4). In doing this I advance not my own kingdom, but his, as long as I preach not my own word, but the word of God’s grace, which alone is able to build up the church (Acts 20:32).

That’s what it means to be a pastor.


Image Credit: Furniture of the Tabernacle, By illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Not a Prophet, Priest, or King

There’s a lot of confusion out there about what it means to be a pastor. Pile up two thousand years of church history and add our distinctively American love for religious experimentation, and you will wind up with a vast array of different models, theories, and paradigms for pastoral ministry.

Because I’ve only been a pastor for a couple of months, I’m really just in the beginning stages of learning how to go about pastoral ministry. So my first two posts as a pastor aren’t an attempt to tell other pastors how to do their jobs. Instead, I want to explain what this role of pastor is – and is not. This is something all Christians should care about, because while not every Christian is called to pastor a church, we are all called to participate in the life of the church under the guidance of gifted and qualified pastors. The Bible teaches that ministers of the word are given by Christ to equip and enable the growth and activity of his entire body (Ephesians 4:11-12). This is a crucial role; how a pastor serves the church and how each believer responds to pastoral ministry has a massive impact on the health of the body. So it is vitally important that every believer understand what the Bible says about pastoral ministry.

Preparing for full-time ministry has given me lots of opportunity to reflect on the biblical teaching about the calling and function of a pastor. I’ve written previously about my philosophy of ministry and some important principles of pastoral ministry, in which I’ve tried to do justice to the biblical teaching about what a pastor is. This week and next, I want to talk a little about what a pastor is not.

Grommé,_Kuningas_Daavid_ja_profeetta_NathanOne recently popular way of explaining the various facets of pastoral ministry has been through the Old Testament offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. Since the reformation, these three offices have been held to foreshadow and depict the saving work of Christ, who perfectly reveals God, intercedes with God on the basis of his finished sacrifice, and rules over God’s kingdom. Recently, however, these offices have also been held to reflect the pastor’s three-fold call to speak God’s word, care for his people, and lead his church. Different pastors will, of course, feel more or less gifted or inclined to each of these aspects, so that a particular pastor who ascribes to this model might describe himself as primarily a prophet, with a good dose of king and a smaller gifting as priest.

This paradigm has its merits. Pastors certainly are called to teach, care for, and lead God’s people. But while I greatly respect a number of pastors who use this terminology, I have serious reservations about applying it to myself or any other pastor, because at the end of the day I find it profoundly misleading. I want my people to understand that I am not a Prophet, Priest, or King. This week, I’ll explore the first of those titles.

A pastor is not a prophet. There are various kinds of prophetic ministry in the Old and New Testaments, but all have the common element of being given a message directly from God. The foundational revelation of Scripture is a prophetic and apostolic witness to the church (Ephesians 2:20). And while the group of apostolic witnesses to the resurrection is now closed (1 Corinthians 15:8), and with it the canon of Scripture, I believe there is a place for ongoing direct prophetic revelation in the church as God continues to speak to his people through the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:20). Nevertheless, it is important to note that the pastoral leaders of the church are not required to be gifted as prophets, but as teachers (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9; Eph 4:11). That is, leadership within the church does not belong with those who claim to have a direct word from the Lord, but with those who faithfully pass on the word already delivered to the saints. In this way prophetic messages can be tested by their conformity to the apostolic gospel (1 John 4:1-6).

I would love to have God speak to me more clearly and directly than I have yet experienced, and in obedience to the Bible I do pray for an increase of my gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1). But I am not a prophet, nor do I need to be to be a pastor. My authority as a pastor does not come from a special, direct revelation, but from faithful teaching and application of the Scriptures, which are what enable me to equip the people of God for every good work (Ephesians 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). This is why I practice expository preaching – it helps ensure that I am feeding God’s flock with real spiritual food. If I tell my people “thus says the Lord,” I expect them not just to believe it because I say so, but to examine the Scriptures to see if my teaching is true to what God has already said (Acts 17:11).

Check back next week for an exploration of the difference between pastoral ministry and the biblical offices of Priest and King.


Image Credit: By William Grommé (1836–1900) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Blood and Water

Christmas 2010



I wrote this meditation a few years ago. May it bless you this season as we remember the messy, marvelous humility and love of the one who came “not in water only, but in water and in blood” (1 John 5:6).




Blood and water outward burst

a sudden stab – his mother cried

and felt again the pain that first

brought forth this man with punctured side


This pain, these tears, this bloody flow

that mark his dark and dreadful death

had filled that stable long ago

he cried with her with his first breath


Upon the cross again he wailed

the Son of God, of God forlorn

before his mother’s eyes impaled

as naked as when he was born


The heavenly host that hailed his birth

he would not call to end his pain

the angel choirs forget their mirth

as Bethlehem’s child is cruelly slain


Born his people to deliver

born to die, for sin to atone

slain to rise, to live forever,

his blood to plead before the Throne


In blood and water, grief and pain

in mortal flesh for mortal sin

he came to cleanse our nature’s stain

our guilty souls from death to win


Image credit: Rebecca Adeney © 2010

The Tie that Binds

hand-shake-1241578This week, my family celebrated our last Thanksgiving here in Illinois. A few weeks ago, I accepted a call to pastor a church in New Hampshire. We’ll be moving the first weekend in December, and I’ll be in the pulpit in January. I can’t begin to say how excited and grateful I am for this new adventure. It’s the fulfillment of a long-standing dream of mine, the end of a long wait.

I’ve spent half my life – my entire adulthood – in Illinois. That was something I never expected when I moved from Seattle to attend Wheaton College. I thought I – like my father and grandfather before me – would simultaneously get a bachelors degree and cease to be a bachelor, and then move on. I expected to go straight on to seminary and be serving in full-time ministry by the time I was twenty-five. I certainly didn’t plan on staying eighteen years in this mountainless, over-taxed, over-crowded place where the summers are too hot and the winters are too cold and there isn’t enough of the color green.

But God had other plans. I didn’t meet my wife while I was in college; it turned out I had more growing to do before I was ready to find her. I didn’t go straight into full-time ministry; I had a lot more to learn before I could be entrusted with the care of God’s flock. I had to learn patience. And trust. And humility. (It turns out that twenty-five-year-old me was not the answer to the problems of American Christianity.)

Along the way, I learned to love Illinois. I got used to the winters. (Which is good, because New Hampshire isn’t going to be any warmer.) I came to appreciate the expansive prairie sky. I tried to use my vote to improve the dysfunctional state government. I adapted to life in Midwestern suburbia and became part of this community.

As I get ready to leave, I am thankful for all that God has given me during my sojourn in this place. Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School enriched my mind, formed my attitudes, and connected me to life-long friends. Trader Joe’s in Glen Ellyn provided me not only with a paycheck for fourteen years, but with a community and  worthwhile work everyday. I’m grateful to have spent so much of my life providing my neighbors with really great food at great prices in a genuinely fun environment. And it’s changed the way I eat. Our new home will be an hour and a half away from the nearest Trader Joe’s, but we will make that trip from time to time. (I’ll miss the 10% employee discount, though!)

The biggest blessings God has given me here in Illinois are the members of my little family. No matter where God may take us, the beginnings of our marriage and the beginnings of our children’s lives will always be wrapped up with this place. The first date. The first kiss. The first anniversary. The miscarriage. The layoff. The thesis. The graduation. Picnics, walks, late night conversations. The first apartment. The first house. Four healthy children – first breaths, first smiles, first steps, first words, first letters.

Of course, I get to take Rebecca and the kids with me to New Hampshire. Of the things I leave behind, the one I’m most grateful for is the church family that has nurtured and supported me through all but my first two years in the Midwest. College Church in Wheaton has shaped and formed me in more ways than I can count. I have been mentored and taught, encouraged and equipped, corrected and rebuked, tested and affirmed. Most of all, I have been pointed to Jesus and rooted in the Bible. I have developed deep and meaningful relationships with supervising pastors, partners in ministry, and brothers and sisters in Christ. Through all the ups and downs of college, single life, marriage, parenting, work, and ministry, this community has been with me in the fellowship of the gospel.

It’s not that College Church is perfect. Being part of this community has sometimes been uncomfortable, even excruciatingly hard. Some of my brothers and sisters have been hard for me to love. I haven’t agreed with every decision that gets made. There are things that would be different if I were in charge.

But I’m not in charge. And that’s good. This is Jesus’ church, and he has his own plans for it, and for me, which are far better than mine could ever be. And these are his people, recovering sinners just like me, adopted children of God just like me. Despite all the things that could divide us, we are united around that fundamental gospel message of God’s grace to us in Christ. And therefore we are truly, deeply, eternally united. I am grateful to have been nurtured by a church that is defined by that central gospel unity, rather than by secondary issues on which genuine Christians disagree.

And I’m grateful to be going to a church that has that same gospel focus. College Church and MillBrook Christian Fellowship certainly are very different on most external measures, like attendance (thousands vs. dozens), region (Midwest vs. New England), and community (suburban vs. rural). Those differences are real, and we will have some adjusting to do after so long in this context. (At the same time, a smaller, more rural church is just what we’ve been hoping for.) But what unites the church we’re leaving and the church we’re going to is far more important: a focus on the central, biblical message of God’s grace in Christ. We’re excited to be going to a church that has been firmly established on that foundation. And we’re grateful to be sent out from a church that has re-enforced that foundation so faithfully in our own lives.

College Church, Rebecca and I will miss you. We thank God for your partnership with us in the gospel from the first day until now. May he continue to bless both you and us as we part ways for his sake, knowing that those who are united in Christ are truly united forever, no matter how much physical distance there may be between them.


Image credit: Laura Glover,

Three Kinds of Legalism


Nearly 500 years ago, a small-town professor accidentally ignited a controversy that would change Christianity forever. Martin Luther’s academic critique of the sale of “indulgences” – the promise of forgiveness of sins in exchange for money – expanded to a wide-ranging disagreement about the authority of the Pope, the importance of ecclesiastical rituals, and the relationship between tradition and Scripture.

At the root of Luther’s courageous stand against the abuses of his day was his recovery of the key biblical principle that there are two kinds of righteousness. One is the “proper righteousness” of actual good works in obedience to the law of God. The other is the “alien righteousness” which is ours through union with Christ by faith. Luther championed the biblical truth that our standing with God is based not on our proper righteousness, which is always inadequate, but only on the alien righteousness of Christ.

Luther’s insight had a profound impact on how his protestant heirs view the law of God. If there is one thing we protestants agree on, it is that we shouldn’t be legalists. But this agreement is a bit clouded by the fact that “legalism” isn’t a single phenomenon, but a general category for any kind of misuse of the law. Just as Luther distinguished between two kinds of righteousness, I think it is helpful for us to identify three distinct kinds of legalism.

1) Extra-biblical requirements. Often the first thing that springs to mind when we think of “legalism” is the practice of adding additional requirements to God’s law. This form of legalism appears in Mark 7:1-23, in which the Pharisees censured Jesus’ disciples for eating food without giving their hands a ceremonial washing.

The problem with the Pharisees’ attitude was that such a practice was nowhere commanded by God. It was “the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3, 5). The idea, it seems, was to guard against any possibility of contracting ceremonial defilement (which is a genuine concern of the Old Testament law). But by making their human traditions a requirement for themselves and others, they equated them with the very commandments of God, even to the point of setting aside those commands when they came into conflict with the tradition (Mark 7:8-13).

Everyone, of course, has extra-biblical practices; the problem comes when we make these extra-biblical requirements. The Bible doesn’t tell you that you must read the complete works of Jonathan Edwards, but it’s fine if you do. The problem comes if you look down on others (or yourself) for not reading them.

Extra-biblical requirements can be old traditions or new fads. If you consider yourself better than others or more acceptable to God if you fast during Lent or follow the Twelve Steps or read the One-Year Bible or complete the Forty Days of Purpose, you may be in bondage to the legalism of extra-biblical requirements.

2) Externalism. Jesus responded to the Pharisees with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines the requirements of men” (Isaiah 29:13; Mark 7:6-7). The second part of this quote (“teaching as doctrines the requirements of men”) points us to the kind of legalism we’ve already discussed, the introduction of man-made, extra-biblical requirements to supplement or even supplant the commands of God.

But Jesus builds on the first part of this quotation to point out another problem with the Pharisees’ attitude to the law of God. It wasn’t just that they were adding extra requirements of their own (Mark 7:8-13). They were also leaving out the most important part of the law – the call to love the Lord with all our hearts – focusing instead on external behaviors and physical rituals (Mark 7:14-23). They were going “below the line” by reducing the law of God to something measurable, manageable, achievable.

The Pharisees were guilty both of adding man-made requirements to the law and of reducing the law’s scope to external behaviors and rituals. But we can sometimes be guilty of only one or the other of these forms of legalism. For example, some Christians seem to think that it is a sin ever to feel angry, lonely, or sad. This is not externalism – it rightly prioritizes the attitudes of the heart – but it imposes an unbiblical standard that Jesus himself did not meet (Mark 3:5; 14:35).

By the same token, we can be guilty of a legalistic focus on external behaviors even when we aren’t going beyond God’s commands. We may be doing what God says is right and avoiding what he says is wrong, but not out of desire to please and honor him. When I read my Bible without really seeking to hear from God, or bottle up my anger out of a fear of the consequences, or serve in ministry to demonstrate what a good person I am, I am not actually keeping God’s commands – I am only pretending to on the outside.

3) Works-Righteousness. This third kind of legalism is the deadliest of all – the attempt to be justified through keeping the law. It is the inherently futile quest to deserve the approval of God through one’s own behavior rather than through the perfect person and finished work of Jesus.

While extra-biblical requirements add to God’s law and externalism reduces it to a matter of outward behavior, works-righteousness fundamentally misrepresents the purpose of the law. It acts as if God gave us his law so that we could earn his approval.

Works-righteousness does not actually add anything to God’s word, because the law really does contain the promise that keeping it will amount to righteousness (Deuteronomy 6:25). But it also contains the prediction that those who received the law would not actually keep it (Deuteronomy 31:15-29). In fact, we all fall far short of the righteous standard of our holy God; it is only through the death and resurrection of Christ that we can be justified in his sight (Romans 3:9-24). Works-righteousness thus  goes “below the line” of God’s word by leaving out both the bad news (none of us meets the standard presented in the law) and the good news (Christ has met the standard for anyone who believes).

Though they can exist independently, these three kinds of legalism are often found together. After all, it’s a lot easier to think that you can be justified by your own works if you have reduced the law to a matter of external compliance, or if you have substituted your own achievable standard for the perfect law of God. On the other hand, if you recognize what the law actually requires, works-righteousness will either be accompanied by an extreme lack of self-awareness or a crushing consciousness of your failure to fulfill God’s commands.

As an earnest young monk, Luther keenly felt that burden of guilt. He knew how far he was from loving God with all his heart and soul, and none of the man-made penances he endured could make up for that fact. He was liberated from this legalism only by the biblical gospel that God justifies sinners who come to him by faith in Christ that. It was this message that went on revolutionize the lives of millions of others around the world and across five hundred years.

It was Luther’s commitment to God’s word that enabled him to hear this good news. This remains the only reliable remedy for all three forms of legalism. Whether we’re tempted to add to God’s commandments, reduce them to achievable externals, use them as a means to justify ourselves, or some combination of the three, we will keep from being legalists as we continually recommit ourselves to staying on the line of God’s word.


Image Credit: Ferdinand Pauwels – flickr, Public Domain,