Some time ago I was asked in a conversation whether I ever drank beverage alcohol and I replied “No.” Upon hearing my answer, my interlocutor quickly and harshly reprimanded me for being a legalist. Then, after I pressed him for an explanation, he made a calculated shift in tack, donned a look of feigned sympathy, and replied, “Oh, I see. You’re not a legalist, you’re my weaker brother.” Not being in a particularly patient frame of mind on that day, I extricated myself from the conversation, but it stayed with me. Something seemed vaguely ironic about the conversation, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Last week, happily, Michael Horton served up a blog post that helped me to organize my vague thoughts. His post was a timely pushback at a trend that has long been evident in the Reformed community but more recently in conservative evangelical and even fundamental Baptist communities—a trend that he calls “reverse legalism.” His argument is that a reverse legalist can sometimes be, ironically, just as legalistic as a regular legalist…but with a twist. Instead of measuring sanctification by multiplying behavioral standards so that he can smugly announce, “I am holier than thou,” the reverse legalist standard measures sanctification by eliminating behavioral standards so that he can announce, with equal smugness, “I am freer than thou.”
The fact is, sanctification is not a matter of competition with other believers. One can become righteous neither by being more restrictive nor more liberated—one becomes righteous by the obedience of Christ. Nor does one become progressively more holy by such means—one becomes progressively holy by mimicking Jesus Christ. Sanctification is at its heart a quest for godliness in all of its communicable forms. And when it comes to our relationships with other believers, its most visible attribute is not one of rivalry but of love.
Our sanctification is adjudicated then, by a “law of liberty” (Jas 2:12), a perplexing idea that seems almost oxymoronic until one understands its beauty. Christian liberty is not realized by adopting a normative principle of conduct (i.e., If the Bible does not condemn it, then I am free); rather, the law of Christ is realized most significantly when I love my neighbor as myself (v. 8).
In his grace, God has provided many things in his universe simply for our pleasure, and he is surely delighted when we find pleasure in his gifts. No person, in fact, can help but enjoy them (Eph 5:29). And yet, the law of liberty is manifested most visibly when someone seeks another’s pleasure above his own. This is poignantly seen in Ephesians 5 in the institution of marriage, but it is not limited thereto. In 1 Corinthians 8–10 it is seen in declining God’s gracious gifts for the good pleasure of the gospel. In Romans 14 in declining God’s gracious gifts for the good pleasure of the church. The law of liberty sometimes even says, for the sake of pleasing another, “I will never enjoy God’s gracious gifts again” (1 Cor 8:13). Because even though “everything is permissible, not everything is beneficial” and “while everything is permissible, not everything is constructive.” In such cases, the rule is this: “No one should seek his own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor 10:23).
Now one may quibble with me about whether and to what degree God has given alcohol to enjoy. Further, we might ask whether Satan has (as he has done so often) over time perverted something that is “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” into a idol of prodigious proportions (so Gen 3:6; Luke 4:3–4). But all that aside, it remains a fact that non-participation in one of God’s gifts may well be the very most basic expression of Christian liberty commended in Scripture. It surely makes no one holy, but it need not make one a legalist either. Unless, perchance, it makes one a slave to the perfect law of liberty.