‘Legalism’ is a term that has various shades of meaning. On some occasions, ‘legalism’ is a term used to refer to attempts to merit or earn one’s salvation by adherence to moral rules, on other occasions it can refer to the imposition of a burden of man-made requirements upon people, undermining their God-given freedom. These are not the only forms of legalism, however. Legalism also has to do with the way that we present the requirements of God to people.
Such legalism is particularly a problem within the context of the ethics of the New Covenant. Whilst I find many traditional Reformation ways of relating Law and Gospel deeply problematic, failing to pay sufficient attention to the underlying redemptive and covenant historical developments, I am nonetheless convinced that many of these approaches continue truth that we jettison at our peril.
We tend to adopt a certain form of ‘legalism’ with young children, which is important as part of their development. You tell a two year old to do one thing or not to do another; you don’t give them much choice in the matter, nor do you provide them with many reasons for the commandment. However, as the child grows up it is unhealthy to continue to adopt such an approach, as it prevents the child from developing mature moral agency.
There is a sort of analogy between this and the way in which biblical ethics works. At the very basic level there is a place for rules and commandments, but in many respects they are there to be transcended. As we enter into the New Covenant, part of what it means for us to no longer be under the Law is that we are freed to act as full moral agents by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Legalism, then, need not involve a lack of theological justification for a commandment, nor an attempt to merit salvation. There are legalistic ways of expressing perfectly biblical ethical norms. This is a deep failing in many areas of fundamentalism, where even biblical moral norms are repeatedly expressed in a legalistic way that is gospel-denying, undermining the freedom of the people of God (this legalism is often accompanied by the legalism of adding to or undermining God’s commandments, e.g. no dancing, going to the cinema, no wine in communion).
Such legalism does not recognize the authority that the Scriptures accord to the Christian as a creative and free moral subject. Giving a theological justification for commandments does tend to grant a degree of authority to the person who is being commanded as a moral subject. When the child is told to do something by his parents and asks them why, that question is all too often the sign of resistance and rebellion. However, there is a stage when the right to know ‘why’ must be acknowledged, not a concession to rebellion, but as a recognition of maturity. An adult who does not know why he abides by particular moral norms that his parents taught him is not equipped as a fully-fledged moral agent. New Covenant ethics gives us a lot of reasons why we ought to act in a particular way; it does not generally just command us to act in that way rather than others.
When you look at NT ethics there are a number of differences to be observed from OT ethics. NT ethics treats us, not as those who need to be brought under a law, but as those who are freed from such laws, freed to fulfil such laws, by the Spirit of Christ. Christian ethics has a particular form, which focuses on persuasion, rather than on prescription. Compare Galatians 5 and Exodus 20 as good examples of these contrasting approaches. NT ethics addresses as ‘grown-ups’ in Christ, those who are no longer under the guardianship of the Law.
This does not entail a denial of previous content, but it is a movement beyond the ethics of law, into an ethics of freedom. Whilst the Law gives freedom on one level, teaching us how to live aright, on another level it constrains. If the rhetoric of the Law is primarily prohibition and prescription (for our good, certainly, but prescription and prohibition nonetheless), the ethics of the New Covenant are primarily persuasion, exhortation and the like. NT ethics also gives the moral agent a lot more room for creativity in deciding the best way to fulfill God’s commandments.
NT ethics are not generally framed in the form of commandments. Rather, NT ethics involve a particular rhetorical form that recognizes the freedom that the believer has from the Law. NT ethics operates primarily according to a rhetoric of persuasion, rather than an rhetoric of command, something that can be seen in action in Philemon 8-9.
The Church’s chief duty is to cultivate an ethos, not to enforce an ethic. There is a difference. Whilst there are certain things that must always be condemned and ruled out within the Church, our primary duty is not to establish and enforce a long list of dos and don’ts, but to encourage, support and enable people in living out the sort of life that Christ has freed them to live.
The rhetorical form in which we address people with Christian ethics is a matter of great importance. As Oliver O’Donovan observes, ‘Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ Christian ethics must be presented as good and liberating news. Whilst many Reformed people are right to observe a manner in which the Old Covenant Law came as good news, there are key disanalogies to be maintained. The rhetorical form of the Law does not differ from the rhetorical form of Christian ethics for no reason. As Christians, rather than enjoining people to perform certain actions, we beseech them or seek to persuade them. There are occasions when dos and don’ts are appropriate, but if they become our primary way of relating Christian ethics to believe we are in danger of losing sight of the gospel.
A good example of the difference between the ethics of commandment and the ethics of persuasion can be seen in the way that we approach a person such as the pregnant rape victim who is contemplating an abortion. On the particular issue of a pregnant rape victim, it is one thing to say that the right thing for her to do in such a situation is to bear the child. It is another thing to say that to her. There is always a danger of creating a form of ethics that is more about adherence to a certain set of norms rather than a matter of empowering people to live in the freedom of the Spirit for which Christ has set them free.
This is why Christian biographies, models and support structures within the Christian Church can be so important when we face such issues. Rather than imposing a commandment upon the rape victim from without, they create a realm of freedom for the woman in which her choice for the way of Christ is made possible and positively encouraged, without being coerced in any way.