You may have heard of the Presbyterian pastor and author Tullian Tchividjian; he’s Billy Graham’s grandson, and the successor to D. James Kennedy as the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church down in Fort Lauderdale. I haven’t read a lot of his work, but he wrote a remarkable little essay last fall called “Church, We Have a Problem” that I’ve been mulling ever since. In it, he writes this:
Spend any time in the American church, and you’ll hear legalism and lawlessness presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid. Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law or rules, and lawlessness when you focus too much on grace. . . .
It is more theologically accurate to say that the one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). . . . Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. . . . We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license.
This is a profound insight. Rev. Tchividjian goes on from there to talk about the importance of preaching grace, which is indeed the main point at issue. I want to take his comments in a different direction, though, because I think he highlights something important about the world. The world wants us all to be legalists, and on the whole, it doesn’t really care which kind. Put another way, the world wants us to be conformists. Some times and cultures favor “keep the rules” conformists, while others favor “break the rules” conformists, but what really matters either way aren’t the obvious rules being kept or broken. What matters is the deeper set of rules you aren’t allowed to question.
This is important to recognize when we talk about our individualistic culture. It is indeed individualistic in the sense that it values the desires of the individual above the well-being of the group (hence no-fault divorce laws, for example). It’s quick to praise self-expression and denounce “conformity”—by which it means keeping the standards of previous generations, which are now hopelessly passé. But have you ever noticed that non-conformists run in packs? It’s great to be an individual and chart your own course, as long as you’re an individual just like everyone else. Be “different” in one of the approved ways, and you’re golden. If you’re actually different from the world, you’ll be attacked—as, among other things, a conformist. And no, no one will see the irony.
Obviously, the world isn’t monolithic. It has factions—different groups that want different things and approve of different things. They’re rather like political parties. But just like our political parties, they only fight each other when there’s no common enemy. Introduce a threat to the system and the existing power structure, and they band together to defeat it. We see an example of this in the gospels. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians hated each other, but they teamed up willingly to kill Jesus because they hated him even more. As long as you’re in the system and belong to an accepted group, you might get flak from other groups, but you’ll be okay.
The key question from the world’s perspective is, are you a part of the system? Do you follow its rules and honor its priorities? If so, you might think you’re the one calling the shots, but it’s the world that’s running your life; you’re under its management, in its employ. For example, you might be a spender or a saver; you might believe in working hard and living frugally, or you might live one paycheck behind and borrow from everyone in sight. These are different factions which honor money in different ways, but they agree on its importance. That’s what the world really cares about. Even as Christians, it’s easy to fall into these patterns, thinking and acting much like everyone around us does—acting as if the world owned and ran us, too.
Now, on a quick read of 1 Peter 4, it looks like the apostle is only concerned about obvious bad behavior, as he seems to be describing an extreme group of sinners—acts of lawlessness, lust, orgies, drunkenness, carousing, and so on. There are two points to consider, however. First, with the exception of the final item on his list (idolatry), everything he’s denouncing was also condemned by pagan writers. These were vices that society recognized as vices. Second, I don’t think we can assume that the Christians to whom this letter was written had all been addicts of the worst sort. It’s probable that most of them had lived reasonably respectable lives before their conversion. And yet, Peter tars all of them and their whole society with this broad brush. Why?
I think the answer lies in the fact that this list ends with the condemnation of idolatry. Most if not all of the rest of the terms in verse 3 refer to behaviors which, though generally recognized as wrong most of the time, were practiced every year at some of the Greek and Roman religious festivals. If you participated in the religion of the culture, however upright and upstanding your daily life may have been, there would be times you would abandon self-control and any sort of moral constraint as a part of your worship of the gods of the culture. To refuse to do so was to mark yourself off as someone who followed a different Lord than the world around you and gave your allegiance to a different authority—and thus as someone not properly under control.
That’s what it’s all about. The world always talks about morality—even those who denounce traditional morality speak in moralistic terms—but the underlying theme and purpose is control. Remember, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this present darkness, as Paul says in Ephesians 6. The world wants to make us legalists, either striving to use law to control our desires or letting our desires determine our law; either way, it has us in its grip.
Peter reminds us that we’re free of that grip, and calls us to live free of it. Christ suffered in this world, the perfectly just bearing the weight of all our injustice, to buy us out of our slavery to sin—and he is now done with sin. He came into this world resolved to defeat sin, he carried that through and broke its power by his death and resurrection, and he has now left it forever behind him, passing through and returning to the presence of God the Father. Because of his work, we no longer belong to this world, and we are no longer slaves to sin and death; instead, we too look forward to the day when we will leave them forever behind us, passing through them to live with God, in whom there is neither sin nor death, eternally.
Peter says, fix your eyes on that, and arm yourselves with the same resolve to live your life to do the will of God. We are no longer slaves to this world, we are slaves of God; we’re under new management, accountable to a new master. We need to set our hearts and minds to live in that freedom, even though it will mean suffering abuse from others, and possibly worse. We need to steel ourselves to bear that suffering as Christ did, neither running away nor fighting back, but trusting in the justice of God the Father and accepting suffering as an opportunity to bear witness to the love and the grace of God. As that translator said in the video of the Masterworks China trip from a couple years ago, “Don’t pray that we will not have persecution, but pray that we will prevail and stand throughout persecution.”