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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Control that tongue

It isn't legalistic to strive for greater obedience

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

Brothers, can we talk about legalism? I wrote a blog sharing that God is teaching me to be careful with my mouth, and that there are no such things as inconsequential words. Then I was knocked off kilter with a thread of comments charging legalism. Unless we settle this question right away, I'm afraid we won't get anywhere.

Yes, we rest in the grace of Christ. And it is a costly grace, and costly discipleship does it require. It is a grace secured at great price, and it asks, in return, for all we have. It is a grace to relax in as regards our secure eternal destination, but a grace to strive in as regards our efforts to live for Him: "Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue" (2 Peter 1:5). It is a grace with plenteous forgiveness when we sin, but it does not logically follow from this that it is an iota less serious to sin.

I have said "a grace to strive in as regards our efforts to live for Him," but it's not even so much a striving as a yielding to the Spirit moment by moment rather than to the flesh.

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Sure, we should always be careful of creeping legalism. The Apostle Paul was the first to say so-and also the first to command, "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths" (Ephesians 4:29). In the same letter famous for his anti-legalist preaching, Paul gives counsel like "Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap" (Galatians 6:7). In Acts 15, the classic anti-legalism text, the apostles end by asking the church to comply with three bits of extraneous advice. They saw no inconsistency.

One reader wrote, "If I could control my tongue, then I wouldn't need a Savior." Well, we do have a Savior, and He commands us to control our tongues. The grace is available (2 Peter 1:3).

Or has the doctrine of the sovereignty of God swallowed up human responsibility? A history professor once told me about an era so afraid of Pelagianism that the church became paralyzed. In the end you couldn't even say "I need to trust God" because there was an "I" in it. You were left with ludicrous statements like "I need to trust God to do the trusting for me."

If exhortation to godly speech is rebuffed as incipient legalism, then all preaching is impossible. Then your pastors are all legalists when they instruct you to any change of attitude or behavior. If the charge of legalism is the knee-jerk response to all advice, it puts a chill on everyone who has a word from the Lord for the building up of the saints-though Paul spent all of 1 Corinthians 14 urging such mutual edifications.

I have learned in the last few years that reading the Bible a lot and praying constantly are secrets to a sweeter communion with God. I have learned that the Bible's commands are not glum duties but surprising doorways into intimacy with God. I am eager to share this. Must I refrain from testifying lest it be construed as legalism? Doesn't Paul himself say to immerse ourselves in Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13) and to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17)? Is he a legalist? Or does he get a special pass because he was inspired?

I have a good friend (may you all have such a friend as this) who exhorts me fervently to godly speech. He just as often exhorts me to a more confident embracing of the assurance of God's unfailing love. And I will tell you that I love the one as much as the other. I love to be reminded of God's covenant which binds me to Him like a strong cable. But I find it just as invigorating-and not at all burdensome-to be spurred on to greater faithfulness. Covenant is covenant, after all: a pledge of faithfulness between parties; initiated by God, to be sure, but with my own treaty stipulations.

We follow the Lamb wherever He goes (Revelation 14:4). We "overcome" (Revelation 2:3). This is seeking God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength. This is not legalism but the Christian life.
If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to aseu@worldmag.com.
To hear commentaries by Andrée Seu, click here.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.

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