Picture of Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Good-Bye book and image of a cross

My Joshua Harris Moment and the Challenge of Christian Cultural Engagement

This week, Joshua Harris, a preacher who rose to prominence within certain segments of Christianity through his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has now said, “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” I honestly think I get where he’s coming from because of my own experience. I also think his admission directly bears on politics and culture in Tennessee and our country.

My Personal ‘Joshua Harris’ Testimony

I do not know Joshua Harris, and so to say I know where he’s coming from is admittedly presumptuous, but this comment by him bears on my own journey over the last couple of years. I was a “good kid” growing up. My moral compass was pretty straight. By “all the measurements that I [had] for defining a Christian,” I was one.

Then in law school I heard for the first time about the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and it added a new dimension by which I could “measure” my Christianity. Now an even greater reason for “being good” was introduced.

About 14 years ago, I found myself in a pew at the end of a Sunday evening service quietly sobbing into my hands and repeatedly muttering, “I’m just so tired.”

Life is a journey, but over the course of the last 14 years I have learned what might be shocking to many Christians: A Christianity understood as and measured by what I do is exhausting, and it is not the gospel.

Yet, I suspect my old perception of Christianity reflects the tenor of much of what passes for evangelical preaching today with its emphasis on three steps to having this in one’s Christian life and five steps to having something else. Preaching with that kind of tenor is what Christians even as recently as 100 years ago would have called legalism. To avoid Christian jargon and hopefully spark discussion, I’ve started calling it “Christian moralism;” it is “having a go” at reforming one’s moral values by personal willpower.

The End of ‘Christianity’?

Legalism or Christian moralism easily slips into Christianity because it appears to be a good antidote to and a means of inoculating Christians against the heresy of antinomianism, which means literally “against law.” It goes something like this: If legalism is bad, then antinomianism is worse!

Antinomianism is the “safe harbor” for those who don’t want to give up their basic belief in God and want to satisfy a felt need to “be right with God.” It is a belief that the gospel frees people from strict adherence to the moral law of God. Antinomianism allows the person to continue in the sin that legalism insisted he or she give up but by will power could not be done, and think he or she will be forgiven anyway because God is a God of love.

What’s ironic is that the tenor of the Apostle Paul’s preaching against legalism resulted in him being accused of antinomianism!

We know this by the fact he spent time in his letter to the Christians in Rome anticipating the charge that the gospel he preached was antinomian.1 In fact, Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones once said of Paul’s letter, “If your presentation of the Gospel does not expose it to the charge of Antinomianism you are probably not putting it correctly.”2

Even as legalism left Judaism in tatters when the gospel came in the form of Jesus Christ and the Temple was soon destroyed, I won’t be a bit surprised if the legalist spirit so often associated with Christianity will soon leave the words “Christianity” and “Christian” in tatters, too. I think the growing malaise toward and outright contempt for “conservative Christianity” is evidence of this trend, and more of the same won’t help.

The ‘Solution’ to Legalistic and Antinomian Christianity

Legalism and antinomianism both miss the point of the gospel, which, at the core, is God implanting a spirit or principle of life into a person so that normal human faculties (intellect, will, etc.) are redirected toward an affection for God and the glory that is God.

This is what Thomas Chalmers, the great Scottish preacher and cultural reformer, said on this matter, and I believe it bears directly on why Christians in political office and many Christians who support them seem to be so weak and unwilling to support laws that go against the current cultural flow of things:

To bid a man into whom there has not yet entered the great and ascendant influence of the principle of regeneration, to bid him withdraw his love from all the things that are in the world, is to bid him give up all the affections that are in his heart.

In other words, the world and that which is in it or a part of it is all there is for those who lack this principle of regeneration. And who will give up any affection that may be found in what this world has to offer unless it is replaced with a greater affection? No one.
To expect that is to expect the person to cease being human. That’s why Chalmers described the gospel as “the expulsive power of a new affection.”

How Joshua Harris ‘Connects’ to Christian Engagement in Politics and Culture

Here, then, is how I see Joshua Harris’ renunciation of Christianity relates to politics and culture:

When we as Christians in political office and Christians who are interested in the laws that politics produces and are concerned about our nation’s moral slide, allow this new affection for God and the glory of God to displace the greater affections we might have for office, influence, power, reputation, or possessions, then I suspect we will see a change in our country’s direction away from bigger civil government and away from a liberty that has turned to licentiousness.

Legalism and antinomianism both lead to death. The fact that many conservative Christians, I among them, think our nation is dying should speak to us about how we might have contributed to its condition and what first must change about us if the change we desire for our nation is to ever come about.

For further reading
The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance―Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson.

NOTES

  1. Romans 6:1,15.
  2. “If your presentation of the Gospel does not expose it to the charge of Antinomianism you are probably not putting it correctly. . . . What do I mean by that? Just this: The Gospel, you see, comes as this free gift of God–irrespective of what man does. Now, the moment you say a thing like that, you are liable to provoke somebody to say, “Well, if that is so it doesn’t matter what I do.” The Apostle takes up that argument more than once in this great epistle [to the Romans]. . . . You see–what is not evangelical preaching is this: It’s the kind of preaching that says to people, “Now, if you live a good life; if you don’t commit certain sins; and if you do good to others; and if you become a church member and attend regularly and are busy and active you will be a fine Christian and you’ll go to Heaven. That’s the opposite of Evangelical preaching–and it isn’t exposed to the charge of Antinomianism because…it is telling men to save themselves by their good works…And it’s not the Gospel–because the Gospel always exposes itself to this misunderstanding from the standpoint of Antinomianism.” http://feedingonchrist.com/lloyd-jones-on-the-gospel-and-the-charge-of-antinomianism/

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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3 replies
  1. KEN D LANSING
    KEN D LANSING says:

    Paul gave many instructions on right living but never one time connected those objectives (including nine of the commands written by the finger of God) to justification and any epistle! Can’t find the quote but it is a paraphrase from Dr. Peter S. Ruckman.

    Reply
  2. Kelly Anderson
    Kelly Anderson says:

    I love your approach to legalism and antinomianism, but the “spirit” or “principle of life” is not enough. We MUST have His Spirit in us. In fact, “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27) is WHY we change our allegiance, our desires, hopes, and goals. His Spirit in us is what makes us alive in Christ.
    I’m pretty sure you believe this differentiation; I just thought I would point it out.

    Reply
    • David Fowler
      David Fowler says:

      You are correct. I should’ve put the word “holy“ before the word spirit. The alternative reference to “principle” in the modern understanding of that word could certainly look like legalism. It is terminology used by writers from a couple of centuries ago like John Owen, whose works I’ve been reading. They used the word in the sense that regeneration by and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit implanted a new “principle of life” within the person by which he or she was freed from sin’s bondage and enabled to begin living according to the “law of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 9:21, Gal. 6:2, Rom 8:2. I need to be more mindful how phrases that were understood one way maybe take in a different way now.

      Reply

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