by The Very Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th.D.
© 16 August 2007
Over the centuries the Church has struggled with primarily three heresies: Arianism (denying the deity of Christ), Gnosticism (separating the spiritual from the physical), and legalism (that one can earn his salvation). The irony is that the other side of the coin to legalism is license, that one can live like the devil and still go to heaven when he dies. I would like to consider legalism and license.
During the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was selling indulgences, people literally paying for their sins in advance so they could enjoy them later, which is the flip side to legalism, a license to sin. Thus legalism implies license. It works like this: if one can earn his salvation (legalism), that puts him in charge of grace, and makes God his debtor. If he is in charge, he can refuse His grace and still claim to be a Christian (license).
The Protestant Reformation brought the Church back to a reasonable position from the legalism and the license of Rome. Statement after statement by the Reformers made it clear that one could not earn his salvation (contrary to legalism), but that faith without works was dead (contrary to license).
For example, in 1538 Cranmer said:
[We] are yet not justified on account of any worth or merit of penitence or other works or merits of [our] own, but freely by faith on account of Christ when we believe. . . .
But then a few lines later he also added:
For good works are necessary to salvation, not because they justify the ungodly, nor because they are a price paid for sin, or a cause of justification; but because it is necessary that one who is already justified by faith and reconciled to God through Christ, should strive to do God’s will. . . .
There is the balance. We are justified by faith in Christ apart from works, but the faith that justifies is living faith that necessarily produces works (James 2:14ff; 1 John 2:3-4).
So what is the problem? The problem is that legalism and license are still with us. Rome still has its problems with legalism and license, but so now does Protestantism. (Orthodoxy, which hates St Augustine and his biblical view of grace, has terrible problems with legalism and Pelagianism.) The Protestant revival fire of the 1500s that brought the Church back in line now needs to be brought back in line itself. We are selling grace as seen in the emerging church movement, as seen in the entertainment models for salvation, in the smorgasbord approach to Church where the “consumer” will pick and choose what he likes—not what is biblical.
Here in Houston we have several mega-churches that advertise their entertainment services each week. One has a stage play each Sunday, sometimes with motorcycles jumping on stage, another time with cars smashing into one another. Another mega-church has a large globe behind the preacher that gradually turns with not a cross in sight. Thus the symbolism is that the cross has been replaced with the world. I’ve never heard the preacher preach on sin or the cross. The slogan is “Find the champion in you,” not in God. Other churches have contemporary worship where the consumer, not God, is the center. In each case, the emphasis is on us humans and what we like, not on God and what He requires.
So am I just being mean spirited? They have large churches and we don’t, so I have to find something wrong with them? That is not the problem. If they were preaching the Gospel, I would rejoice, but one perhaps occasionally preaches the Gospel and the other one has announced that it will preach on sin, but will affirm the people. So how does all this connect with legalism and license?
Listen to the preaching from these mega-churches and what do you hear? It is not about God and His majesty and sovereignty. It is not about sin, the Ten Commandments, and judgment. It is not about Christ and His death on the Cross for our sins. It is five steps to financial success. It is six steps to have a good relationship with your wife. It is how to eat right and be healthy (not kidding). In other words, besides being man-centered, it is “You do this and you’ll be blessed,” which is legalism. It is putting “ought” as the way to “is,” making performance the way to grace. This is not the way of the Cross.
Since it is a smorgasbord approach, the Christian is taught that it does not matter where he attends, what services are important, or whether he even joins a church or not, but that whatever he does, God smiles and all is well (license with a vengeance).
Moreover, we also have the mish-mash approach to theology, with more and more people playing down any real theology. Just believe what you want. This is especially true in the emerging church approach. Are churches today Trinitarian? Who knows. Are they Incarnational? It is difficult to tell. Even otherwise conservative scholars are falling prey to kenosis theology, which teaches that Jesus did not know who He was until later in His ministry, if even then. Thus we have a gradual incarnation, or no incarnation. Then we have the increasingly popular universalism movement, with some following Barth, which is the ultimate license view: if all are going to heaven, eat, drink, be merry, make light of God’s sexual morals, live like the devil, for tomorrow we die and we all go to heaven. (A society that forgets hell goes there.)
So where does Anglicanism come into all this? If by Anglicanism we mean the historic Anglicanism, the one committed to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the old Reformation Anglicanism, then it is just what is needed in today’s horrible Christian milieu.
This Anglicanism has a balance between the Cross and the Church. By emphasizing the Cross, it maintains that our relationship with God is not by our merits, not by our righteousness, but by the righteousness of Christ. On the altars of just about all Anglican churches is a cross, the center of our worship, the way we approach God, the mediation between us and God, our only hope in life and in death, the ultimate symbol pointing to the unconditional love of God for His people. It is the constant reminder that we do not earn grace, that we are sinners without hope, which is why the Son of God had to come, and it is God’s way of telling us not only that sin is real but that it is so awful that it took the death of His Son to save us. If the Cross is the not the center of worship and in our lives, we will necessarily fall into legalism, seeking to please God our way. The return of the doctrine of the Cross, with its emphasis on substitutionary atonement, was one of the great benefits of the Reformation, and especially of Anglicanism. (For one of the best books I’ve ever read, get The Cross of Christ, by John Stott, an Anglican scholar and minister.)
But the second pillar of true Anglicanism is an equal emphasis on the doctrine of the Church. By that we don’t mean some so-called rapture, but the importance of being part of a visible, local church that teaches the Word and administers the Sacraments. With regular oversight and with regular attendance to receive the Word and Sacrament, the Church should guard us from license, thinking we can live just any way we please. No one is so righteous as to be without some human authority over him, and God has given that human authority in the Church.
And Protestantism has lost its original fervor for the Church, and has now gone to the other extreme from Rome: We don’t need any church. We’ll just choose what we like, and do as we like. We think that any strong doctrine of authority in visible churches is Roman Catholic, which allegedly means that we can only go to God through human priests. That is not Anglicanism or Protestantism. Anglicanism (and Protestantism) eliminated the doctrine of the magic touch: if you’ve been touched by someone who has been touched by someone who has been touched by an Apostle, you have received grace. But now we’ve gone to the other extreme—we don’t want church at all, or we’ll make up our own version. Church is an add-on to our faith, but only if it’s convenient, if we don’t have a hunting or fishing trip planned, if the kids don’t have sports events to attend, or if company has not come in from out of town.
We forget that it was John Calvin himself, that great Protestant reformer in Geneva, who echoed St. Cyprian's assertion that we should not call God our Father if the Church is not our mother (Institutes, 4.1.4.). That is true Protestantism.
It was Puritanism, in reaction to English Anglicanism, that did not want a strong doctrine of the Church. Thus they emphasized individualism when they settled this country. At first they were a wonderful and godly people, but in time their individualism has become part of the reason we have inherited such a smorgasbord approach to worship today and to egalitarianism in our culture.
Again, Anglicanism has a striking balance: in our Books of Common Prayer, we have strong Trinitarian theology, strong doctrine of the Incarnation of God the Son, and the Cross is at the center. Sin also is at the heart of our theology as we confess our sins to God looking to the Cross for forgiveness. This protects us from legalism.
But Anglicanism also has strong worship with a healthy emphasis on Word and Sacrament. It sees itself as under the great Head of the Church, that its ministers are specially called by Christ and given to His Church to protect it from heresy and to help people in the Christian life (Eph 4:11-16). Christ’s own authority is in His Church; thus we must do things His way. A pastor is also guardian over the souls of those in his care. This protects us from license.
Perhaps an example will help us to understand this. In some circles, the Cross is rightly held up as the great cure for our sins, the only cure. But then the people are taught things like “you aren’t saved because you are in the Church, but you’re in the Church because you are saved.” In this mindset, the Cross is only for individuals, not for the corporate Church. It is only the individual who decides what his state before God is, and the Church is made irrelevant. This tells the individual that he does not have to come to worship and does not have to keep the commandments of God as the necessary evidence of his salvation (contrary to 1 John 2:3-4). It also tells the individual that what one does in worship does not matter, for the Church is irrelevant to his salvation. In other words, salvation is put completely outside the context of the Church.
Here is another example. I know a very sweet Christian lady who has been baptized three times because two times she decided (not the Church) that she had not really meant it when she said she believed in Jesus. On the contrary, it is not we who decide to join Christ’s Church, but it is He who decides to join us through His ordained and appointed ministers. And once we have received the sign of entrance, we must never receive it again, for baptism does not belong to the individual but to Christ. The first time she was baptized Christ was serious, and thus she never needs it again. If she is in control of her Christian life, then an option is license, using the Church and sacraments according to her rules, not Christ’s rules, or no Church at all. We have the smorgasbord approach again.
The genius of Anglicanism is that the Cross and the Church complement one another. On the one hand, the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ where He died for our sins guards us from legalism, from thinking we can earn our way into God’s favor. On the other hand, the Church is Christ’s gracious institution to keep us in line, where the means of grace are administered to His people. The two go together, for the Church should lead us to God via the Cross, and the Cross should lead us back to the Church. We must not think of these as separate.
With Rome, you can only have access to the Cross through the Church, which promotes their legalism. With modern day Protestantism, you can have the Cross apart from the Church, which is license. With Anglicanism you have the Cross in the context of the Church, which is balance.
 Gerald Bray, Documents of the English Reformation, pp 187-88.