Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Subtleties of Legalism - A Case Study From Oswald Chambers

I'm not writing this to pick on Oswald Chambers, author of the famous and beloved My Utmost For His Highest.

He was by every account a wonderful Christian man, greatly appreciated by those who knew him and learned from him.

But because of his apparent close walk with the Lord, and the multitudes of readers of his teachings who have been challenged and touched by them, it makes a perfect case study for how legalism can creep into the teaching of even the most trusted teachers.

Chambers was Scottish and lived from 1874 to 1917.  For what it's worth, he actually only wrote one book himself.  His other 20 or 30 books, including the devotional My Utmost For His Highest, were actually put together by his wife, Biddy.  She outlived his 43 years by another 30.

Although Mrs. Chambers was a skilled stenographer who captured Oswald's teachings on paper, I think it would be fair to say that it is possible that some of what is recorded in his books might not fully represent the content and context of what he originally taught.

Regardless, for this case study I will put here word-for-word excerpts from the original October 10 devotional entry from My Utmost For His Highest, and then make comments on it relating to the subject of legalism.

Here is the opening of the October 10 devotional, entitled "Whereby Shall I Know?":

"I thank Thee, O Father...because Thou has hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." Matthew 11:25

In spiritual relationship we do not grow step by step; we are either there or we are not.  God does not cleanse us more and more from sin, but when we are in the light, walking in the light, we are cleansed from all sin.  It is a question of obedience, and instantly the relationship is perfected.  Turn away for one second out of obedience, and darkness and death are at work at once.

Here's the problem.  Is Chambers talking about a Christian or a non-Christian?  If a Christian, then how can he say that we don't "grow step by step"?  If we don't grow step by step, then we don't grow at all!  Yet that's not true, is it?  We DO grow ("...long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow..." 1 Pet. 2:2 -- "...but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ..." 2 Pet. 3:18).

On the other hand, if he's talking about a non-Christian, then he can't rightly talk about "walking in the light".  And if he's talking about a non-Christian, what sense does it make that "it is a question of obedience"?  Obedience is certainly not a requirement for salvation.

But going back to the other hand, if he's talking about a Christian, can he seriously say that turning from obedience for one second ushers in darkness and death?  If a Christian is completely forgiven of his sins (and he is), if "it is finished" (and it is), and if God is causing all things to work together for good to the Christian (and He is), what warrant is there to declare that a Christian who sins is (1) no longer in relationship to Christ, (2) not being cleansed from all sin, and (3) with "darkness and death" at work in him?

This is virtually a total denial of the New Covenant, having moved from the ground of grace to the ground of law!

Chambers goes on to say:

All God's revelations are sealed until they are opened to us by obedience.  You will never get them open by philosophy or thinking.  Immediately you obey, a flash of light comes.

This is almost opposite the truth!  With a base of legalism.

The obedience is not the CAUSE of the revelations.  On the contrary, obedience comes FROM the revelations of God to the spirit and mind of the believer.

As we learn of Him, and learn His truth, and respond to the wondrous things He has done for us, and grow in understanding the height and depth and breadth of His love for us, "the love of Christ constrains us" (2 Cor. 5:14) to walk in obedience to Him.

As He lives His life in us (Gal. 2:20), He works in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).  He does so by His truth and His Spirit.  He doesn't require the doing first and then give the truth!

And while Chambers says that you will never get God's revelations by "thinking", the Bible on the contrary says to "think" or "meditate" on His Word, specifically that we may understand it and renew our minds.

Then Chambers, whom we may begin to think is indeed talking about Christians, surprises us by saying,

The only way you can get to know is to stop trying to find out and BY BEING BORN AGAIN.  [Terry's emphasis]  Obey God in the thing He shows you, and instantly the next thing is opened up.

So to add to the confusion, he seems to be saying that the one who is not born again should get born again by obedience?!

But wait, maybe he is talking about Christians after all:

You can understand them now.  It is not study that does it, but obedience....God will never reveal more truth about Himself until you have obeyed what you know already.

This kind of legalistic thinking always prompts the question, "How much obedience?  Perfect obedience?  80% obedience?  90%? Obedience for an hour?  A day?  Obedience in everything always?  In everything most of the time?  Or most things all of the time?"


And the thinking believer is confused on how much he has to measure up to really be in God's favor.  And he sees the Christian life as primarily an hourly and daily tally on how well he is scoring.

He becomes self-centered, trying to earn God's love and favor, instead of fellowshipping with Jesus, resting in what He has already done, thankful and cheerful that God is not holding His truth hostage to one's obedience, but encouraging obedience through the "grace and truth" that He is full of (John 1:14).

He has "fallen from grace" (Galatians 5:4), because he has set obedience first and grace second, thereby demeaning the Gospel.

Again, I'm not intending to pick on Chambers.

But legalism is subtle.

And the Gospel, the New Covenant itself, is far more radical in the Grace of "it is finished" than to put "obedience" as some kind of Golden Key to open the truths of God.

"For the law was given through Moses.  Grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ." - John 1:17

"Sanctify them in the truth.  Your Word is truth." - John 17:17

"Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" - Galatians 3:3


bot1 said...

When I read Chambers' entry on the 10th I was surprised and wondered if I had missed something. Normally, his articles are rock solid. Thanks for the post and picking up on this.

Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks Art.

Enjoying your blog.

Mark | hereiblog said...

Unfortunately, I think this type of misunderstanding is common in some circles. If I held to Chambers' line of reasoning it would seem I would have to have been deserving of salvation. I wasn't and am not.

If the grace of God depended on my obedience I'm in deep trouble.

Terry Rayburn said...

Amen, Mark. Thanks.

Marie said...

I see that this is an older post but very helpful. We are reading this book together in a group I am in from my church. I can't always articulate why I think something, and so I am sharing a link to your post. Thank you

Terry Rayburn said...

Thank you, Marie, for visiting and for your nice comment.


Art said...

“A bird flies persistently and easily because the air is its domain and its world. A legal Christian is one who is trying to live in a rarer world than is natural to him. Our Lord said, ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed,’ i.e., free from the inside, born from above, lifted into another world where there is no strenuous effort to live in a world not natural to us, but where we can soar continually higher and higher because we are in the natural domain of spiritual life.” ~ Oswald Chambers

Terry Rayburn said...

Thank you, Art.

Anonymous said...

I found this blog post through a Web search, and I found it very enlightening.

Oswald Chambers, while a great writer in many ways, definitely had his blind spots, like all Christians. (The only person who ever walked this earth and had no blind spots was Christ.) Personally, I think Chambers had a lot of black-and-white thinking, and seemed to believe he had everything all figured out (when in fact none of us do, since we see through a glass, darkly). It takes humility to admit there's a lot out there you don't completely understand. For instance, here's one of his quotes that I find disturbing:

"Never be sympathetic with a person whose situation causes you to conclude that God is dealing harshly with him."

Isn't this exactly the attitude that Job's friends had toward him, which was so displeasing to God? Actually, Chambers's harsh, judgmental attitude here seems to be even worse than theirs. If this is the way he treated people, I don't think many people out there would've ever want to have him as a friend. ;)

Terry Rayburn said...


Ha! Good points. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

You're welcome, Terry. I guess the moral of the story is that we should never take anything as "gospel" except the gospel. Only God is infallible--even the godliest of men are fallible. So, we should never be afraid to disagree respectfully with something that someone considered to be a Christian "expert" says. And that appears to be the way God wants it--it seems to be his system of "checks and balances" within the Church, to prevent the coronation of any earthly kings.

Anyway, thanks for your blog post about legalism--it was very insightful.

Anonymous said...

I'm doing a daily devotion by Oswald Chambers with some ladies online. By Day 2 of the devotions, I could tell that Mr. Chambers was in some bondage to legalism and sadly, passing it onto (probably unknowingly) to many many readers. I've been a Christian for 40 yrs. After much confusing teaching/preaching of men of God, finally was freed from legalism by the teachings of Joseph Prince, Creflo Dollar and Tullian Tchivivian. Praise God for these men and others who truly understand Jesus' message of grace in the New Testament.