Libertinism, legalism, or love…is anyone else confused?

All right.  I’ve been pondering this question for a lot of years now, and I sometimes think I’m no closer to an answer than I was when this first came to my mind.  The question is this, “Does it matter how a Christian lives or not?”  My inclination is to say, “Of course it does!”, but I guess I’ve been exposed to enough “libertine” influences through the years to pause and wonder.

Consider the following:

In chapter one, “How Good is Good Enough?” of his book The Discipline of Grace, Jerry Bridges writes this on page 15:

Such a reply reveals an all-too-common misconception of the Christian life: the thinking that, although we are saved by grace, we earn or forfeit God’s blessings in our daily lives by our performance.

He goes on to say in the book that many Christians think the gospel is for the unsaved and not for the saved.  He says this is faulty thinking and that Christians should preach the Gospel to themselves every day, since the Gospel and the work of Christ on the cross is the basis for our standing and acceptance with God.  I agree, but what I’m getting tripped up on is saying that “earning or forfeiting God’s blessings in our daily lives by our performance” is a misconception.  And here’s why:

I’ve mentioned before that Amy and I are reading through the Bible this year using the Discipleship Journal reading plan.  Three of the four passages for today, July 5, all address this topic in one form or another and I’ve highlighted the relevant parts.  Have a look…

So Saul died for his breach of faith.  He broke faith with the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance.  He did not seek guidance from the LORD.  Therefore the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.  1 Chronicles 10:13-14

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.  Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.  Psalm 128:1-4

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd.  And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.”  But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”  Luke 8:19-21

The passages in Colossians for July 1 and 3 make this contribution:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.  Colossians 1:9-10

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  Colossians 2:6-7

These passages, and so many others throughout Scripture, cause me to conclude that God does care how we live, and that his response to us is somehow or another dependent upon our obedience or disobedience, our fearing him or not fearing him, our walking in a manner worthy of the Lord or not walking in such a manner, or, as Bridges said it in the above quote, by our performance in our daily lives.

So I turned to Piper to see what he had to say.  In the conclusion to chapter (Demand) 27, “Your Righteousness Must Exceed That of the Pharisees, for Every Healthy Tree Bears Good Fruit,” of his book What Jesus Demands from the World, he writes:

What I mean by the demonstration is that the way we live shows our location.  It does not create the location.  God establishes our location through faith alone.  But he has ordained that it be fitting for the location to have a demonstration in the world.  This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.  It is necessary, not optional.  That is, Jesus assumes that if there is no demonstration of our location in God’s favor, then the location does not exist.  Jesus says this demonstration is necessary for final salvation (as we say, going to heaven), because God wills to be glorified both for the grace of establishing our location in his eternal favor once for all and for the grace of supplying the help we need to demonstrate this location by our conduct.  None who is located by faith in God’s invincible favor will fail to have all that is necessary to demonstrate this in life.

The picture that Jesus used to illustrate the necessity of demonstration is the picture of a tree and its fruit.  “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:17-19).  When he says that “a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit,” he does not mean that no follower of his ever sins.  The natural way of thinking about the present tense of a Greek verb like “bear” is “go on bearing bad fruit.”  In other words, a tree is cut down not for bad fruit here and there.  It is cut down for producing so much bad fruit that there is no evidence that the tree is good.  What God will require at the judgment is not our perfection, but sufficient fruit to show that the tree had life — in our case, divine life.

“I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).  May God grant us to trust Christ alone for the security of our location in God’s invincible favor and for the help that he promises to change our hearts and lead us in demonstrable acts of love.

What do you think?

4 comments on “Libertinism, legalism, or love…is anyone else confused?

  1. Holly Reed says:


  2. Richard Christian says:

    I’m not about legalism either, but I think Romans 12 does bear out more of what you’ve been reading. A better question might be, does this activity drive my affections towards Christ or away from Him?

  3. Wes White says:

    I do agree with you that what Bridges says is not accurate as to the performance point. God wants His people to obey and love Him properly.

    Thanks for the good Piper quotes. I think that they illustrate well the “demonstrative aspect” of the good works of the Christian.

    Here’s another one from the WCF 17.3:

    Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.

    Our works do not change our standing before God, but they certainly do play a part in the enjoyment of our relationship with God.

    And, of course, all these good works are due not to ourselves but to God’s Spirit.

  4. Ben Dar says:

    I think I need to fear God, seek His heart that mine should be righteous and as a result live a truly good life . . .

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