Chapter 2

Grace and Truth in Application

How to be specific without being legalistic

The essence of legalism is giving to a specific application the force of the principle.

To make a principle come to life — to show how it can be applied — we need to give specific real-life examples, illustrations that say, " Here is how someone faced this problem, and this is what happened with her. " But as necessary as real-life examples are, they carry a danger.

Suppose, for example, that someone preaches on the principle of modesty. Should a Christian dress with modesty? The answer is yes. But how do you apply that? One preacher may say, " Well, any skirt that's above the knee is immodest. " So, he ends up with a church full of knee-length people. In that church, one application of a principle has assumed all the force of the principle itself. That is the essence of legalism: giving to a specific application the force of the principle.

I have a friend who keeps a journal, and it works for him. But when he preaches about it, he makes it sound as though Christians who are not journaling can't be growing. Whenever you say, " If you're not doing this particular act, then you're not following this principle, " that's legalism.

How, then, can you preach for practical application if every time you say, " This is how to apply this truth, " you run the risk of promoting legalism? Let me answer with a couple of examples.

When my father was in his eighties, he came to live with us. After a while he grew senile, and his behavior became such that we could no longer keep him in our home. Because his erratic behavior endangered himself and our children, we had to put him in a nursing home. It cost me half my salary each month to keep him there. For eight years, until he died, I visited my dad almost every day. In eight years I never left that rest home without feeling somewhat guilty about his being there. I would have preferred to have had him in our home, but we could not care for him properly.

A few years later, my mother-in-law, who was dying of cancer, came to live with us in our home in Denver. It was a tough period in our marriage. I was trying to get settled as president of Denver Seminary. My wife, Bonnie, was up with her mother day and night. She changed her mother's soiled bed six or seven times a day. For eighteen months, Bonnie took care of her in our home. When Mrs. Vick died, we had no regrets. We knew Bonnie had done everything she could to make her last months comfortable.

How should Christians care for their aging parents? Do you keep them in your home or do you place them in a nursing facility? There is no single Christian answer. It depends on your situation, your children, your resources, and your parents.

There is, though, a single guiding principle: we must honor our parents and act in love toward them. To make a Christian decision, you can't start with a selfish premise; you start by asking what is best for everyone involved. How you apply that principle in a given situation depends on a complex set of variables.

The way to avoid the trap of legalism, then, is to distinguish clearly between the biblical principle and its specific applications. One way to do this in preaching is to illustrate a principle with two or three varying examples, not just one, so you don't equate the principle with one particular way of applying it.

The idea that a preacher must make a clear distinction between the principle and its application is not to say, however, that a biblical principle must sound abstract and vague. Sometimes a preacher merely translates the principle into terms that a congregation understands.

In our American frontier days, there was a settlement in the West whose citizens were engaged in the lumber business. The town felt they wanted a church. They built a building and called a minister. The preacher moved into the settlement and initially was well received. Then one afternoon he happened to see some of his parishioners dragging some logs, which had been floated down the river from another village upstream, onto the bank. Each log was marked with the owner's stamp on one end. To his great distress, the minister saw his members pulling in the logs and sawing off the end where the telltale stamp appeared.

The following Sunday he preached a strong sermon on the commandment " Thou shalt not steal. " At the close of the service, his people lined up and offered enthusiastic congratulations: " Wonderful message, Pastor. " " Mighty fine preaching. "

The response bothered him a great deal. So he went home to prepare his sermon for the following Sunday. He preached the same sermon but gave it a different ending: " And thou shalt not cut off the end of thy neighbor's logs. " When he got through, the congregation ran him out of town.

It's possible to state the principle in terms the audience clearly understands.