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Licentiousness & Legalism

Licentiousness = Licence to sin because grace will always cover you.

Legalism = Following the law will somehow earn God’s favor.

In both cases the work of Christ is diminished (A.W. Pink).

Licentiousness presumes on God’s grace and mercy.

Legalism functioning thinks Christ’s work falls short of covering for sin.


These two categories are common errors in any church because they’re so easy to fall into (and without intending to).

It is like a drunk man trying to climb up and ride a horse with two ditches on either side filled with filth.  He keeps getting up only to fall off on either side repeatedly.

The answer is to be sound in doctrine and sound in how to handle the bible.

Definitions expanded:

They are enemies to true, solid gospel preaching because they fail to give both the content of what we are to believe (notitia) and what we are to do in light of what we claim to believe.

So, let's talk about licentiousness.  There is a type of preaching and teaching that produces what one guy called “religious laxity” (Pink).  Because the emphasis is upon all that Jesus has done for you through the cross but never then transitions into a clear declaration of what then gospel belief demands.

Example:  We hear a sermon about all of what is expected of a Christian husband from Ephesians 5.  But then the pastor says something to the effect that we can’t do these things but praise God Jesus did them for us.  The end result is don’t worry if you fail or refuse to obey the commands of Eph 5, because Jesus took care of it.

This is also where so many churches veer off by refusing to do Church Discipline.  We want to just love them with the gospel.

Indicators of licentiousness in preaching or living:

-- Diminishing the call to repent and follow. 

-- Excuses like grace abounds.

-- Covered under the blood.  Jesus did this for me. Or “this is what I always struggle with.”  

-- Holiness is not a growing reality in the life of the professing believer.  

Legalism is the other side of this dangerous coin.

Here there is the idea that the finished work of Jesus is not sufficient to save.  You have to also contribute things to it through holy living. So it is Jesus + something.

-- Violating the spirit of the law to obey the letter of the law (Sproul).

-- So concerned about follow a black and white law, you fail to understand why the law (or command) exists -- this was Jesus’ constant indictment against the pharisees...

-- External conformity to check a box.

-- There’s no desire or true affection to obey.

This is more or less a subjective category, but it’s a good test for a person to examine their own heart. It’s hard to accuse someone of legalism, because it’s an issue of the heart-- which is hard to judge.

Example: Are they satisfied they faithfully attend church every Sunday so they can check a box. Or or they genuinely compelled to faithfully attend because they love to gather with the body, hear the Word, sing praises to God, encourage the brethren, etc.

In other words, it’s an issue of motivation -- Why are the seeking to follow the commands of Christ? To earn God’s favor, or because it’s an overflow of having already received God’s favor in Christ?

Parents fall into this trap all the time when trying to lead a child to Christ.  The child is expressing faith but still sins and the parent keeps pointing out to him that they doubt he is really saved because he still sins.  The irony of that is that the parent struggles too but somehow sure that he himself is saved.

We can see this at times in the type of sermons that give us 5 steps to a godly life.  Or 13 guidelines to becoming Christlike. They may be good points but only if they are flowing out of a response and foundation of the gospel.

This is one of the key problems we see in what some call a gospel-centered or gospel-focused teaching.  It sounds very good and if properly applied it is. But too often all that is heard is the gospel and little basis of living that gospel out in a very specific way.

This all is understandable through a proper grasp of what we call the “indicative/imperative” paradigm

(Paul’s writings are where this is most easily seen.)

Usually the first half of his writing is a constant declaration of truths we are to believe.

Then there is always a key transition point where in light of those indicatives we are commanded to live and do things that are proper.

Legalists stay in the back half of Paul, while Licentious folks stay in the front.


Romans 5:1 - 6:10  All indicative. But then comes 6:11-12.

Ephesians 1 - 3, especially 1:3-14.  But then notice 4:1

This idea of indicative/imperative is seen in James 2:14ff.  Take them through that text and show the sarcasm, the brutal wording and the terrible condition that James sees these types of people to be in.

Jude 4 -- the term “licentiousness” is explicitly used.

Licentiousness almost always results in apostasy (“a denial of our only Master and Lord"). *Note the language of “Master” - you submit your life under the authority of another (i.e., obedience).

A person engaged in licentiousness takes the benefits of Christ’s grace, because keeps himself as functional Lord.

A person who truly understands grace can’t do this.

Grace moves them into obedience.

This is all bound up in the Great Commission.

We go out with the gospel.  As people believe the gospel we baptize them.  And then we teach them to obey all (big word there) that is commanded.

Interestingly this is also seen in the Old Testament as well.

Too often seen as legalism due to the corruptions of the priests and teachings.

But the point was always to believe in YHWH and in doing so, live in a manner that pleases him. 

Faith and Works. Always and ever together.

Indicatives w/o Imperatives = Licentiousness

Imperatives w/o Indicatives = Legalism

A truly saved person must hold these together at all times.

We’ll hear accusation of not being “Gospel-centered” enough. But a truly Gospel-centered person understands that the Gospel always leads to radical obedience.

This is why we take serious the role of teaching the whole Bible, which includes all the commands.

They payoff of this is we’ve even seen people who thought they were saved, determine they never were. The realized they bought into cheap grace (Bonhoeffer).


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