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Legalism, Cheap Peace or God-honoring Accountability?

January 14, 2008

This time of year Christians often redouble their spiritual efforts in resolve to be more holy. Some will think about or even venture to join an accountability group. Originally appearing in the Journal of Biblical Counseling, this article seeks to correct misguided approaches to accountability, deconstructing legalism and cheap peace, while advocating a gospel-centered, God-honoring approach to accountable relationships. An excerpt:

Put ten bucks in the jar to keep from sinning.

When I recall some of the popular discipleship disciplines I advocated in college, I shudder. Did I really think that they were biblical or even helpful? When one of my disciples caved into a particular sin he was “being held accountable for,” he had to put ten bucks in the jar. Sounds awfully close to an indulgence doesn’t it? Yet, in
our aim to promote “holiness,” ten bucks was the penalty for pandering to sin. We thought this approach to accountability was especially good for fighting sexual sin. If one of the guys I discipled had a particularly lustful week, (viewing inappropriate TV, reading pornographic material, or masturbating), he had to “pay the price.”

When we met for our weekly accountability meeting, I would ask a range of questions designed to promote accountability, but as I recall, we only assigned sexual sins the steep penalty of ten dollars. “Other sins” were considered less grievous. Sometimes the accumulated cash was put in the offering, other times it was used to celebrate “not sinning” over dinner. Somehow, this practice was supposed to motivate holy living, but instead, it fostered a legalism that undercut a more biblical approach to fighting sin.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2008 8:11 am

    One of the most helpful articles on this topic! Thanks again for posting this as a good reminder to us all.

  2. January 15, 2008 8:33 am

    This article has helped me and so many in our church family fight sin as God intended: with great fervor and with Great Help…his! Thanks !

  3. January 19, 2008 10:24 pm

    I was very excited to see your article in the JBC when I got my issue in the mail last year. At the time I was trying to get across the very idea you wrote on. Still I don’t think many of my small group or our church leadership got the message. One of the reasons why I think it was not received as excitedly as I hoped was due to the church’s emphasis on making “quality disciples” and sermons that were intended to be user friendly (i.e., practical application at the end). For example five ways to love your wife; 10 ways to make Christmas joyful. (These weren’t actual statements in sermons, but it gives a simple example of the general idea.) However, based upon your experience and knowledge, do you think churches place more of an emphasis on practical application rather than on the gospel and God’s mercy? If so is this a current trend in today’s church culture (i.e., making “quality disciples”) through practical preaching?

    Anyway thanks for the article and I am glad I found your blog too.

  4. January 20, 2008 9:00 am

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the comment and your ministry.

    There’s no doubt that most churches lean towards the practical and are often application-driven. This can be deadly for a congregation. If sermon after sermon calls for “application” at the end, then we close our sermons by preaching to the will, appealing to self-effort to live christianly. I think this is bad for at least two reasons.

    1) While it is imperative that we apply God’s word, the reality is that we all continually fail in our attempts to apply it. Thus, application driven sermons will drive disciples into despair or for the zealous, legalism. 2) The whole counsel of Scripture motivates us not with application but with the gospel, grace, Christ, the Spirit, etc. By preaching messages that end or at least motivate mainly by focusing on Christ/grace/gospel that is sufficient for our failures and successes, we cut out legalistic, will-motivated discipleship.

    That said, I think it is important to provide some kind of application, however, it should not be teh focus of our sermons. Christ should be the center of our preaching.

    Do share your thoughts!

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