Legalism: The Trap of Brinksmanship

This is one in a series of posts on “A Call to Obedience.”

In the introduction to this series, I proposed that Christ-followers’ responses to God’s commands fell into one of three broad categories: antinomianism or “cheap grace,” legalism, or obedience.  Legalism, I further suggested, has four common traps: brinksmanship, rigorism, hopelessness, and hypocrisy.

The first of these is the trap of brinksmanship.  This is when, while focusing on the good and right commands God has given us, we believe we are able to define distinct boundaries for those commands.  Having defined the edge of the chasm, we then delude ourselves into believing we can walk right up to it without falling off.

The easy example of this, especially for those of us for whom these days are past, is in young dating couples who make commitments of purity, using their own definitions of that purity rather than God’s standards, and in the fateful coincidence of foolishness and arrogance, convince themselves that the discipline of their physical or philosophical boundaries can win against an unrestrained heart.

But while we point at that couple’s example, we must remember that we also take plenty of opportunities to play brinkmanship.  “Surely I won’t get pulled over for driving only 5mph over the limit.”  “I’m not cheating on my wife, just looking.”  “How much can I get away with on this tax deduction?”  “Sure, I left half an hour before my shift ended, but I worked extra hard today.”  Certainly, we can think of other examples, and an honest reflection of those instances in our past in present will reveal that it even when we attempt to reduce God’s commands to works-based compliance with a narrow ridgeline of rules, we are unable to meet that standard, much less the standard set by the broad landscape of heart-based obedience to God’s Word.

One of the clearest refutations of brinksmanship in Scripture is the portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5:17-48, the “You have heard… but I say to you…” statements.  The brinksman draws the line at physical murder, but our Lord says we are guilty of murder in our hearts.  The brinksman says he is innocent of adultery because he has abstained from the act of physical sexual intercourse, but the Lord says this humanly-described border is moot, and the lusts of our eyes make us all adulterers.  The brinksman says he can skirt the covenants of marriage with legal maneuvers, but the Lord demolishes that defense.  The brinksman tries to thread the loopholes in his promises, but the Lord shuts them.  The brinksman claims revenge for himself, but the Lord reserves it as the sole purview of God.  The brinksman draws a fence around God’s command to love one another (Leviticus 19:18), but the Lord tears that fence down.

And if that is the beginning of the story for those of us who continue to play brinksmanship, the sad ending is assured by the reality that even those of us who are uncommonly skilled at the game are unable to meet the standard of 100% compliance, and even if we were able to get Ivory Soap-levels of cleanliness (“99.4% pure”), we would run up against James’ warning:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. – James 2:10

In effect, brinksmanship is idolizing our own human wisdom instead of worshipping God in his infinite wisdom.  Through brinksmanship, we assert that we are able to divine the limits, to walk the tightrope, and to resist temptation.  Had Joseph been a brinksman, he would have stayed with Potiphar’s wife rather than fleeing, and Israel would have perished in the famine.

Earlier in this series, I asserted that antinomianism is blasphemy against God’s worthiness.  However, brinksmanship also is blasphemy.  It is blaspheming God’s wisdom, saying that we are intelligent and wise enough to walk the edge of the letter of the law rather than honoring the wisdom with which God has written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).

And, though there are many ways into the next trap of legalism – that of rigorism – which I will discuss in the next post.  Please, join in with your comments and questions!


7 thoughts on “Legalism: The Trap of Brinksmanship

Add yours

  1. I grew up in the purity culture movement. In their efforts to keep us “pure” we were told that physical and emotional attraction in and of themselves were sinful. I’m sure you can imagine this came with some unintended consequences, many of which were not good. They asked the question of “How far is too far?” and failed to recognize that, in so doing, they were telling the Holy Spirit and the Word of God to take a hike because they thought they could do everything right themselves.

    I am enjoying this series so far, I cannot believe you don’t have more interaction on it.


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