I'm actually just noticing my missing hat.

Thought I’d be able to pique some interest in this blog by the epic title. Who wouldn’t want to read about apocalyptic horses with names like Death, Doom, and Carnage? Surely this is a blog about the end times and the Book of Revelation!!

No.

It’s about three perversions of the gospel that do, in fact, bring spiritual death and carnage, but aren’t as obvious as three fiery horses riding through the sky, raised in the stables of the antichrist. Sorry to disappoint, but be assured, these horses are nevertheless deadly.

Horse #1: Dualism
Dualism sets separates the world into “sacred” and “secular,” suggesting that Christians must avoid all the evil “secular” stuff by withdrawing as much as possible from it into the “sacred” places. Culture is evil, sinners are shunned, and pleasure is sinful. This is extremely life-suppressing and destroys mission. It keeps God’s people in bubbles, far away from anywhere they might impact their communities.

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything within” (Psalm 24:1). The gospel is not life-suppressing, extracting us from secular spaces and things to live in a Christian utopia, but the gospel teaches us to enjoy all things God has given without stumbling into idolatry and sin, and orient all things for the glory of God. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Through the cross, the temple veil was torn in two (Mark 15:38), meaning that God does not dwell in buildings, but in the hearts of those who live by faith. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)

Jesus was known as “the friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34). He was not afraid to enjoy life among those that the religious community considered to be “sinners.” He turned water into wine. He ate at their homes. He asked them to be in his ministry.

Jesus wants us to be like him.

Incarnational mission.

Go to the world. Be with them. Love them. Live life with them. Show them the Father.

Horse #2: Legalism
I’m pretty familiar with this one. It nearly killed me.

Perhaps it did.

Legalism is basing your relationship with God on your performance and not on the finished work of Jesus at the cross. Legalism is exactly as it sounds: a relationship based on legal terms. If you keep those terms, you are accepted. If you fail to keep those terms, you are rejected. The New Testament also calls it living “under law.” According to the Book of Colossians, it is our basic human instinct to be legalistic (Colossians 2:8). It also teaches us that legalism, not sinful indulgence, is the highest form of worldliness (Colossians 2:20-23).

Here’s the problem with legalism:

Jesus said, “It is finished.”

He paid the whole price. He did all the work. When you suggest that God accepts you based on your works, you deny the cross. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21).

Our salvation and our standing before God are complete and secure through faith in Jesus, not our good works. Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The tense of that should encourage you. It’s a done deal. You have peace with God. How?

By faith, not by works.

Faith in what?

Jesus and his work on the cross.

Legalism is the gospel of do. Grace is the gospel of done. It sows spiritual death throughout our whole spiritual lives, enslaving us to condemnation on one extreme, and pride on the other. Both of these extremes are symptoms of the same problem: legalism.

Oops...that's four horses, not three.

Horse #3: Pharisaism
Pharisaism is a form of legalism that results in causing someone, because of their perceived self-righteousness, to feel superior to another person. Pharisaism defines righteousness differently than God does. It calls righteous things unrighteous, and unrighteous things righteous. It turns issues of conscience into laws.

And it happens all the time.

Like Wyatt Earp coming to clean up the town, this kind of legalist steps into the room, pistol in hand, ready to shoot at anyone they deem unrighteous. In the end, they tear the church apart, causing division and strife.

Like a referee stepping on the playing field, they blow the whistle and throw the yellow “you love the world” flag. Anything that does not line up with their personal preferences is considered compromise, sin, and half-hearted Christianity.

We can all be “that guy.” I’ve certainly been that guy. I’ve thrown that flag many times when I shouldn’t have. I think that sometimes, in our zeal for holiness and hatred for sin, we strive in the flesh and unwittingly become that guy.

We have to be careful not to turn any good works we do, correct theology we believe, or personal preferences we have, into something that causes us to feel superior to someone else. It’s all grace. To be “gospel-centered” means we find our identity and righteousness, as the reformers would say, “In Christ alone, through faith alone, by grace alone.” This is something we strive for at the church I’m part of leading, GraceLife.

Let me talk about personal preferences and convictions. These are areas about which the Bible has no clear teaching, but are left to the liberty we have under grace to walk out in our own consciences: Things like entertainment choices such as music and movies, homeschooling, clothing styles, what version of the Bible you read, alcohol, end-time theology, etc.

These preferences and convictions can be very good and important to us, but the moment we make our preferences issues of righteousness for someone else, it’s Pharisaism. For example, my wife and I homeschool our kids (our oldest is now in public school). We think this is a great thing to do. However, we do not make this an issue of righteousness for other believers. But I’ve met some Christians who do. The minute someone does that, their gospel is now “Jesus plus homeschooling.” And this personal preference makes them feel superior to their brother or sister who does not practice it.

This is sin.

This is Pharisaism. Romans 14 teaches that we should love one another and not be divisive over differences in conscience.

Over the last year, I’ve been in many gospel battles, sometimes with people I love and respect dearly, who are blind to this form of legalism. They throw the “you love the world” flag over rock music, alcohol, smoking cigars, and entertainment choices. This week it was the fact that my kids and I saw The Hunger Games, and I posted something about how I expected that within the week mean-spirited Christians would begin to criticize other Christians who liked the film (sure enough…). Because I take a stand on thinking in a gospel-centered way about issues like these, I’ve been misunderstood, called arrogant (more than once), painted a dangerous or false teacher, and ostracized in some circles. It’s cost me a lot of friends, but I’m not complaining or playing martyr. This is part of being a preacher of grace.

I guess I continue to write, preach, and sing in the hopes that when I do, someone will catch a greater glimpse of the glory of grace, will be freshly encouraged, or will be lifted to a new song of worship. Maybe you are one of those people as you read this today, or maybe you love your horse, and I’ve upset you. Just know that, thankfully, the only one who doesn’t change in this kingdom is Jesus. The rest of us are under construction.

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