Don’t dismiss best practices for Christian living as “legalism” and “denying grace”

Telling a woman how to make wise decisions protects her
Telling a woman how to make wise decisions protects her

On Sunday, I listened to a very interesting discussion between Sean McDowell and Jessica van der Wyngaard on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable show. The topic was on the pros and cons of purity culture. I didn’t know a thing about “purity culture”, and had never read any books about it. I didn’t really disagree with anyone on the podcast, but I did want to say something about it in a blog post.


20 years ago Joshua Harris was the poster boy of the evangelical ‘purity movement’ having authored the bestselling book ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’. Today, Harris regrets writing the book, and has also recently changed his mind about Christianity.

Justin is joined by Jessica van der Wyngaard, director of the documentary film ‘I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye’, and Christian apologist Sean McDowell, to discuss purity culture, singleness and the Joshua Harris story.

The MP3 file is here.

First, here’s a brief summary of what everyone said on the podcast:

  • JW: the book urged people to give up dating in favor of courting and suggested other rules that would guarantee a successful marriage to your soul-mate
  • JW: some of the rules proposed by the book were not Biblical
  • JW: I’m not a virgin and I’m in early-30s, but I accept that we should teach what the Bible says about abstinence
  • SM: purity culture is the idea that if you remain sexually pure, God will give you a spouse and bless you in the future
  • SM: purity culture is the idea that if you have premarital sex, you will be tainted forever
  • SM: I’m afraid that those reacting against purity culture will build a sexual ethic solely based on their shame, their hurt, their concern about legalism, and this will not help the next generation
  • SM: let’s have a balanced Biblical approach to sexuality instead
  • SM: there is scientific data to back up the Bible’s teaching that marriages work better when sex occurs only within a marriage
  • SM: it’s a mistake to define your spiritual standing based on whether you are a virgin or not
  • SM: following the Bible’s rules for sexuality is an important part of discipleship
  • SM: the Bible is replete with examples of people restoring their standing before God through forgiveness and redemption

Right now, we are living in a secular culture where people are hooking up, having premarital sex, living together, and breaking up far more often than in the past. There is this pattern of choosing partners based on secular criteria: outward appearance and ability to entertain. And this approach to dating – choosing people for the wrong reasons, and trying to force a commitment using premarital sex – is now common practice, even among Christians.

I think people should have a plan to counter this trend that’s realistic and guided by studies and evidence. For example, studies show that people who have no sexual partners before marriage are more likely to still be married 10 years later. Studies show that cohabitation negatively impacts the stability of a future marriage. It’s difficult to accept that this is the way the world is, but if a stable marriage is a goal for you, then you should care about the best practices for having a stable marriage.

Take a different example. Suppose you have a lot of shame and bad feelings over having run up $90,000 of student loans. Now your retirement will be much more difficult. The answer to these feelings of shame is not to say that you can invoke “grace” and that will make everything OK. It won’t. It might help you to make better decisions going forward, but that debt is going to affect your future spouse, your future marriage and your future children.

There are real costs to these behaviors for your future, and being forgiven through Jesus’ atonement isn’t going to instantly make the effects of those choices disappear. It’s good to warn young people about these costs. It’s also good to help people who have made mistakes undo the damage by investing in them. I don’t want us to throw out evidence-based best practices as “legalism”, because they help us to reach the discipleship goals specified for us in the Bible.

The goals of the Bible (e.g. – not aborting, not divorcing) are good goals. If we find out from science that premarital promiscuity or cohabitation reduce our odds of achieving that goal, then it’s a mistake to dismiss that evidence because it make us feel bad about our past. It’s not legalism to investigate evidence and consult wise advisors in order to choose how best to achieve goals like marriage. That’s actually being wise.  Making good decisions doesn’t give you the right to be proud and compare yourself to others, but it is good to make good decisions for yourself, and to share your reasoning with those who ask you.

I agree with the speakers that purity culture is wrong to promise people a happy marriage if they only keep their virginity. That’s just the prosperity gospel, and it really is not a Biblical view of the Christian life.

People who choose to have premarital sex haven’t separated themselves from marriage. But studies indicate that they have damaged the stability of their future marriage if they do nothing to counteract the effects of their choices. And I think there is more to counteracting these bad effects than just stating to your partner “Jesus forgives me, so you can’t judge me”. The focus of the “no-rules because I feel ashamed” crowd doesn’t seem to be on taking the damage seriously and fixing it. Their focus seems to be on not being judged.

I don’t think that a cursory response (“don’t judge me!”) is adequate to undo the damage from premarital sex. But if a person is willing to be honest about their past, and put in the work to understand the effects of premarital sex on their future marriage, renew their minds, and re-establishing their bonding ability, then they should be able to fully counteract the damage. I have met people who have done this, and you can see in their choices and lifestyle that there’s been a complete turning against their former use of sex for fun and attention and self-esteem. It’s not “idolizing virginity and idolizing marriage” to look at the data, and make choices that are likely to lead to a stable marriage.

7 thoughts on “Don’t dismiss best practices for Christian living as “legalism” and “denying grace””

  1. Yeah, it’s unfortunate but it really boils down to people knowing the truth about God’s Rules for sex only in marriage and then whether people will choose to obey and abide by God’s Rules or not.

    I know that God allows sex only in marriage according to His Word (King James Version Holy Bible [KJV[) so I must not engage in sexual activity outside of marriage myself personally.

    For people who know this consciously they will do one of two things: obey God or not on the “sex subject” within biblical marriage…

    We will fail and make mistakes in life but we shouldn’t be “careless” in making the same mistakes over-and-over again but do the right thing after repenting from a “mess up”.

    Other than that, Christians must individual seek God’s Will in their own personal lives to see if God wants them to be married or remain single in their lives before doing things outside of God’s Will for their lives.

    It’s a very important lesson we must all think about and remember that *GOD HAS FINAL SAY* in our lives and just accept it. Period.

    On a side note I’m curious on your stance on “bible versions”, Bro. Wintery Knight: which “bible” do you think is God’s Word for the modern age?

    I believe that God’s Word has been inspired and preserved in the Old English language of the (Authorized) King James Version Holy Bible for our modern New Testament age we live in as this article explains:

    This is definitely a main issue I think you should really study and work on for a future post my brother because all these “multiple bible versions” floating around can’t certainly all be “God’s One Holy Book”… It just doesn’t make since.

    Me personally-speaking: I’m King James-Only as the Word of God. I don’t read from nor quote any Scriptures from any “false bible version”; I only read from God’s Word in the King James Version Holy Bible (KJV).

    This is VERY IMPORTANT because churches using too many “bible versions” are cursed with so much doctrinal heresy and apostasy they lack any kind of “firm foundation” of the “Truth”.

    Anyways, I just would like to hear you in-depth take on this someday soon should you feel led to post something along the lines of the “Inerrant Word of God”.

    Thanks. Peace…

    ~ Bro. Jed


  2. The word “Legalism” is another one of those words that has been terribly abused (like the word “abuse” itself). This abuse is most commonly committed by people who are either seeking some sort of Scriptural loophole to avoid living by what the Bible clearly mandates for a Christ-follower, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, by slapping pseudo-scriptural prohibitions on things that Scripture nowhere expressly forbids, but which some people find subjectively objectionable (e.g., drinking alcohol, listing to secular music, gambling, smoking).

    Adultery and other forms of extra-marital sex, on the other hand, are expressly prohibited by Scripture, but are so popular, even among self-described “Christians,” that they find it necessary to contort and distort not only Scripture, but simple logic and common sense in order to justify them. This, in the end, is the only reason why the subject is even being debated at all: the need to rationalize its practice in the face of God’s clear and unmistakeable command to NOT do it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is, in my opinion, one of the most dangerous messages being propagated by the church right now. “Christian Feminists” (I put the term in quotes because Christianity and Feminism are fundamentally at odds) have been very successful and circumventing clear biblical teachings by trying to equate rational, biblical teachings with “legalism,” and accusing Christians who take the Bible seriously as being “Modern Day Pharisees.”

    The problem is that they are deliberately conflating justification before God with sanctification and living in accordance with God’s word. It’s true that everyone stands condemned before a righteous God and therefore staying a virgin before marriage doesn’t mean you’re less in need of a savior than someone who didn’t. Legalism, in its true sense, would refer to efforts to save oneself by adherence to the law and this is what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for.

    However, just because no one is saved by adherence to the law DOES NOT mean there is fundamentally no difference between people who follow it and those that don’t. Everyone is saved by Grace because no one can merit salvation by their own merits, but when it comes to dating/marriage, we’re not talking about your standing before God, we’re talking about your standing before the person you seek to marry. The decisions you make have consequences whether you repent of them or not, and when you immediately cry, “Quit shaming!” when someone points this out, it is hard for me to believe that any real repentance has occurred.

    Just because a person can speak “Christianese” and dress their argument up in spiritual language does not mean their argument is Biblical. Everyone is a sinner and thus no one will live up to God’s standard, but when someone dismisses sinful behavior with the wave of a hand crying, “Grace! Quit shaming!” this is a powerful sign that they don’t actually see anything wrong with their behavior and thus couldn’t care less what the Bible says. They conveniently quote scriptures that help their case, but ignore and reinterpret one’s that don’t.

    It’s not within my ability to know their hearts, but I often wonder if these people are really saved. What they preach is not Christianity, it’s third wave Feminism dresses up in Christian language.


    1. I was reading this reaction from Julie Roys to The Bachelorette complaining that she should be allowed to have premarital sex, and no one should be able to judge her.

      Here’s one point:

      4. Appeal to feminist ideology to rationalize your sinful decisions.

      “I’m a grown woman and can make my own decisions. And I’m not strapped to a man right now.”

      Here Brown sounds a lot like Gloria Steinem—“a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” (I suppose if she were a man, she’d justify her sin as “boys will be boys.”) On one level, Brown is right. She doesn’t belong to Parker. However, she’s missing that she belongs to God. In 1 Corinthians 6, the apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.”

      And this one show the real attitude to sanctification she has thanks to her grace-hollering:

      7. Brag about sin & become defiant.

      “You know what, I didn’t just go to the fantasy suite. I **** in the windmill. And guess what? I did it a second time (winks).”

      Hannah Brown morphs in this scene from being soft and sweet to being edgy and defiant. This hardening is inevitable when we quench the Spirit and persist in sin. As Romans 1 warns, God gives those who persist in sin “over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. . . . Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

      This is Brown’s dangerous spiritual condition by the end of the show. Self-deception and sin have consequences. She would do well to read Philippians 3 to see what happens to those who persist in their rebellion. It’s not a pretty picture: “their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and their glory is in their shame.”

      One of the reasons Christianity is in decline today is that a lot of people have been exposed to people who claim to be Christians and then brazenly sin. That’s where the “hypocrite” accusation comes from. A lot of people have been taught by the church about grace as a catch-all solution to wanting to behave like a non-Christian for fun and popularity. So they think they can have Christianity AND be liked by non-Christians. And no one dares to confront them, especially women, because we’ve lost the bravery to confront women about anything.


      1. Well, worse— as we’ve shared over email, she initially claimed it was twice, and later said it was four times. (Deliberately flaunting sins seems to be at odds with Romans 6:1-2.)

        Legalism and hypocrisy, my now retired senior pastor had an excellent sermon and analysis:
        Inner-outer discrepancy (e.g., stage actors who might feign being in love, but aren’t in love)
        Discrepancy between current behavior and ideals (= we’re sinners)
        Rule moralists (making mountains out of molehills, who apply selective measures for righteousness)
        Decrying in others what one exhibits (lack of integrity, addressed in Matthew 7)

        The thing is that many moderns want to decry legalism based on rule-moralism. It’s NOT legalistic, however, to say, obey God because He commands it. We’re not justified (right standing before God) because we obey — we obey because we’re justified, and it is for our sanctification.

        If I tell my kids not to hit each other, to pick up their dirty laundry and put it in the hamper, etc. I expect them to obey. I will never accuse them of legalism for doing the right thing. It won’t get you in my good graces. Doing the right thing won’t make me love my kids more. But they should listen to their dad because 1) dad knows better, 2) dad lays down the rules, 3) dad is dad, after all, 4) life will go better if you listen to dad, etc.


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