At the 2007 Shepherds’ Conference, John MacArthur answered this question in a Q&A session:
How would you approach a congregation trapped in years of legalistic tradition?
Here’s a summary. (It’s not a transcript, but it’s close. The headings are mine.)
1. Love them by not needlessly offending them.
- Advice. “I would not attack legalism. I would not preach on Christian liberty. I would not assault their consciences either by flaunting liberty on a personal level.”
- Scriptural principle. “I think there is a very important principle that comes at the end of 1 Corinthians 10 . . . . Do you offend the non-believer, or do you offend your weaker brother? The answer in that text is you offend the non-believer, and the message that the non-believer gets is that you love one another. . . . You defer always to the weaker brother.”
- Definition of legalism. “In many cases when you’re talking about legalism, you’re not talking really about works-salvation. You’re talking, I assume, about an approach to the Christian life that is needlessly restrictive and narrow and artificially constructed around certain behaviors that aren’t even biblical issues.”
- Application. “What you need to do is to understand that’s where they are, and you want to demonstrate love to them because that’s how people know that Christ has changed your life, because you are demonstrably sacrificial and loving to those people who maybe think differently than you do.”
2. Understand that convictions—whether right or wrong—inform the conscience.
- “You also have to understand that the conscience is a mechanism given by God to everyone. It is a device. It is a mechanism by which we are excused or accused, right (Romans 2)? It is informed by our convictions. Conscience is informed by conviction.”
- Illustration. “I suppose no one has a more highly informed and aggressive conscience than a Muslim terrorist, right? They do what they do with passion to the point of their own suicide, believing that they’re gonna end up with seventy-two virgins on pillows in the next life. Their conscience frees them to do what they do because it is informed by a set of convictions that have been drummed into them.”
3. Slowly re-educate their conscience by exalting Jesus.
- Challenge. “When it comes into the Christian realm, you have a dilemma between re-informing them [and] at the same time that you don’t train them to ignore their conscience or after they’re re-informed, they’re gonna be used to doing what their conscience tells them. That’s why Paul is so clear on that at the end of Romans. . . . You can’t train people to ignore conscience. You have to take the long-term approach to re-inform the conscience.”
- First step. “I would suggest that the first way to do that is to move people off the rules they live by on to the person of Jesus Christ, and just preach the glories of Christ. Get in a Gospel and stay there until those people have been liberated from rules to love for Christ, until they have been literally swept away in awe and wonder over their affections for Jesus Christ. Rather than try to instruct them on the biblical disciplines, which again is just another set of rules, let them be lost in wonder, love, and praise over the person of Christ, and you watch those things begin to disappear.”
Related: “Free Shepherds’ Conference Downloads“