I loathe legalism. I loathe it because it adds to the sufficiency we have in Christ and undermines His supremacy.
Are you a legalist?
In order to answer this important question let us first define legalism. One definition is as follows: Legalism refers to the notion that in-order to please God, we must add a series of rules to the word of God. These man-made rules might not always be bad, but the belief is that by obeying them you become spiritual. In other words, if you are performing and someone is not, you are spiritual and they are not.
Lets be clear, it is not legalism to obey the teaching of the word of God. I’m always saddened when I hear of a person’s sincere desire to commit themselves to the commands of God’s word and someone responds by saying, “you are a legalist” or “that’s a bit legalistic”. That person has no right to say that, because the word of God is a mandate for God’s people. It is not legalism to obey the clear teaching of the word of God – that is simple obedience. The Lord Jesus Christ said, “if you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Here the Lord is teaching that His people are to obey. So it is not legalism to adhere to these commands. However, it would be legalistic if you believed that by doing these commands you will be saved (that is a heretical works based salvation). But, if a believer is concerned about what the word of God says, that is not legalism. Sadly, many receive a lot of criticism because they desire to be committed to the word of God and they get called legalists. That of course is a false claim.
True legalism can creep into the life of a believer in subtle ways. Take for example the following scenario: an individual desires to obey what God has said in the Scriptures. So they take one of the commands of Scripture, apply it to their situation and form a rule or principal that helps safeguard against breaking the command. Now this in and of itself is not a bad thing, in fact it is very wise. We certainly ought to look at the commands of Scripture and apply them to our life in such a way that we are obedient to them. However, the moment that individual makes their principal or rule binding on other people (or on themselves) they have become a legalist. This is putting someone under a law that the word of God does not hold him or her to. If it is the clear teaching of the word of God, it is not legalism. But if it is a principal or a rule that you have created so as to help you fulfil that command, and you make that binding on someone else by giving them the impression that if they don’t adhere to the principal, they are unspiritual – that is legalism.
There could be many examples given, but consider this one. The Bible says that women are to dress modestly (1 Tim. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 3:3-4). Now people over time have created principles and rules so as to guard themselves from looking immodest. A lot of women have chosen to wear modest and feminine dresses instead of pants so as to guard themselves from looking immodest. This is a great principal, and every woman has the right to do this. But the moment in which someone enforces this rule on someone else, they are enforcing legalism. People can extend these rules to the family and have family rules (household rules). As long as the parents make it clear that these are not commands from Scripture, but are simply family principles or rules that they don’t hold other families accountable to, this is not legalism. But it is if you cross the line and enforce those rules on other people you have become a legalist.
If people have principals and rules in their lives, this does not necessarily make them legalistic. If they are doing this so as to help themselves obey the Lord out practical wisdom, we are not to criticize them.
We need to be aware of legalism. We must not come under any form of teaching that places us under laws that are not the clear teaching of God’s word. We also need to be careful that we are not going to be judges of other people who have personal convictions and rules in their own lives (that are not intended to be equated with Scripture). We do not want to make them go against their consciences. Legalism is a horrible enemy of the gospel and spiritual growth. The only thing that pleases God is the righteousness of Christ. Therefore, let us love Christ and out of gratitude for all that He has done for us serve Him with all our being. We do this because we love Him (John 14:15).
Thanks, Andrew. This is an important issues for evangelicals.
A corollary to legalism is the tendency of those who have formed extra-biblical rules to live by, to “think of themselves more highly than they ought” (Rom 12:3). The legalist eventually thinks that keeping their extra-biblical rules makes them stronger, better Christians, and by implication, those that don’t as being weaker Christians.
However, when the Apostle Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians 8, he identifies the rule-keeper as the weaker Christian and the Christian that has freedom from these man-made rules as being the stronger Christian. Just the opposite of what many would think.
Our freedom in Christ strengthens – it does not weaken. Granted, the stronger believer has an obligation to his weaker brother to avoid offending him by flaunting his freedom.
Man-made rules may have been formulated as a protection against sin. But in the long run, these rules may do just the opposite. A believer that, say avoids the corruption of the world by isolating himself by only associating with fellow-believers, never learns the skills required to connect with unbelievers to share the gospel. They grow up as ‘hot-house’ Christians, unable to withstand the icy winter blasts of a sinful world, and may when exposed to everyday life, succumb to its temptations.
Legalism tends to go hand-in-hand with what the world identifies as being the ugly side of Christianity. Legalism is a crutch that doesn’t work.