“Bill, from what you’ve told me, you and Susie are having a sexual relationship even though you’re not married. As a Christian, you know that goes against what the Bible teaches. It’s sin.”
“Frank, I feel fine about what I’m doing. Stop being so legalistic.”
One of the common theological bogey monsters that haunts Christian circles is the fear of being “legalistic”. No one wants the scarlet “L” sewn on the front of their theological shirt. I say “legalism”, you say “Pharisee”. I say “legalism” you say “rigid”. I say “legalism” you say “judgmental”. No one aspires to that.
One problem with the word, “legalism”, though, is that it has a wide range of meanings depending on who is using it. So two people, discussing legalism, may actually be talking about two different issues without knowing it.
What does “legalism” mean? I’ll start by noting that the word itself is not in the Bible, though the concept is there. So what’s behind the concept of legalism in Scripture? Let me boil it down to its essence: legalism is the misuse of God’s law.
God’s law is a good gift to us. Through the law we learn what’s right and wrong, what’s healthy and unhealthy, and how to please God. These things are useful to know. The problem is that we humans have found a way to misuse every good gift that God has given to us. The law is no exception. Legalism takes what is good and twists it into something bad.
How does legalism distort God’s law?
The Bible demonstrates several ways.
· Legalism distorts God’s law by using it in an overly rigid way
This misuse occurs when observe the letter of the law while overlooking its spirit. The spirit of the law is the purpose behind it; the reason God gave it in the first place. In Luke 6:1, we see an example of this. On the Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples, walking through a field, grabbed a handful of grain as a snack. The Pharisees then accused them of harvesting grain, thus breaking the law against working on the Sabbath. This is a silly application of the law, defying common sense. It’s too nit-picky. God’s prohibition against work was never intended to keep people from grabbing a bit of produce to curb their hunger. A more modern example would be criticizing someone for breaking the speed limit when they’re rushing someone to the hospital who’s having a heart attack. The letter of the law says, “never speed”. The spirit of the law says, “never speed unless absolutely necessary”. Sometimes, to save a life, it’s okay to speed – when a higher good is involved.
· Legalism distorts God’s law by adding to it
The Bible often states general principles without spelling out exactly how each person will follow them. In Jesus’ day, a prime example of this was the Sabbath. In the law of Moses, people are told not to work on the Sabbath, but exactly what constitutes “work” is not spelled out in much detail. Obviously, all work could not be eliminated. Babies still needed their diapers changed. Animals still needed to be watered and fed. For that matter, just walking to the synagogue would be work for the body. Since “work” is a bit vague, the Jewish leaders created a list of 39 activities that were considered work and thus prohibited. This included, for instance, items like “writing two or more letters” or “transporting an object for a distance of 4 cubits within the public domain.” They considered their rules the equivalent of God’s law. Jesus, however, as in the case of his disciples eating grain, resists these rules and calls those who don’t observe them “innocent” (Matt. 12:8).
In Christian circles, we too tend to create a set of rules not given in the Bible and then criticize those who don’t follow them. In my youth this included rules like: not drinking alcohol, not going to dances and staying away from the movie theater. In recent years they’ve involved what sort of books Christians ought to read (no Harry Potter novels!), whether or not Christians should trick or treat on Halloween, and what political party a good Christian supports (Republican). In these gray areas it’s fine to have spirited discussions and make recommendations, but going beyond that is legalism; it attempts to turn our opinion into God’s command, in other words, to turn application into inspiration.
· Legalism distorts the law by losing a sense of proportion
Let me say this carefully: every command of God matters. All should be obeyed. But some of God’s commands are more important than others and deserve the most attention. In Matthew 12, Jesus criticizes the teachers of the laws and Pharisees for focusing so meticulously on minor laws, like tithing the herbs of their gardens, while they neglect “the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Then he pops them with one of His best zingers: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
In the church we too maylose sight of what’s most important. We argue about a particular doctrine, while forgetting to love each other. Or we’re careful not to swear, but allow pride to creep into our attitude. Or we protect ourselves from a sinful culture and forget to care about the salvation of those around us. The “more important matters” are meant to guide the more minor matters. Legalism loses sight of this.
· Legalism distorts the law by turning it into a means to earn salvation
The law of God was never a way for us to cross from death into life; from Hell into Heaven. The Bible makes it clear that no one can ever be saved by good works (Eph. 2:8,9). Paul goes ballisticabout this in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 1:6-9). Our good works are inadequate to do the job. Period. For most people, this is counter-intuitive. Many think that, if they live a good enough life, God will be satisfied and let them into Heaven. Most religions are built around this idea. It’s a tragic misconception. One might as well attempt to throw a baseball to the moon. Only Jesus can save us.
· Legalism distorts the law by making it into a means to earn God’s love
This one’s more subtle. I’m focusing here on believers. On the one hand, the Bible makes it clear that God, like any parent, approves of our obedience. He’s pleased with us when we obey (Col. 1:10). We can also displease God by our disobedience (Rev. 3:1-3). But, I would argue that the love of God is given to us as a gift – to be received, to rest upon, but not to be earned. Just as a parent loves a child regardless of their behavior, so God loves us fully as we are. We don’t have to earn His love by being good. His love is unconditional and it’s a gift. Legalism misses this truth, causing some believers to live in a constant state of insecurity with God, since they know that their daily performance is far from perfect.
Legalism takes God’s wise commands and principles and misuses them. What are the effects of legalism and how can we avoid it? Tune in next time to hear more.