In July of 2016, a sniper killed five police officers in Texas and wounded seven others. It was just an exclamation point at the end of a very negative year. Police are being killedby citizens. Citizens are being killed by police. People on both sides are incensed; pointing fingers. It’s a reminder of how difficult it can be to get a society to live under the rule of law. Human nature tends to resist and bend rules.
The same is true when it comes to God’s laws; His commands and principles. We tend to resist and misuse these as well. This misuse of God’s law is called “legalism”. Last week I discussed five forms of legalism: practicing God’s law in an overly rigid way, adding to it, losing a sense of proportion, using it to earn salvation, and turning it into a way to earn God’s love. This week I want to explore some of the problems that result from legalism and make a few suggestions for dealing with it.
What damage is done by legalism?
1. Legalism misrepresents God
When I distort God’s teachings and commands with legalism others don’t always realize that I’ve done so. They may think that my thinking is also God’s thinking. If I teach my application of Scripture – “I choose not to watch R-rated movies” or “I’ve decided it’s better for me to stay out of bars” as God’s application – “Good Christians should avoid R-rated movies and stay out of bars” then I’m representing my opinion as God’s command, turning application into inspiration. It’s one thing to have intelligent discussions and make thoughtful recommendations about application issues, it’s another thing to represent our choice as God’s choice. This leads to the next observation:
2. Legalism attempts to limit legitimate individual freedom
Parents quickly learn that they cannot treat each of their children exactly the same way in every area of their upbringing. I knew one farmer who allowed his third grade son to drive a tractor. His son, very bright and responsible, pulled it off. Few children could or should try that. Although God has given all of us the same basic commands, how He applies them to our lives will often vary. Some of us can handle freedoms that are too much for someone else. Others will have different personalities and preferences. In my life, for instance, Bible memorization has played a key role. Other believers, though, seem to flourish just fine without memorizing. We have freedom here. Legalism, on the other hand, requires conformity – if God has worked this way in my life, then you must follow my path. Not necessarily.
3. Legalism can make me miss what’s most important
Last time I quoted Jesus as saying that the Pharisees, “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel”. They had over-focused on minor details of the law and missed what mattered most. The purpose behind God’s rules and principles is very basic: God wants us to enjoy a strong love relationship with Him and also with others. All these rules and principles are meant to open the door to love and help us avoid whatever would shut that door. Legalism tends to distort that picture, getting us overly-focused on secondary issues like how well we or others are performing, debates about rules, or anything else but about loving God.
4. Legalism will inhibit my spiritual growth
One has only to look at some of the Pharisees to see that, although they were great rule followers, something was missing spiritually. They were rigid, judgmental, proud, and lacked spiritual wisdom. God’s law, used without the careful support and guidance of His Spirit, can do a lot of damage. Its standards are witheringly high. It can drive us to despair, to pride, or to spiritual superficiality. It can cause us to doubt God’s grace and His love; to focus our hope on ourselves rather than on Him. It can spoil our love for others – causing us to view them through the gimlet-eyes of judgmentalism. It can become a prison.
5. Legalism can keep me from salvation
This is the worst of all the liabilities of legalism. If I ask you, “Are you going to Heaven someday?” and you reply, “Yes, because I think I’ve lived a pretty good life,” then you’ve fallen for this deceptive type of legalism. You are, my friend, in mortal danger as we speak. The Bible makes it clear that no one is saved by their own good works (Eph. 2:8,9). Salvation is never earned. It’s only given as gift because Jesus died in our place. Please cast aside your own good works and fall on the mercy of Jesus.
How can I minimize the legalism in my life?
1. I minimize legalism by working on a close relationship with Jesus
When Jesus really is our best friend, a lot of legalistic tendencies will fade. We obey God’s commands because we love Him. We love others because God loves us. Because we’re close to God, we tend to see the big picture behind God’s commands and aren’t as easily ensnared by nit-picking. He humbles our pride.
2. I minimize legalism by being a serious student of the Word
This, of course, is no guarantee. The Jewish leaders were also experts in the law and still fell into legalism. But, if we study the Word carefully with an open heart, it’s easier to maintain a big picture perspective and to sort out what others tell us to do by comparing it with what the Bible actually teaches.
3. I minimize legalism by carefully separating my opinion from God’s commands
Many of our spiritual choices, worthy as they may be, are not found in the Bible. They come from our own specific application of general biblical principles. We generate them in our own minds, get them from others, from our upbringing, or from our church traditions. That’s all fine, as long as they’re in line with Scripture. It’s important, though, that I give others the same freedom God has given me to make intelligent choices, even if their choice differs from mine. I have a friend, for instance, who has no television in his home. For him it’s proven to be a useful choice, but he doesn’t expect others to do the same.
4. I minimize legalism by trusting God’s Spirit to guide others as well as me
One reason we sometimes make too many rules is that we, like the Jewish leaders, are afraid that if we give others too much freedom they’ll just misuse it. They may well do that. But can you imagine protecting our children from making bad choices by keeping them locked up in the basement for fifty years? The only way people grow up is by exercising their freedom of choice and making mistakes from time to time.
Let me close this series by making a critical observation. In my opening illustration last week, Frank challenged Bill on his sexual immorality and Bill told him to stop being so legalistic. Bill was mistaken, however. This is a common misuse of the term “legalism”. Obedience to God’s clear teaching is not legalism. It’s called “holiness”. Scripture tells us to be holy (1 Peter 1:16)) and to challenge others to holiness as well (Heb. 10:25).