Legalism: Yours, Mine, and Ours

“For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13)

Legalism has always been a real issue in the Church (and in our hearts); and likely, it will be until Christ’s return. But, lately I’ve seen the word bandied about like a toddler with a pocket knife. Let’s be very careful where we aim this divisive little blade; and perhaps decide whether or not we should “aim” it at all.

We all struggle with legalism to some degree. I do; and, worse than that, you do too! We try to do things in the flesh and fail to walk by faith. In the beginning, Eve struggled with legalism, choosing to do things her way rather than God’s—adding to His Word and giving ground to the Devil to deceive her.

Like Eve, we have trouble obeying God. We want our list of rules so that we can keep them—or so we think. We all battle the flesh; therefore, we must rely on His grace as we humbly walk by faith.

Legalism is a loaded word; but, as far as I can tell, there are three ways it is used, two are legitimate usages and one is just handy for shutting someone down. All Fred has to do when losing a debate on a biblical topic is accuse you of legalism and the conversation is closed. With fear and trembling, many back off—and Fred is the winner. Or is he?

Still, true legalism is a thing to detest. The two following definitions are what I would call the real McCoy:

Grace Plus Nothing

The first form of legalism is the ugliest because it attempts to usurp the very Grace of God. Most of us will agree on this one. Anything that adds works to our salvation is legalism. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor. Without Christ we are totally depraved, totally helpless, and totally in need of a Savior. Our “good works” are as filthy rags and we can’t do anything to earn our salvation—He did it all. I didn’t find Jesus; He found me, kicking and screaming.

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” (Galatians 5:1)

Holier Than Jesus

The second form of legalism has to do with adding rules to God’s laws (Col. 2:20-22). I have found this to be what most people are referring to when they talk about legalism. Sometimes this type of legalism is simply a matter of misinterpreting the Scriptures. Other times it is an issue of pride. Usually, it’s a poor attempt at holiness—trying to do things in our own strength and in our own wisdom, rather than in God’s.

No matter what, we can’t automatically decide that wickedness is what motivates another man. In fact, we have a responsibility to always assume the best of others. If we fear someone is walking in legalism, we should pray for him; and perhaps reason with him in the spirit of 2 Timothy 2, seeking to be patient, and correcting our brother in humility.

In fact, Paul tells us to view one who is walking in legalism as our weaker brother (1 Cor. 10:27-33) and that we should avoid carelessly harming his weak conscience (1 Cor. 8:12). Love trumps personal liberty (1 Cor. 9:19).

Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:15)

We are to walk in love toward our brother, admonishing him in love, not disdain. Rather than condemn him as an enemy, 1 Thessalonians instructs us to be patient with him—even helping to strengthen him. “Now we exhort you, brethren… uphold the weak, be patient with all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

There are indeed precious souls who are bound up in false teachings that keep them from living the full life that God intended. But will we ever all agree on what is legalism and what is part of living a godly life? I doubt it.

John doesn’t believe in celebrating Christmas, but he enjoys a glass of wine with dinner. His friend, Carl, believes alcohol consumption, even in moderation is wrong, but he has the most beautiful Christmas tree you’ve ever seen.

Jennifer believes in adhering to Old Testament dietary restrictions, but feels the freedom to wear modest pants. Her sister-in-law would never put on a pair or pants, but she thinks Jennifer is being legalistic about not eating pork.

Depending upon who you talk to, any of these things (and plenty more) may be labeled as legalistic.

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

It’s that “putting others first” thing again. Discussing, studying, and sharing our various ideas and views is healthy and good. Iron sharpens iron as we are all learning and growing, but we must be so careful of the way we treat one another—being forbearing with one another’s weaknesses and faults.

“With all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)

I do believe that there are extreme situations where false teachings (legalism) may have devastating effects. I’ve seen the abandoned wife sentenced (by her church) to a lifetime of obligatory singleness, forced off to work while her fatherless children are sentenced to day care.

I’ve heard of people who get so bound up in a list of man-made, superstitious taboos, that they live in fear and misery, and ultimately are unable to be a credible witness to the lost.

I’ve seen unnecessary divisions within churches and families over secondary issues that could have been solved if humility and forbearance had ruled the day (though I realize there are times when division is necessary).

Yes, it is true there are those who would burden the flock with man made rules that shackle the weak (Colossians 2:16-23). But false teachers are not simply leaders with legalistic tendencies; they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. It seems clear in Mark 13:22, and in the following verses that the false teachers Jesus talks about are not even Christians. They are wicked men who purposely lead astray God’s people for personal gain (monetarily or emotionally).

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:15-20)

Jesus said there is a clear difference between a false prophet and a true one: the fruit. Verse 20 shows us that we can examine the fruit of a Christian teacher/leader and probably get a pretty good idea of whether or not he is of God.

Then, in verse 21, Jesus talks about the false teachers who prophesy in His name, but in the end find they are not His. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for their legalism; He rejects them for their lawlessness. “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:23, emphasis mine). Like the Pharisees, false teachers are hypocrites, preaching one thing and living another. (Matthew 23:1-5)

“Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:28)

The False “Legalist” Label

The third form of legalism is imaginary. If you believe in living according to God’s Word, you better be prepared for false accusations of legalism from someone, somewhere, at some time. Growing Antinomianism (anti-law) in our culture has escalated such accusations.

“Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3:12)

Even when you seek to obey God in faith because you love Him (not because you’re attempting to earn his favor) those looking in from the outside may make assumptions about you—especially if they are convicted by your lifestyle and unwilling to evaluate their own lives.

Typically, those who falsely accuse others of legalism have unresolved guilt or sin issues of their own. Some, because of a legalistic or idolatrous past, assume others are walking in the same sin in which they themselves have struggled. See Legalist Hunters” and the Hypocrisy that Empowers Them.

Recently, I received a comment from a reader on another post that hit the nail right on the head. I’ve modified it here to fit the broader problem:

Calling others legalistic based on outward appearance is itself legalistic and hypocritical. Some of those who say that they have left legalism have really just exchanged one form for another and are still judging the spirituality of others based on how they are perceived by the ex-legalist.

Our works don’t save us – our faith in Jesus does. But if we are in Christ, we must walk in those good works (prepared ahead of time by Him) for the glory of God. It’s what we were created for.

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

It is crucial as Believers to respond biblically to false accusations. When you are reproached for living out your faith by honoring the Lord, it is a personal affront to Christ Himself. Your goal must be to glorify Him in the midst of it – to honor His name.

“If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.” (1 Peter 4:14)

So, when people speak evil of you, do not return like for like. Seek to respond in a Christ like manner, so that God may use it for His own glory. Paul instructs us in 1 Peter to make sure our conduct is honorable among the Gentiles “that when they speak against [us] as evildoers, they may, by [our] good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12)

We would all do well to remember God’s command to love. Read 1 Corinthians 13 and absorb it until it becomes part of who you are. Don’t attempt to teach anyone anything without keeping in mind the royal law (James 2:8). Let us speak the truth, teach God’s Word, preach against sin, encourage the brethren, reach out to the lost, care for the orphan and widow, heal the sick, and feed the poor…in love. Let us do it all in love.

When we rebuke or correct a brother or sister, may our love overshadow the temporary pain of the rebuke. And when we see a brother or sister in sin, may we see them through the blood stained lens of the Gospel.

Legalism is real because sin is real. We are weak, but He is strong. His grace is sufficient for me (2 Corinthians 12:9)—and I must extend that grace to my brothers and sisters (Matthew 6:12) as we travel together on the path of sanctification. Let us walk together in love, so that we may dwell together in unity—even as we boldly speak the Truth without compromise.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Special thanks to R.C. Sproul Jr. for helping me to flesh out the three different ways the word legalism is used, and for leaving us with these words:

“May we all never fall into the first. May we be quick to repent of the second. And may we all be boldly guilty of the third.” – R.C. Sproul Jr.

Check out You are a Legalist for a great article that will make you think. Thanks, Sarah Mae!

Be sure to check out a fantastic little booklet called Dressed up for Church: A Contrarian Rag on Appropriate Clothing by Presbyterian pastor, Phillip Kayser. You can download it for free HERE. Don’t miss the chapter entitled “The New Legalism.”

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