I am growing increasingly alarmed by the ways I hear the term ‘legalism’ defined. And since the term ‘legalism’ is a very serious one, I want to take time to look at this growing and serious concern.
The term ‘legalism’ is on my mind because of several recent events. The first was conversation with a woman who had decided it was okay that her daughter skip church for soccer games. “I don’t want to be legalistic about church,” she said. Another encounter was with a man who defined legalism as “living by lots of rules.” And the third encounter was over an issue concerning alcohol and how those who say Christians should not drink are legalists.
I’m not saying these people are right or wrong in their convictions. What I am saying is that each statement sadly reveals a misunderstanding about legalism. Legalism is a danger whether you are biblically right or wrong.
Rules are not the problem
Legalism is not concerned primarily with living by rules or not living by rules — whether you attend church every week or not, whether you drink wine or not.
Jesus says, ‘take every precaution you need to prevent your heart from sinning.’ “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29).
If you apply the entire bible to the Christian life you can end up with a long list of helpful rules and reminders (like the “one anothers”). Count how many times the phrase “do not” occurs in the Proverbs. It’s no wonder that Jonathan Edwards came up with his long list of resolutions.
Rules are not the problem.
A false gospel
Legalism is a soteriological problem (that is, a false gospel). Legalism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure in me is dependent upon my obedience.
It is legalism that causes the Pharisee to look proudly into the sky in the presence of a tax collector. It is legalism that causes a missionary in Africa to think God is more pleased with him than the Christian businessman in America. And it is legalism that causes the preacher behind the pulpit to think God is more pleased with him than the tatooed Christian teenager sitting in the back row.
The common salvation (Jude 3)
Legalism is the lie that God will find more pleasure in me because my obedience is greater than others. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us (in Christ). Legalism causes the heart to forget that God sings over us because of the work He has done, not what we have done (Zeph. 3:15-17).
Believers are all pleasing to God because the righteousness of Christ covers us equally in the sight of God. Any imagined superiority to other Christians (not rules) is the sure sign of the legalist.
The irony of legalism
The great irony (and danger) of legalism is this … If you think God is more pleased with you because you take your child to a soccer game instead of church, if you think God is more pleased with you because you do not live by rules, and if you think God is more pleased with you because you do drink alcohol – you are just as legalistic as the man who thinks that perfect church attendance, lists of rules and abstaining from alcohol makes him more pleasing to God.
Whether our convictions are biblical or unbiblical is another issue altogether. Legalism is not so much objective (are my convictions biblical or not?) but subjective (what do my convictions get me?). So legalism is just as dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not.
Sadly, churches that do not train their sheep to boast only in the righteousness of the Cross of Christ, but are frequently carried into other controversies and debates, create a breeding ground for self-righteous legalists. And this is true even if the church is right every time on every debate.
But even more sad, legalists will never experience the joy of regarding all other Christians more highly than themselves (Phil. 2:3).
Related: The Grand Canyon of God’s Grace