How do we define legalism? Because the term legalism is a very serious one (and because my heart is especially susceptible to it) I frequently think about how the roots of legalism sprout in our lives. So today I want to work towards a definition.
Three events from last year (that all took place back in Omaha in the same week) reveal why clarification on the dangers of legalism are necessary. First was a 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. What we commonly forget is that legalism is dangerous whether your biblical convictions are right or wrong. Holding biblically accurate convictions does not automatically protect from legalism.
Rules are not the problem
The danger of legalism does not seem to be found primarily by living with 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 central problem in legalism.
A false gospel
Legalism is (most dangerously) a soteriological problem. That is, legalism is a false gospel. Legalism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure and joy 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 or that God looks at me with disgust because I am not growing in grace as quickly as my friends. 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 because of what we have done (Zeph. 3:15-17).
Believers equally bring pleasure to God because the pleasure He receives in us is the purchased pleasure of the substitution of Jesus Christ. Any imagined superiority to other Christians (not rules or a lack of 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. From what I hear, this is not the common definition floating around the broad Evangelical landscape.
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, or pride themselves in a lack of rules and regulations, can equally create a breeding ground for self-righteous legalism. And this is true even if the church is biblically correct every time on every debate.
Related: Living the Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney