Ah the ole “L” word. Many of us use the word in our vocab. But what is it and what does it mean? That’s a question I’m asked on a frequent basis and one I like to revisit annually on this blog.
I can distinctly remember the time when this question begged for clarification in my own life. At one time three events collided (and all took place in the same week). I think each event reveals why clarifying the dangers of legalism are necessary and worthy of revisiting frequently.
First was a conversation with a woman who had decided to permit her daughter to skip church in order to participate in 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 with a man who labeled Christians who abstained from alcohol as legalists.
Let me say from the start that I’m not saying these people are right or wrong in their convictions. What is important to see is that each statement (I believe) reveals a superficial and fundamentally flawed view of legalism.
Let me explain.
Rules are not the problem
Almost 900 passages in the Bible contain the phrase “do not.” Which is to say that the Bible contains quite a lot of prohibitions. Jesus condensed some chief prohibitions for us: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother’” (Luke 18:20). There are a lot of rules in the Bible.
Which is to say that if you apply the entire Bible to the Christian life, you can end up with a long list of helpful rules and reminders (i.e. the “one anothers”). Doesn’t this fact explain why Jonathan Edwards was compelled to compose his long list of resolutions?
See the fundamental danger of legalism is not living with rules or not living by rules—whether you attend church every week or not, whether you drink wine or not. Legalism points to a much deeper heart issue.
A false gospel
At its most dangerous level, legalism is a soteriological problem. That is, legalism is a false gospel and a false hope. Legalism is the lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my performance rather than the finished work of Christ.
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 poor missionary in Africa to think God is more pleased with him than an American Christian businessman driving a Mercedes. 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.
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 living up to His expectations. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us (in the finished work of 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.
Rules are not the problem.
And 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?). And this is what makes legalism dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not.
From what I hear, often what is labeled as legalistic too often focuses primarily upon rules or a lack thereof rather than the gospel.
As I’ve seen in my own heart, what sustains self-righteous legalism is a failure to boast only in the righteousness of the Cross of Christ. Once I take my eyes off the Cross I begin boasting in my list of rules or boasting in my lack of rules. Either way, I know I have fallen into legalism.