That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; Holding forth the word of life...
Philippians 2:15-16a

Monday, November 14, 2011

Some thoughts on... Legalism

*I found this posts in my drafts, and finally got around to publishing it.  I began writing it back in January... Better late than never I guess :P.

Last night I was reading some online conversations on the subject of legalism.  Like most other subjects, I have my opinions when it comes to legalism.  I really try to make sure that my opinions and beliefs are based on God's truth.  That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (I Cor. 2:5).  However, I do like to read what others have to say too.  It's good to get different perspectives and look at both sides of an issue.  Colossians 1:10 says we are to be ...increasing in the knowledge of God.  I try to be open minded about things, but when the Holy Spirit convicts me of truth I hold on to it!  Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; for he is faithful that promised... (Heb. 10:23).  

Legalism interests me.  Probably because I've been called a legalist on more than one occasion.  It also interests me because there seem to be so many opposing ideas and opinions of what exactly it is.  It confuses me too.  Many things that I have convictions about or that I do in my Christian life are termed by others as being legalistic.  I often wonder why?  Why do I see it as okay, and others see it as legalistic?  I've tried to answer this question, but I never seem to be able to. I just don't understand, and maybe I never will.  

I think most people will admit that there's a lot of worldliness in the modern church.  But, it seems like many people who try to have a standard or a conviction are immediately called "legalists" by some more "liberated" Christian.  For some reason they see standards as a threat to their freedom in Christ.  We are under grace.  We are not bound by the law.  We have liberty and freedom to choose, BUT grace does not guarantee every choice we make will be right.  Grace does not guarantee we will never sin.  Grace does not guarantee that our heart and feelings will never lie to us.  Jeremiah 17:9 is still true today whether we've experienced grace or not. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?   

Why must we always see the standard as a threat, instead of viewing it as protection?  Someone or something needs to guard our desperately wicked heart.  Proverbs 4:23: Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. Sin, evil, and wickedness surround us.  God as our loving Heavenly Father, gives us rules for our own good and protection, just like any loving parent would for their children.  Just like a parent knows that letting their child run down the middle of a busy street will hurt them, God knows certain things will hurt us.  He tries to guard us from such sorrow and hurt by giving us commands like...
Love not the world... I John 2:15-16.
Be ye kind... Ephesians 4:32.
Abstain from all appearance of evil... I Thessalonians 5:22.

I think it's important to understand what legalism is NOT, before we start calling fellow-Christians legalists. 
1.  Setting up boundaries is NOT legalism.  I Corinthians 9:27 But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

2.  Avoiding certain aspects of culture and the world is NOT legalism.  Romans 12:9 Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. 

3.  Feeling guilt over sin is NOT legalism.  Psalm 51:2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

4.  Keeping a list of rules is NOT legalism.  James 1:22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

5.  Working, trying, and striving to have a pure, holy, life is NOT legalism.  I Peter 1:6 Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.

Legalism in it's truest sense is adding works to salvation.  It's the idea that if I "do" certain things it will make me more saved, or help to guarantee my salvation.  In 21st century Christianity the word has developed a more 'flavoured' meaning.  Many use the term legalism to mean a saved person doing works in order to obtain more favour or a better standing with God. It's the idea that if I do certain things, God will love me better than other Christians who don't do those things.  This is obviously NOT biblical thinking.  Legalism is also used to mean a list of rules kept in order to please men.  Galatians 1:10 jumps to mind.
For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ. 
1 Thessalonians 4:1.
Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.  

Pleasing men is not biblical.  Pleasing God is!  So, is keeping a list of rules, or having a standard, or a conviction with the motive of pleasing GOD legalism?  I think not, but maybe that's just my opinion.  The problem is that we have weak, carnal Christians who judge anyone with a standard as being self-righteous and Pharisaical.  Jesus addressed this kind of thing in Matthew 7 when He spoke about motes and beams.  The ironic thing is that this passage is often used by the carnal Christian in defence of their carnality!  They throw it in the face of the perceived legalist saying "you can't judge me!" when in reality they are the ones who have judged by determining the other person is a legalist! 

Jesus said, Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them (Matt 7:20).  Our actions say a lot.  I have a really hard time with those who accuse others of being legalists when it's those "legalists" who are dressing modestly, using kind words, encouraging others, reading their Bible, not going to the movies, not drinking alcohol, faithful to church, etc.  Are there people who do these things because they are legalists? Probably, BUT I really believe we need to use caution and care and avoid jumping to conclusions about our brothers and sisters in the Lord.  We simply CANNOT fully judge and understand a person's heart.  Maybe if we started loving, edifying, and encouraging those we think are legalists, God would break their pride and change their attitude.  Instead, we condemn them, and become proud of the fact the WE are not like them.  WE have liberty.  WE don't go to extremes.  WE accept all people no matter who they are. WE don't need to keep a list of rules.  WE understand what love REALLY is.  Is this not pride too?  I think it is, and we know what God thinks about pride.

What do you think?  
Is legalism mis-used by Christians today?
How do you define legalism?
Have you ever been called a legalist?  Was the accusation accurate? What did you do about it?


  1. Dear Jess,

    Just a word of thanks. Your blog has been a source of much blessing and encouragement to me, and many others, I'm sure. :) It has also caused me to do a lot of soul-searching in my own quest to to what is right and pleasing to the Lord.
    Job 4:4 - Thy words have upholden him that was falling, and thou hast strengthened the feeble knees.
    This issue of legalism has come to the forefront of discussions in my family. We left a church that has sadly turned liberal and since then have had a difficult time finding another good church. Independent Baptist, to be specific. In the meantime, my wife has become extremely bitter about "all Christians" and has flat out refused to even continue looking. With much prayer, I thought the issue had been resolved. We finally found
    A good church (fundamental, independent Baptist, and still uses the good ole KJV). Until the Pastor mentioned in a message that it was his belief that the Bible teaches that a woman should have her head covered in order to participate in the worship service. My wife now refuses to attend saying, you guessed it, "They are all nothing but a bunch of legalists"!
    The scriptures that he used were:
    1 Corinthians 14:34-37
    Ephesians 5:22-24, 33
    1 Timothy 2:9-14
    I have gone to churches, some teaching this, and others who say it was just a tradition.

    I was wondering what your take on it is...
    I'm not trying to make you judge and jury, but I truly appreciate your love for the Lord, the study of his Word, and your desire to do what is Biblical. Just wanted to know what teaching you have heard regarding the subject. As if you didn't have enough to do already. :P

    Thanks again for the encouragement and thought-provoking topics... I will continue to pray for you.

    If you would prefer to answer in a less public manner or not at all, that is ok.

    Love in Christ,

    I have

  2. Hi P,

    I'd like to think about this a bit before I respond. Let me just say thank you for your encouragement, and I will be praying for you as well!