Christians have fallen prey to an addiction that hinders their walk with God and their ability to be all they can be in Jesus. The addiction is so strong and shackling that many Christians live their lives constantly hungering for a way to feed it. The addiction has turned their lives upside down and caused them to be like a wind-tossed wave: riding the crest one minute, down in the doldrums the next.
We’re not talking about an addiction to alcohol or nicotine or chemicals of any kind, mind you. No, the addiction we’re talking about is far worse. The addiction we speak of is an addiction that has its roots in the evil residing in the human heart. The addiction is legalism.
Legalism can be defined as,
“A pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on law or codes of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.” (see Wikipedia entry, which is quite good)
In other words, legalism is an attitude that relies on keeping rules and regulations, particularly the Old Testament or Mosaic law, as a means of earning or gaining God’s favor, instead of trusting in the reality that God gives favor based on his undeserved love for us, not our performance for him.
Paul went so far as to define legalism as “another gospel” entirely (Galatians 1:6). The Holy Spirit moved the apostle to issue one of the strongest denunciations of legalism and legalists found in the Bible: a double curse (Galatians 1:6-9). Legalism is understood by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament as the antithesis of the gospel.
Obedience is not legalism.
Legalism should not be confused with obedience. Obedience to God’s commands are expected of New Testament believers (John 14:15; 1 John 2:3). Whereas the motivation of legalism is one of always earning favor, the opposite is true of obedience. Legalism recommends itself to God, obedience recommends the perfection of Jesus on our behalf. Legalism screams law, obedience screams grace. Legalism demands adherence to the law out of fear, obedience willingly obeys out of love.
Legalism at work.
The New Testament gives several examples of legalism at work. One primary example would be the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a Jewish religious and ruling class during the first century. They believed themselves to be the keepers, interpreters, and arbiters of God’s truth. When God finally came to them and walked among them, he told them that obedience to God was a heart matter, and that their requiring more than God required in terms of obedience actually nullified God’s very words (Mark 7:6-13).
Likewise, the issue came up in the early church. In one particular case, Judaizers, who believed in Jesus, but also required that disciples keep Mosaic law, demanded that the Christians must keep certain ceremonial aspects of the law, or they were not truly saved (Acts 15:1). This was such a troubling issue that the leaders of the church came together in Jerusalem and debated the matter. Peter denounced the legalism of the Judaizers, calling it “a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10).
Perhaps the most hard-hitting castigation of legalism is found in Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia. There, Paul referred back to the legalistic Judaizers in Jerusalem calling them “false brethren” whose motive was to “spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (Galatians 2:4).
Paul then explained to the Galatians the reason God gave the law, its purpose, and the Christian’s liberty from it. He also emphasized that a return to the law in any way was a rejection of God’s grace, and that love was the motivation for serving God, not fear (5:6). He drove home the point by saying “Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).
What does legalism look like today?
It’s often easy for modern Christians to look at examples of legalism in the New Testament and think these types of things do not happen today. However, we must be reminded that they do. Similar to the examples given above, we clearly see that legalism is still a drug to which many Christians are addicted.
1. How many times do we, like the Pharisees, interpret God’s Word as primarily a set of moral regulations? How many times do we hear, say, or think, “The Bible says we have to do this. . . the Bible says we have to do that?” We find ourselves not living freely in grace because we are preoccupied with whether our lives (and the lives of others) line up with the minutest details of the Bible. This is legalism.
2. Are we able to discern the discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments? This is a subject requiring a much deeper examination than we have time for in this article. However, the gist is, as believers under the covenant of grace, we are no longer bound by any of the Old Testament law. We have been set free! This doesn’t mean we can go hog wild and behave in a manner that is ungodly without consequences or fear (Romans 6:15). Galatians 5:13 tells us, ” For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature.”
Jesus perfectly kept and fulfilled all God’s requirements of obedience, and in him, so have we (Hebrews 4:15-16)! In my opinion, properly understanding where the OT ends and the NT begins is of paramount importance to Christians. There are too many believers who, like the Judaizers, are attempting to hold onto both OT law and NT grace. You can have one, but not the other.
3. Do we attribute God’s blessing to our obedience? Undoubtedly, we are to be obedient to God (Romans 6:16). However, we often have the legalistic attitude that God’s blessings in our lives must be the result of what “good” we’ve done; the lack thereof must be because we haven’t been as good as we should.
Have you ever been financially blessed thought, “God did this for me because I gave 10% (or more) of my income?” or “I received this new job because I’ve been going to church and not sinning.” The emphasis should be on God, who gives good things to his children (and doesn’t have to give us a reason) (Matthew 7:11), and not on us, and not on our mistaken assumption that God merely blesses/not blesses as a reaction to our deeds/misdeeds. Likewise, we are prone to look smugly at others and their hardships and think “It’s because they don’t come to church regularly” or “They don’t give as much as they should.”
4. Finally, do we try to impose extrabiblical or nonbiblical rules and regulations on others or ourselves? When you see a Christian (legally) drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette or with tattoos, is your knee jerk reaction one of disgust? Not because you personally dislike the taste of beer or cigarettes, or the look of tattoos, but are you disgusted because they are doing something you consider sinful, even if their liberty allows it? Wasn’t this the same legalistic attitude the Pharisees had when they observed the disciples eating with unwashed hands (Mark 7:1-5)?
We often think of legalism and legalists as those who are superfundamentalist, and who only use one Bible translation, disallow facial hair, and handle snakes. But legalism is subtle and not always as pronounced as we think. The fact is, we are all prone to be addicted to legalistic thoughts, ideas, and attitudes from time to time. Some more often than others. It is important for us to realize that legalism is never acceptable in the life of a Christian. As much as we boast about how Christ has set us free from drugs, alcohol, smoking, cursing, and gambling — has he set us free from legalism?