LEGALISM

WHAT IT IS

by Randy Smith

Some taught others in the church it was wrong to enjoy sleep and a comfortable bed. They used to wake themselves up in the middle of the night with bells and often sleep in extremely uncomfortable clothes to avoid the so-called "worldly" pleasure of sleep. Some taught it was wrong to enjoy eating food. They often fasted so much their bodies became so thin and weak that they ruined their health and/or died at very young ages. Some taught it was wrong for men to look into the face of a woman when talking to her. Many taught it was worldly to laugh. Others taught it was wrong to own property, land or material possessions. In the 1800's, the wearing of a black coat and a wig by a minister was viewed as almost a command of God in the U.S. amongst Protestants. During the same time, some Protestant churches taught it was wrong to kneel in prayer. Others taught that kneeling in prayer was the only acceptable way to pray. Churches have had rules against women's prayer meetings, lay preaching, preaching without notes, church choirs, the use of organs in churches, cooking or riding a bike on Sundays, and hundreds of other things.

We may laugh at these legalist stipulations from yesteryear's church, but I wonder how many future Christians will do the same when they look at the many man-made rules of our generation that we've also elevated to biblical mandate.

It just goes to show the sin of legalism is nothing new. Jesus battled it in His debates with the Pharisees, and Paul confronted it in many of His epistles. Legalism has brought terrible destruction to the present church, and legalism will no doubt plague God's people until the time of our Lord's return. So due to the prominence, not to mention the confusion and seriousness of this sin, I have decided to preach a two-part sermon, as we continue our series entitled "Church and Home Unity," in order to boldly confront this error head on.

By way of review, last week we covered what legalism is not. Most in today's church are familiar with the term, but unfortunately most in today's church apply the term incorrectly. Without exaggeration, I can say their use of legalism is as equally damaging as the sin itself.

I praise the Lord for the woman who came up in tears after the conclusion of last week's message because of the Spirit's conviction of her own shortcoming in this area. First of all, legalism is not the pursuit of personal godliness as it is commanded and accomplished in us by the Triune God. Jesus Christ as our Lord has called us to a life of obedience (1 Pet. 1:14) following His own example as He was "obedient to the point of death" (Phil. 2:8). We are to be "imitators of God" the Father (Eph. 5:1) who is holy and set-apart from sin (Lev. 20:26). We are indwelt with the Holy Spirit who seeks to make us godly by conforming us into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

Yet unfortunately, many God-honoring believers have sought to abide by these expectations only to be called legalists by other people who profess to be God's children. I cannot overstate this error! When someone, whether they identify themselves as a Christian or not, takes what God commands His children and not only shuns it, but condemns it under the sin of legalism, they are clearly performing the work of the adversary. Simply put, they are functioning as a mouthpiece for Satan. God does not care for people running around His church telling His people that it's a sin to act like Christ.

Furthermore, legalism is not adopting strong personal convictions. Some clear biblical convictions should be shared by all as many biblical commands are black and white. However, the Spirit and our conscience lead us individually in the gray areas based on general biblical principles. Naturally we will all land in different places with respect to: Alcohol, music, children's schooling, dress, spending, celebration of holidays (especially Christmas and Halloween) and entertainment. Provided you keep them to yourself, there is nothing wrong with personal convictions in these areas. You are only seeking to follow your conscience and glorify God in all aspects of your daily living (1 Cor. 10:31). You are not a legalist!

Finally, legalism is not establishing guidelines for church conduct. Though it can be abused to squelch all religious affection, there is nothing legalistic about preserving order and self-control in the worship services. There is noting legalistic about creating a worship environment that is edifying for all and honoring to God. Last week we saw how Paul spent an entire chapter (1 Cor. 14) instituting worship principles for the out-of-control Corinthian church.

Although these three areas are often confused for legalism in today's church, last week I provided the true biblical definition of legalism by breaking it down into two categories: "Big-L" and "Little-l" legalism.

"Big L" legalism is any attempt to earn your salvation by contributing your own works to the work accomplished by Jesus on the cross. In others works, it's a "Christ-plus" message. The true Gospel, by which we are saved, is one totally by grace through faith whereby the individual rests solely in the sufficiency of Christ's work to forgive sins, remove wrath and justify the ungodly in the sight of God. To ignore grace or combine our works to grace is "Big-L" legalism.

The consequences are disastrous! Even before explaining that the true gospel was one solely of faith (Gal. 2:16), the Apostle Paul said, "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed" (Gal. 1:8-9).

"Little l" legalism, possibly more common in good churches today, may accept salvation by grace alone, but then believes all must follow certain prescribed extra-biblical standards for godly conduct and favor in God's sight. "Little l" legalism often begins as a personal conviction (which is fine), but then elevates that conviction to a corporate mandate expecting compliance from others in the church as well (which is wrong). There are often people who would never dream of subtracting from the Word of God, but have no problem adding to the Word of God and judging others who fail to comply with their standards, pressuring them to blindly adopt their burden or making them feel unholy and impure for failing to go along.

 

So far all that I have said was simply a review from last week. Now as we conclude this message and prepare our hearts for the Lord's Supper, I wish to cover two key aspects on the subject of legalism: First, it's dangers and second, it's solution.

LEGALISM—ITS DANGERS

For some of you, legalism may still appear to be somewhat innocent, but let me attempt to convince you how deadly both "Big-L" and "Little-l" legalism really are both for yourself and your church.

First of all, they lead to or result from the general sin of pride.

For starters, take for example the prideful sin of self-worship. As fallen human beings, the debt we incurred against God was our desire to steal His glory. Those who commit the sin of "Big-L" legalism to get saved or "Little-l" legalism to be sanctified are clearly falling into this trap.

Instead of acknowledging that our salvation and sanctification are completely from God, we want to take some of the credit. We want to praise ourselves. We want to believe that we contributed in some way. We want to take the glory that rightly belongs to God and reflect it upon ourselves. As prideful, self-worshiping individuals, we have great difficulty in saying that our relationship with God is all of grace.

Thomas Schreiner concurs. "Legalism has its origin in self-worship. If people are justified through their obedience to the law, then they merit praise, honor and glory. Legalism, in other words, means the glory goes to people rather than God" (Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of the Law, Baker, 1993, p. 15).

But God said, "I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another" (Isa. 42:8a). God is offended when people seek to take credit for work that is rightly His and in doing so rob Him of His glory through self-worship.

Legalism also falls into the prideful sin of self-reliance. This is closely related to the sin of self-worship. Self-reliant people say, "What must I do to earn God's favor?" They fail to understand they can't do anything to earn His favor. They fail to understand their own sinfulness and the utter holiness of God. They fail to understand grace and the glorious fact that salvation is a gift. They think they can somehow contribute. They think God in some way can use their help. They depend in part on their own strength, wisdom, righteousness and/or intuition.

C. J. Mahaney in his excellent book, The Cross Centered Life said, "The implications of legalism are staggering in their arrogance. Legalism claims that the death of Jesus on the cross was either unnecessary or insufficient. It essentially says to God, 'Your plan didn't work. The cross wasn't enough and I need to add my good works to it to be saved'" (p. 25).

Listen beloved, God wants us to lean wholly on Him, trust Him for His strength and depend on His promises. Therefore God is forever seeking to wean us from the sin of self-reliance. However, I believe none of us are fully aware of how deceptive the sin of self-reliance really is. We fall into the trap of the Pharisees. And like them, we can even extol self-reliance because it can appear so pious.

John Piper brings out the danger of self-reliance's deceptiveness by comparing it to the sin of alcoholism. Most of us would say alcoholism is a far deadlier sin than legalistic self-reliance but listen: "Let us not be deceived by outward appearances. Satan "disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14). He keeps his deadliest diseases most sanitary. He clothes his captains in religious garments and houses his weapons in temples. Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn't look like one. Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world. Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one. Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength. Alcoholics don't feel welcome in the church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church" (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, p. 155).

Additionally, legalism leads to the sin of self-righteousness. Since the legalist believes God's favor is based upon his self-determined standards, it's only natural that he will judge and condemn and look down upon others who fail to live up to his extra-biblical regulations.

They keep wine in their refrigerator! She doesn't pray on her knees! He was on the boardwalk without a shirt! They were dancing at the wedding! He cuts his grass on Sunday afternoon! She doesn't wear a dress to church!

I almost fell into this trap a few weeks ago when I was reading Disciplines of a Godly Family by Kent and Barbara Hughes. After finishing this enjoyable book, I noticed the appendix, which suggested movies appropriate for the Christian family. A few titles were ones that Julie and I have banned from the Smith household. How easy it would be for me to look down on this family and question their credibility in writing the book because they choose to watch E.T. and totally dismiss the other 90% of the book that needs application in our lives. Such an attitude would be self-righteous legalism.

Legalism can leads to the prideful sins of self-worship, self-reliance and self-righteousness, and let me give you a fourth one, self-belief. The Gospel is simple! The Apostle Paul said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Ac. 16:31). However, the moment we get legalistic and say, "That's sounds too simple to be true" or "I need to add to God's word," we have fallen into the sin of self-belief. Regardless of how much the world teaches us to believe in ourselves, God wants us to believe in Him with child-like faith and simply take Him at His Word. God gave us the Scriptures as a sufficient revelation of Himself. They are not there for us to pick and choose what we want to believe or use them to reinforce our own preconceived ideas and preferences. When we judge the Scriptures rather than allowing the Scriptures to judge us, we fall into the sin of self-belief. We extol our wisdom over the wisdom of God.

Besides these four "self" sins of pride, allow me to briefly present three more ways legalism assaults a relationship with the living God.

Legalism leads to a fear of losing God's love. Permit me to give you a test. Possibly you have fallen into this trap.

Let's say you had a spiritually rich week. I mean, it was one of those weeks where everything clicked in your relationship with God. A mountaintop experience if you will. Great devotionals every day. A few evangelistic opportunities. A week of faithful service at VBS. You really felt the nearness of God's presence. And here you are on Sunday morning as the culmination of a great week, excited to meet corporately with God in worship.

Then let's pretend next week doesn't go as well. Your prayer time pushed aside by other activities. You yell at your husband and discipline your children in anger. You exchange Wednesday's prayer meeting for a movie that violated your conscience. And then comes Sunday morning. God appears so distant. You're convicted about your sins. You even debate going to church, but confess your sins and ask God to mercifully accept your worship.

Now here's the big question: Which Sunday did God love you more? If you pick one over the other, you have you fallen into the trap of performance which is the sin of legalism.

As I said earlier, legalists are self-focused. They are far more aware of their own sins than what Christ accomplished on the cross. God wants you to look to Him more than you look to yourself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with self-examination, but as one wise pastor once told me a few years ago, "For every finger you point to yourself, point ten to Jesus Christ."

We must understand that God's love for us is based on the work of Christ. We didn't earn it; we simply received it. It is undeserved on our part, but unconditional on His. I think many Christians have it backwards. We do not avoid sin in fear of losing God's love; on the contrary we look to God's perfect, unceasing and infinite love as a motivation to avoid sin. God's love is the impetus that compels us to give ourselves to Him (2 Cor. 5:14). For those in Christ Jesus, there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Legalism also leads to loss of joy. If we are focused on rule keeping, if we are focused on earning God's acceptance through our efforts, if we are focused on trying to meet the convictions and standards of others, God becomes a gloomy killjoy and the vibrant relationship we desire with Him becomes dull, distant and difficult to bear. As we spin the plates of legalism, our Christian walk increasingly becomes a burden with the continual addition of another plate. And to keep the plates spinning, we'll focus more on the plates, our legalistic rulebook, than our intimate and exciting and joyful walk with the living God.

Finally, in addition stealing you joy; legalism steals the assurance of your salvation. There is no pain worse, no burden heavier and no care darker, than to wonder if you are in a right standing with God. The legalist lives in this constant state of tension.

Since the legalist lives by his own efforts, he never knows if he does enough to be favorable in God's eyes. There's always a good deed that is left undone. There's always a sin that needs confession. And since he bases God's acceptance of him according to his own standard, a "this side of the line behavior," he feels condemned when he makes one wrong move and continually questions his standing with God.

LEGALISM—ITS SOLUTION

As we conclude, let's look to the solution to overcome the sin of legalism. Actually, we've already covered the solution by simply reversing all the material we've covered thus far.

First of all, you must look to Jesus. You must rightly understand what God has done for you in Christ. You must understand that God's favor and love are not conditioned on your obedience, but rather on the obedience of Jesus Christ in His sacrificial and substitionary death on your behalf.

To overcome legalism, the cross must always remain at the center of your lives. The gospel must always be of "first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3). We must live everyday, not just the day we were saved, in the light of the gospel. We must continually preach the gospel to ourselves, because we have a tendency to drift into a performance-orientated mentality. Justification with God for Paul was not only a point-in-time event; it was also a present reality! He said, "For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly" (Gal. 2:19-21).

The legalist loves to boast in his own self-righteousness. The Christian loves to boast in the righteousness of Christ imputed to him through the cross. "But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14).

Second, we must walk in the Spirit. Legalism, judgment of others and condemnation of others are all sinful deeds of the flesh. Galatians 5:16 says, "Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh." When we walk in the Spirit we will manifest the fruit of the Spirit, which is love- love for God whereby we desire to overcome the sin of legalism (Rom. 6:1-2), and love for others whereby our convictions do not become their burdens (Jas. 2:8; 4:11-12; 5:9).

Paul rebuked the legalistic Galatians by saying, "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1). I hope you're convinced. Legalism is a yoke of slavery we impose upon ourselves and others. But with the help of God and desire for His glory, we may cast off the burden of legalism and turn to Jesus Christ who provides true freedom - freedom to avoid sin, freedom to obey Christ and freedom to love others. "For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Gal. 5:13).

(used with permission from Grace Tabernacle http://thegracetabernacle.org/ 2014 Main St South Belmar, NJ 07719 Phone: 732-681-3712)


Ubique, Semper et ab Omnibus                      Everywhere, Always and by All