Legalism

What It Is Not 

by Randy Smith 


There is an individual amongst us this morning that has brought me much concern. If he's not stopped, he could ruin the church. He's running around telling people that we have an obligation to follow the commandments as they're revealed in the Bible. Doesn't he know that we're free from the law and now living under grace? His rules and expectations have created a burden for this church, which are too difficult for any of us to bear. I prefer to follow the spirit of the law as the Bible says. His tactics are sheer legalism if you ask me! I rarely mention personal names from the pulpit, but I feel I need to expose this legalistic man before further damage is done. His name is....Jesus Christ.

I hope you will excuse my sarcasm, but this line of reasoning is not uncommon to many in today's church. For the next two weeks, I'd like to discuss with you the much-misunderstood and greatly abused topic of legalism as we continue our series entitled "Church and Home Unity." Legalism is a deadly sin that can destroy unity. Furthermore, it's an error that can keep people from experiencing the joy of the Christian life by holding them under unnecessary bondage. Moreover it sends many apparently devout followers of God straight to the pits of hell.

Regarding legalism, Pastor Ray Stedman once said, "I know of no affliction in Christendom which is more widespread, and more devastating in its destructiveness, than this" (Stedman, Legalism, sermon). Arthur Wallace commented, "Legalism is...Satan's most effective means of infiltrating and undermining the work and witness of the church" (Wallace, The Radical Christian, p. 155).

But as I fictitiously stated in the introduction, much of the church throws this term around without any biblical understanding whatsoever of its reality. I've witnessed it right here amongst some in this flock. Sadly, based on some current definitions of legalism, Jesus Christ is the biggest legalist who ever walked the planet!

Since such a suggestion is nothing but blasphemous, we must initially consider what is expected in the life of a believer, but often mistaken for legalism in the life of the church.

LEGALISM - WHAT IT IS NOT

Legalism is not obedience to Christ's commandments

Jesus Christ has become our new Lawgiver. He expects us to follow Him in wholehearted obedience. In Luke 6:46 He said, "Why do you call Me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?" Understanding our freedom in Christ (Jn. 8:32, 36) is contingent upon understanding our slavery to Christ. Paul (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Phil. 2:7; Tit. 1:1), James (Jas. 1:1), Jude (Ju. 1:1), Peter (2 Pet. 1:1) and John (Rev. 1:1) all gratefully acknowledge themselves as a "bondservant" of Jesus Christ. He is our Lord. He is our Master. As Christians we are commanded to do as He says. We have been set free to do as He says. Anything less robs our joy and fails to display our love for the Savior. "If you love Me, (Jesus said) you will keep My commandments" (Jn. 14:15).

You wouldn't believe the number of people who have sought to abide by these expectations of Jesus Christ, only to be called legalists by other people who profess to be His children. Instead of rightly encouraging these individuals in their Christian commitment, these obedient saints are discouraged (by being wrongly critiqued as legalists) in their pursuit of doing what God desires.

Our Lord said, "Be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44). He remarked, "The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age" (Tit. 2:11-12). In John we read, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (Jn. 3:36). We are called to "discipline (ourselves) for the purpose of godliness" (1 Tim. 4:7).

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.

Paul said, "If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing" (1 Tim. 6:3-4a). In 2 Timothy 3:5 he said these wolves in sheep's clothing "(hold) to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; avoid such men as these." The last thing God wants is people coming into His church and telling His flock that it is legalistic to obey His Word.

Because of this massive deception within the church of Jesus Christ, many people are more afraid of being deemed "legalistic" than they fear displeasing the Lord though unholy conduct. Beloved, if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, our greatest goal should be (Colossians 1:10) to "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God" desiring daily to be conformed further into the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29).

We should want to use the freedom that has been purchased for us by Christ (1 Cor. 7:22-23) to escape the shackles of sin that previously held us in bondage for so long. How can we as God's holy children desire to continue in the filth of sin, the same sin that placed our Savior on the cross, the same sin that brings about the wrath of God and would have sent us to hell. And then proudly call it a display of "grace" or "Christian liberty" or "New Covenant living" and oppose others who disagree by calling them legalistic?

The warped mentality is as old as the Scriptures. Romans 6:1-2, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" Paul continues, "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness" (Rom. 6:15-16)?

Regardless of what many think, we are not legalists when we obey Jesus Christ, on the contrary, we are Christians.

Legalism is not adopting strong personal convictions

The Bible is clear as to what God expects from His children. For example we know that it is wrong to steal (Eph. 4:28), fornicate (Heb. 13:11), and lie (Pr. 6:17), and it is right to minister (1 Cor. 12:7), evangelize (2 Tim. 4:5) and pray (Rom. 12:12). We should all share and agree upon these general convictions.

However, God leads His children at times in different ways. We are all individually guided by the Holy Spirit, our own conscience and general principles in the Word of God. This in turn develops personal convictions within our own heart. These convictions, which are not based on direct commandments from the Bible, are nevertheless based on biblical principles and are both acceptable and expected for the Christian to hold.

For example, many of the commandments for spiritual purity are written in a very general fashion. Such an approach by the Holy Spirit may be frustrating to those of us who want a lists of do's and don't's (a Christian book of Leviticus if you will), but it is actually a very wise tactic in the counsel of God. You see, the avoidance of many specific rules not only enables the Scriptures to transcend time and culture, it also forces us to depend on the Spirit's inner guidance for direction and not approach our relationship with God as if it were a spiritual checklist to be completed. Though "check-list religion" is very appealing to our flesh, God our Father wants us forever seeking His guidance and growing in a relationship that is not mechanical or stoic or distant, but one that is intimate and relational and vibrant.

Let's take the popular commandment from Philippians 4:8. "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things."

For me, this verse has always served as a wonderful grid to sift my actions as to whether they should be pursued or rejected. It's helped me take all those gray areas of life not mentioned in the Scriptures and personally determine which ones I believe will further glorify God in my own individual walk with Him.

For instance the verse teaches we are to pursue the things that are pure. Let's single that down specifically to sexual purity. Obviously the sexual sins of adultery, homosexuality, fornication and bestiality are impure. The Scriptures clearly identify those impure sins by name. But what about visiting a strip-club or attending an X-rated movie? Would that be impure? I believe we would all say "yes," even though neither of them are mentioned specifically in our Bibles. What about an R-rated movie? What about a PG-rated movie with some occasional nudity? Is that impure? What about going to a nudist beach? What about wearing a skimpy bathing suit at the beach? What about going to the beach in general? What about even driving down Ocean Avenue during the peak summer season knowing well in advance what you're bound to see? Would any of these be impure activities in your estimation? How did you come to that conclusion? What about having another adult of the opposite sex alone with you in your home when your spouse is not present? Is that impure? What about your conversations with the opposite sex? When do they get a little too personal or a little too friendly? When has the line of purity been crossed? How far should singles go in their physical contact with their boyfriends and girlfriends? What magazines should you read and what television shows should you watch? Is it impure to even own a television? What about the use of the Internet? Is there any impurity there? Where do you personally draw the line? Where does your family draw the line?

Some convictions are established as our conscience applies general biblical admonitions. Some convictions are established as a safeguard to prevent sinning. In Romans 13:14 we read, "But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts." All of us should be well aware of our spiritual weaknesses. We should do whatever it takes to eliminate any stumbling blocks that may cause us to fall in these vulnerable areas. We are to aggressively take the necessary actions to eradicate even the possibility of sin. These become strong convictions.

Jesus Himself made this principle clear when He said, "If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell" (Mt. 5:29). And "If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell" (Mt. 5:30). Though abused by Christians throughout history, Jesus is not calling for a literal interpretation, but rather calling His children with extreme seriousness to do whatever it takes to avoid personal sin.

That's why I personally know of families who have removed their television. I know of adults who will never touch alcohol again. I know of singles that promise to abstain from any physical contact until their wedding day. I recently conducted a Christian wedding where the couple kissed for the very first time at the conclusion of the ceremony. Are these people weird? Are these people wrong? Are these people legalistic if they keep their convictions to themselves?

James 4:17 teaches, "Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin." We must not violate our conscience and therefore me must not critique people with strong convictions. We must not quench the work of the Spirit in their life. We may not share their convictions, but we must encourage them as they encourage us in their pursuit to glorify God. We must do whatever it takes to prevent our Christian freedom in some of these areas from be the stumbling block they are trying to remove. The Scriptures teach we must always limit our own freedom in Christ if it means upholding another in their conviction (Rom. 14-15).

Legalism is not establishing guidelines for church conduct

The best example I can think of in this area would be the church in Corinth. The place adopted an incorrect view of the Charismatic gifts, which eventually led to more of a circus environment than a church service.

Paul in his first letter to the church needed to step in and institute some guidelines. He needed to establish order: 1 Corinthians 14:26, "What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification." 1 Corinthians 14:31-33, "For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints." 1 Corinthians 14:40, "But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner."

He needed to establish some specific protocol for tongue speaking: 1 Corinthians 14:27-28, "If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God."

Order reflects the character of God. Order preserves our witness to the lost. 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, "Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you."

Unfortunately, if Paul had said these things to the church today, especially some in some Charismatic circles, he would no doubt be labeled a legalist. God expects us to conduct sensible, self-controlled and intelligent worship that is edifying to all without restraining God-wrought emotion as the Spirit of God brings to our heart the Word of God.

Therefore, such convictions cause us to say, "You can't dance around the pews during a worship service because you will be drawing all the attention to yourself." Such convictions cause us to say, "We will not serve alcohol at our church fellowships because it will cause some within this church to stumble." Every church needs to establish general guidelines based on biblical principles in love to honor a God of order and bring edification and encouragement to the people of His flock during worship. These guidelines need not be legalistic.

LEGALISM - WHAT IT IS

So it is not legalistic to pursue obedience to God's Word. It is not legalistic to pursue personal convictions providing we keep them to ourselves. And it's not legalistic to establish guidelines for church conduct. But what is the sin of legalism? With the time that remains I'd like to answer that question.

"Big L" legalism

The first type of legalism is what I refer to as "Big L" legalism. "Big L" legalism is any attempt to earn your salvation by contributing your works to the work accomplished by Jesus on the cross. In others works, it's a "Christ-plus" message.

The best example in Scripture is found in Paul's letter to the Galatians. After a successful missionary endeavor (Ac. 14:27), a certain sect, commonly called the Judaizers, infiltrated the region of Galatia and began to demand the new Christian converts to abide by the law of Moses in addition to the work of Christ to achieve salvation. Their motto is recorded in Acts 15:1. "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."

Paul was shocked! Galatians 1:6-7, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ." Such teaching flew in the face of the true Gospel. Therefore Paul wrote this blessed epistle to once again present the true Gospel and correct their error.

As for the true Gospel, it is one of grace, resting solely in the sufficiency of Christ's work on the cross to forgive our sins and justify us in the sight of God. Galatians 2:16, "Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified." Galatians 2:21, "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly."

You see, the moment you add anything to the work of Christ, you have fallen from grace. Galatians 5:4, "You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace."

Paul makes it clear that we must either rest entirely on grace or reject Christ and attempt to fulfill the law in completion by ourselves. Galatians 3:10, "For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.'" Galatians 5:3, "And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law."

But combining works and grace to achieve salvation is unacceptable legalism with devastating results. Galatians 1:8-9, "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!"

Therefore "Big L" legalism is attempting to add our works to the work of Christ to merit our salvation. Do you believe that you are saved based upon grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone? Or are you guilty of legalism, like the Pharisees (Lk. 18:9-14; Mt. 23:13-28) who believe that salvation is based on your works, either in part or in whole? The legalist believes his forgiveness and acceptance with God is based on performance to a certain self-proclaimed standard. The Christian, unlike every other religion, understands he cannot earn God's love and simply accepts it through the work of Christ. That's why we call it "Amazing Grace."

"Little "l" legalism

"Big L" legalism may not be too common in the evangelical church but "Little l" legalism is often running rampant. "Little l" legalism may accept salvation by grace alone, but then believes extra-biblical standards are necessary for godly conduct and sanctification. "Little l" legalism is often seen developing as a personal conviction which is fine, but then elevating that conviction to a corporate mandate and expecting compliance from others in the church as well which is wrong.

Paul addressed this problem in his letter to the Colossians. "Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day--things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)-- in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence" (Col. 2:16-23).

Today our legalist concerns have changed a little. They usually revolve around: dancing, alcohol, children's schooling, dress, music, spending, celebration of holidays (especially Christmas and Halloween), television, movies and Bible translations.

For example, if I have a conviction that it is wrong to own a television, that is perfectly fine and I am not a legalist (although many in today's church would incorrectly assess me as one). However, the moment I begin to tell people that it is a sin to own a television, I have become a legalist. And the moment I condemn you personally for owning a television is the moment I have added the sin of judgmentalism (Mt. 7:1-2).

Often these people are godly individuals who are only seeking purity for the church. However, we must remember that it is equally wrong to add to the Word of God as it is to subtract from the Word of God.

This morning we first examined what is often confused for legalism. It is not legalistic to pursue biblical obedience and expect it from other Christians as well. Additionally, it is not legalistic to hold personal convictions or establish corporate rules for greater and more orderly worship. Then we examined the true biblical definition of legalism - "Big-L legalism" and "Little-l legalism." As the Lord permits, next week we'll conclude the sermon by discussing the dangers of legalism, especially as they relate to the unity of the church, and some practical solutions to overcome the sin of legalism in our own lives.

(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