I’ve heard it said that we are all legalists at heart. Are there some subtle ways we fall into it?
Isaiah 37 & 38
Could You Be a Legalist?
What Is Legalism?
Have you ever spoken the truth to someone concerning some area of sin, only to have them say, “You’re being legalistic!”? Perhaps you’ve even said those words yourself. But is a call to obey God’s clear commands legalism?
Millard Erickson says:
Scripture does not give us any basis for disregarding God’s revealed commands. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (Jn. 14.15), and “You are my friends if you do what I command” (Jn. 15.14). We are not at liberty to reject such commands; to do so would be an abuse of Christian freedom. Therefore, we must seek to guide our lives by these precepts. Such behavior is not legalism. Legalism is a slavish following of the law in the belief that one thereby earns merit; it also entails a refusal to go beyond the formal or literal requirements of the law. It is ineffectual because it ignores the facts that we never outgrow the need for divine grace and that the essence of the law is love.
The words legalist and legalism don’t appear in the Bible, but Jesus painted us a portrait of a one in Luke 18:
9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Legalists are opposed to grace. Like this Pharisee, legalists often have a strict set of rules and regulations that must be kept. They often add to the Bible’s commands or apply them in harsh, judgmental ways. They fail to understand that the law was our schoolmaster to show us our need for Christ (Gal. 3.24-25) and that none of us can keep it perfectly (Rom. 3.10-12).
Legalism doesn’t change the heart. Paul said:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col. 2.20-23).
In today’s reading, the Galatians, who had received the Gospel of salvation by grace, had been infiltrated by Judaizers, men who wanted to impose their own legalistic requirements on them. It’s as if someone came into your church or mine and began to hold his own Bible study telling people they are not really saved unless they’ve been baptized, become vegetarians, get circumcised, take communion every week, worship on a certain day, or some other list of requirements. It may sound foolish, but if you don’t know the truth and have it firmly fixed in your mind, you will fall for anything!
A Subtle Trap
Legalism can show up in other, more subtle ways. Many people who sit in church every week, when asked if they’re sure they’ll get to heaven will say “yes,” but when asked why, will say “because I’m a pretty good person.”
What is that? It’s salvation by works. It’s one form of legalism! They may have received the gospel on an intellectual level, but in their hearts believe they must add something to it, and certainly must do something to keep themselves saved.
Another subtle sign of legalism is the expectation that if I keep my set of rules, I can expect God to keep what I see as His end of the bargain. I do “A,” God somehow owes me “B.”
“I can’t believe God is allowing this to happen to me, I go to church every Sunday.” Or …
“I homeschool my kids, take them to church, raise them right so, how could my son say he doesn’t believe?” Or … Continue reading