Laying Down the Legalism
Legalism is probably easiest to spot when looking at church youth groups. Teens have abstinence drilled in them, sometimes at all three services a week. Abstaining from alcohol and partying are at the top of the list of topics for many youth speakers. Sunday School teachers place a strong emphasis on making sure the teens are reading their Bibles. None of these things are inherently bad. Actually, they’re all wonderful things to be teaching our youth. But when they become our focus, our young people miss out on what’s most important: their relationship with God. Sometimes churches are so intent on leading their members toward Holy living that they ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, or the reasons that Christians should cultivate holy living, or God’s call to love the brethren. While the call to “love” can sometimes be twisted to mean that we don’t teach truth, God has still called us to love. And we cannot ignore one command in order to practice another. The truth is that God has called us BOTH to love and obedience. And we cannot teach one without the other.
I’ve noticed that there seems to be a contrast in the way legalism is described in the Bible, versus the way it is described amongst believers. To many believers, legalism has become the sin to avoid at all costs. But that seems to lead many to engage in different sins. Sins that are as equally sinful as legalism. There is a way to emphasize holy living in a way that isn’t legalistic, and I believe that answer is found in the very definition of legalism. So what IS legalism anyway? What does the Bible say?
- Your works CANNOT save you! (Eph. 2:8-9, Titus 3:5, Heb. 11:6) If you have a relationship with God, you have already been saved. No amount of good works can further secure your salvation, and no amount of bad works can take away your salvation. Though your relationship with God will inspire good works, it is important to remember that good works have no redemptive value. You are saved “by grace, through faith, and not of yourselves. It is the GIFT of GOD.”" You receive this gift through faith in Christ. We cannot boast in our salvation, because our works did not save us!
- Following a set of rules will not make you holier, and will not stop you from sinning. (Col. 2:20-23) Just as good works cannot save you, they cannot make you holier. Good works are the fruit of salvation, and the fruit of holiness. They will come AFTER salvation and AFTER holiness, but NEVER before. The Pharisee in the New Testament who stood up to pray, thanked the Lord that he was good and righteous and followed all the law. God, however, saw his heart. Though he had followed the law to the highest degree, his heart was full of sin. In comparison, the “sinner” next to him cried out in repentance. Jesus recognized that, though he had failed, his heart was genuinely repentant of his sin. The Pharisee’s pride was just as sinful as anyone’s sin, but he failed to repent of that sin. While his obedience seemed to be full, his heart was still sinful. We should be watchful of this in our own lives, and remember that sin in our hearts is just as wicked as the sin in our actions. We must be faithful to repent of BOTH the outward AND the inward sin in our lives.
- God does not call us to follow the traditions of men or the church. He calls us to obedience. (Matt. 15:1-39) This does not mean that all traditions are sinful. What it does mean, is that we are not to emphasize traditions as a requirement for righteousness.
- Our love for God will motivate us to be obedient to His Word. (John 14:15, John 14:21, Gal. 5:16, Col. 2:6, James 1:26-27) Remember when Jesus asked Peter, three times, “Do you love Me?” He asked three times, and each time Peter answered “Yes, Lord.” Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep.” The emphasis here was that if Peter REALLY did love Christ, he would then DO what Jesus was asking of him. Over and over throughout Scripture, we see direct statements that tell us: “Those who love God are those who obey God.” Though the rules are not our focus, our love for God (which IS our focus!) will always drive us to serve Him.
- Christ fulfilled the law when He died on the cross, and became the atoning sacrifice for our sin. (Rom. 10:4) While Christ’s death on the cross did indeed change much, the law was still there to show believers the sinful state that we are in. Many foods that were previously unclean, were now declared to be clean by God Himself! We no longer have to sacrifice animals, because Christ IS our sacrifice. In His death on the cross, He became our atoning sacrifice, and fulfilled the law! We still see His law though, and through it–are reminded of our sinfulness. It is that reminder that drives us to the repentance of our sins, and to a saving faith in Christ!
- The law is only capable of revealing our sin. (2 Cor. 3:6) As no one on earth was able to fulfill the law, it was only capable of condemning us. Christ, who completely fulfilled the law, is the One who redeems!
- We have freedom, but we are not to use our freedom to fulfill our fleshly desires. (Gal. 5:13-15) To be “free in Christ” does not give us an excuse to sin. We are free FROM our sin, and free to experience a right relationship with God. The freedom that comes through Christ will lead us to a lifestyle that glorifies God over ourselves.
- When you have a difference of opinion than someone else, you are not to pass judgment on each other. (Rom. 14) Remember that direct commands from Scripture are not matters of opinion, and our love for Christ will ALWAYS lead us to obey the commands of Scripture. This passage in Romans refers to the eating of food that had previously been called “unclean”. While Paul explained that there was freedom in this area, many still felt as if it was sinful to eat these foods. They sought to honor God by abstaining from foods that God had made clean. Because they were motivated by their love for God, their actions were holy. We are to obey the Holy Spirit’s leading when the Bible does not give a direct path, and are to leave the judgment of others (concerning these areas) to God alone. We cannot judge what the Scripture does not command.
- Regardless of the law, it is sin to ignore any conviction that a believer holds in his or her heart. (Rom. 14) There are things that aren’t explicitly given in Scripture, like “how far is too far” sexually (kissing, handholding, etc.) or whether you and your spouse should use birth control, or which church you should go to. With these things, believers should prayerfully seek God’s guidance when choosing a path. If you feel even the slightest bit of guilt or conviction about something, then it IS sin to ignore that conviction. To disregard the conviction of the Holy Spirit is to put yourself and your desires ahead of God’s will. If you aren’t sure whether something is “okay”, then either say no–or wait for God to give you complete peace about it. Though continuing on your own path will eventually lessen your guilt, you will have already violated the Holy Spirit’s leading in your life and caused a rift in your relationship with the Lord. By always obeying God’s personal leading in your heart, your relationship with Him can remain pure.
- God’s Word looks deeper than our actions, and into our thoughts and intentions. (Heb. 4:12) Though man looks at the outside, God looks at the heart. Many take this as a comfort when they seem to be judged by the world, but I’ve always found it to be more convicting than it is comforting. Though I may do all the right things, sin still resides in my heart. God will look straight through my good works and see that darkness. As I walk closer to the Lord, the sin in my heart becomes less. When obeying God’s Word in my life, I must be faithful to remain in a right relationship with God and keep my motives in line with His. As full obedience begins in the heart, a right relationship with Him is imperative for an obedient life.
- Without faith it is impossible to please God, so following rules or guidelines will never be enough to please Him. (Heb. 11:6). When beginning our walk with the Lord, we many times hear the salvation experience equated to “handing the reins to Christ”. Our fleshly pride, however, will often lead us to again grasp for those reins. Whether we do not fully trust God’s guidance, or we are afraid, or we simply want to do things ourselves, it is sometimes hard to fully hand control to God in your life. We try to work for God according to our own worldly ideas. When we try to live a Godly life without consulting God Himself, not only will we always fail to do so–but our lives will be greatly lacking in faith. We are saved by FAITH alone. Our works cannot save us. God is not pleased by a self-sufficient life. He is pleased when we, by FAITH, give our lives fully to Him and respond to Him with complete submission. When we act ‘for God’ out of any other motive than faith, we are sinning against God by denying His power and authority in our lives.
I think many people think of “legalism” in terms of Christians who believe certain things are sinful. Abstaining from things like watching Harry Potter, dating versus courtship, drinking alcohol, watching rated R movies, or listening to certain types of music are often given as examples of legalistic Christians. I asked my Facebook friends about this yesterday and some of my Godly friends made a point that I believe is much more accurate than this. The decisions not to watch Harry Potter, not to drink alcohol, or not to date are not legalistic in and of themselves. But when we make these decisions, and then believe that these choices will result in eternal salvation, that IS legalism. The heart of legalism, in the end, actually lies within the heart. It is not found in the choices themselves. It is found when the following of these ‘holy’ guidelines supersedes your relationship with Christ Himself. While holy living is commanded in Scripture, CHRIST is to be the foundation of ALL we do, and we are to live each moment in response to our FAITH in Him. When we rely on our own wisdom, our own power, and on measuring up to a standard, we will always fail. But when we “abide in Christ”, He will dwell within us, and we will in turn bear MUCH fruit. We must remember that salvation comes through Christ alone. He ALONE is our redemption! He does not call us to earn redemption. He calls us to–in FAITH–accept His atoning sacrifice, and then walk with Him.
So HOW should the concept of legalism affect your life? Well, by all outward appearances, maybe it shouldn’t at all. Choices for holy living should still be made. Decisions should all be made in a way that honors Christ over ourselves. We aren’t to evaluate “rules” in light of legalism. Instead, we are to evaluate them in light of Christ. We are to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, and seek for all of our actions to be pleasing to the Lord. In seeking not to be legalistic, we are to stop fearing the sin of legalism. Stop focusing on not being legalistic. Let’s turn our eyes to Christ, His Word, and to the intimate relationship we share with Him. Let’s have our actions flow out of that love relationship. Let’s live our lives free of fear, and all for His glory. In the end, the concept of legalism shouldn’t change much on the outside. Instead, it’s a way for you to evaluate what’s inside your heart. Where is your focus? If it’s anywhere other than Christ, then you just may need to repent of the sin of legalism. But if your eyes are on Christ, your heart will then shine THROUGH your actions. God will transform you from the inside out, and you will obey God without the fear of becoming legalistic. You will obey God for one reason only, and that is–your LOVE for Christ.
“Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.“
(I Corinthians 10:31)