March 4, 2024


GavelI often wondered if the Christian life would be a whole lot easier if God would just give us direction for everything that we were to do. If we could pray and receive an e-mail telling us exactly what to do, where to go, who to meet, etc. (the reasoning goes) then it would be a whole lot easier to obey Him and we wouldn’t wonder if we were doing the right or wrong thing.

I think this is legalism’s appeal. Throughout the centuries many religions have formed that have told people exactly what they must and must not do. Roman Catholics have requirements about church attendance, prayer beads, and other traditions and formalism that tells them exactly what they must do. In tribal communities there are sacrifices to gods that must be done in certain ways. Jehovah Witnesses have a certain number of hours that they must be reaching out to get more converts.

In some ways, Fundamental/Evangelical Christianity is one of the less stringent forms of Christianity, and I believe that this is why it has a tendency to become legalistic. It is in the desire to be right, the desire to do right. Christianity prides itself in having the right religion– believing in the truth and following the one true God. However, the faith that they claim has at its root now not a list of 10 Commandments with all the associated sacrifices, but a covenant of love that should motivate a believer to be holy.

It is here that the problem exists. Love is a strong motivator, no doubt. But without a list of things to do and not do, and with the fact that this love is in Someone unseen by the naked eye (and yet whom is owed so much), it is easy for some Christians to fall into a malaise or apathy where they say they are a Christian, but are not willing to give Christ everything, or put forth their best effort.

In walks legalism– the ability to give people structure and discipline: to say this is right and this is wrong. It’s definitely appealing to those that are trying to give God all, because instead of looking at people that are not doing their best and praying and wishing they were, they’re enforcing it!

The problem here lies in the fact that Christians have liberty in which to pursue God’s glory. Keep in mind that I am not saying that we are free to do whatever we want. We’re not. God’s very clear on certain items that He detests (divorce, homosexuality, immorality, etc.) and very clear on the things that He is looking for (love, joy, peace, etc.). That being said, we are free to choose colors of clothing, music choices, etc. as long as they fit within the “fence” that God has prescribed.

Legalism is the trap that Israel had fallen into with the Pharisees. Christ had a lot of words about the Pharisees and their hypocrisy, but He also said that his followers should do what they say, not copy what they do. They were all into creating rules on top of the Scripture so that they wouldn’t even get close to sinning– which is not necessarily a bad thing, it just wasn’t necessary.

Legalism is a reaction by a church to the culture in that as the culture degrades, some people will fall back on dictating style preferences instead of falling back to the Word and allowing for multiple ways to glorify God. We’re not to do things that God says are wrong, mind you, but doing things with which He is pleased and glorified.

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7 thoughts on “Legalism

  1. Great description of legalism, and from a Baptist! ;O) I’ve heard it said (might be in the Bible, even) that the law was like a schoolmaster to lead people to the Lord. They needed laws to see how sinful they were, how in need of a Savior they were. It just makes God’s grace so much more amazing, doesn’t it? That we humans have had such a terrible track record, and here He gives us freedom to obey from love, not just “obligation to the law”…A deeper relationship built on His sacrifice, not ours.

    Which leads to the “appeal” of “earning one’s salvation”…so many say that they’re good people, they’ll end up in Heaven. Not if they leave God out of the equation. There’s nothing we can do to earn salvation, we have to accept it as the free gift it is and let Christ transform us with HIS righteousness. Here in the midwest, this theory of “good people going to Heaven” is a really hard fallacy to overcome. People here for the most part, were raised with a strong work ethic and high morals. They attend churches that promote liturgical and/or detached religions. And they live like everyone else during the week. They feel they are “doing their part” to get to Heaven. It’s not even dusting the surface of all God meant for us to have out of a relationship with Him. No wonder “Christianity” seems dull to these people, it’s so one-sidedly shallow!

    On another legalistic side, you have people who believe certain sins are worse than others. They can loaf on the job (stealing time from their employer) but they’d never open the cash register and steal his money. Or they believe that as long as they don’t commit a “big” sin like murder, they’ll still go to Heaven. The Bible says if you hate your brother in your heart it’s the same as committing murder! Sure, different consequences, but same sin. And here you have the whole debate over eternal security…

    Well, once I get going, I really get going. Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  2. Hmmm….interesting post. I guess, in my opinion, Christians in the non-denomination that we do need a little bit more structure in our walk with Christ and prayer life. We tend to get a little complacent in our worship.

  3. Leticia, I think you hit right on to why most people start down a path of structure– because people really want others to glorify God and they believe that they will glorify God by doing X, Y, and Z. I don’t know that I can totally blame the Scribes and Pharisees in the beginning, because how often did God chastise them because they weren’t following the law being set out.

    That being said, the rules set out for them had the side effect of puffing up the learned, and created the appearance of power and control. We need structure, be we need structure in love. We need a balance of holiness and love and we need to understand who we are in Christ.

  4. This has tripped me up in the past and I try so hard not to get into it. I like structure, but then I become discouraged because I cannot always follow the “rules” or I don’t think I’m doing them enough. I feel that I don’t pray enough, read my bible enough, witness enough, etc. Then I get frustrated and give up. I keep having to remind myself that I am saved by grace through faith (not of my works, lest I should boast), and that God loves me, even if I don’t think I’m good enough. Does anyone else struggle with this? Good article, MIn, as always!

  5. It’s so very easy to try to measure ourselves against something– be it a set of rules that we come up with or things that we are taught. We need to do like you say, Melody, and realize that it was love and grace that brought us unto Him while we were yet sinners.

    In the same breath, we should have a love for Him that compels us to do our best for Him– not because we’re trying to be some sort of super saint, but that we love Him!

  6. I think that we as humans tend to lean towards legalism, because the whole societies are built around this notion. Law and obeying the rulers has always been a given and certain measure for a citizen. All man-made religions follow the same path of thinking. It would be easier to have a bullet-pointed “dos” and “don’ts”, but how much duller and more artficial…
    That is also why there are so many types of ‘works-religion’ in the world. Somehow in those there is somebody taking care of a believer’s future and his path to his heaven, whatever this may be. For if a person does certain things, and does not do some others, his gratification should be secure, right? Look at Islam, at JWs, at Roman Catholics… Do this, go there, pray in this way, and you will get your reward. Simple recipe, sometimes many ingredients, but you cannot go wrong as long as you follow the steps.
    Interestingly there is only one spiritual way of grace. I deliberately do not call it ‘religion’, as we know that this notion has been abused for too many for too long.
    God gives to some individuals His free Grace, and Grace starts the whole rebirth process for you. And then what happens is sooo much more living than any laws! Living, always different, always new, and always uplifting and edifying God. Because, as my favourite pastor and singer says and sings: “It’s not about us, it’s all about Him”.
    I wonder if those works-religions really preach that… As legalism is about a believer, mostly, they concentrate on a believer.

    Just my three pence đŸ™‚


  7. I believe this is why Christ said that those that would believe not having seen Him were more blessed than the disciples who believed having witnessed His life first hand. We’re a tangible people (to the point that sometimes we don’t believe something unless it’s on the evening news!) and it is hard for us when we don’t see immediate reaction to wrong.

    Think about child training– we want to be consistant and make sure that the child knows that the discipline is for a specific offense. When it comes to the way God works– the response is not always immediate and I think that makes it harder for us to grasp.

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