“I don’t want to be a legalist, but . . .”
I heard that phrase in a life group once. Someone’s teenage son wanted his girlfriend to be able to spend the night. The parent was against it for moral reasons, but didn’t want to come across as legalistic. “I don’t want to be a legalist, but . . .”
There was a time in American culture when it was taboo for Christians to go to movies, play cards, or go to dances.
Understandably, Christians nowadays want to distance themselves from excessive restrictions which can’t be found in the Bible. Especially in an increasingly post-Christian culture, there is the fear of fixating on restrictions which can unnecessarily hinder people from coming to Christ.
There are also numerous examples of churches that forgot grace in their pursuit of holiness. The emphasis was on telling a particular group of people, “You’re going to hell,” instead of, “All of us were going to hell before Jesus, and Jesus offered us a way out by faith and I took it. Please take it, too.” We fear the legalism that comes when we forget grace.
But at what point does our fear of being legalistic become a fear of speaking moral truth?
This is why definitions are so important.
The Pharisees weren’t being legalistic because they tried to follow God’s ethical instructions. Following God’s commands is simply called obedience. The legalism came when they took their own ethical teachings and put them on the same level as God’s laws. Sometimes they even used their own ethical teachings as excuses not to follow God’s laws. As Jesus put it, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9).
When we let our traditions eclipse God’s commands, we become legalists.
Similarly, the “Judaizers” weren’t being legalistic because they were trying to follow God’s ethical instructions. Again, that’s obedience. Rather, they were being legalistic because they insisted that a person needs to become culturally and religiously Jewish in order to be saved. As Acts 15:1 puts it, “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers, ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’” However, they were wrong. Salvation happens by His grace through our faith (Ephesians 2:8-10).
When we add requirements to be saved which the Bible doesn’t itself add, we become legalists.
Legalism is a form of following the rules well enough that you distinguish yourself from others so that you can say you earned your salvation. This is why legalists add things to scripture. Legalism does the right thing and even more for the wrong reasons. Obsessive comparisons with people come from legalism. Self-salvation comes from legalism.
A heart that obeys, on the other hand, does so because it trusts that Jesus is right about the outcome of sin—sin hurts everyone, including Him.
They obey because they are thankful for what God has done and see obedience as a privilege. It’s like you’re a person lost in the woods at night and someone comes to you with a light to show you the way out of the woods. You don’t say, “Hey! You are limiting my freedom out here!” No, you thank him for saving you, and you want to follow him home.
Legalism is a form of following the rules well enough that you distinguish yourself from others so that you can say you earned your salvation.
Our post-Christian culture gives us a new set of ethical instructions.
For people who grew up in church but were never discipled, it’s easy to change one’s ethical views to match the culture’s. They might have come from families which went to church, but they themselves never really committed to following Jesus no matter what. When such people hear that they must follow Jesus’ commands—especially the ones which are culturally unpopular—it’s easy to dismiss those requirements as “legalism.” But that’s a misuse of the term.