There is a ton of confusion about legalism. I have written previous blog entries where I look back upon now and realize I was utterly confused on some things as well. I read a great article by John Piper that provoked some more thought on this topic. You can read it here:
I hope to take some of the things John Piper wrote and maybe simplify and expand upon the subject if I may. First, we must define what we are talking about!
Legalism usually is thought to mean when a church sets up rules outside of Scripture and forces them upon the congregation unBiblically. That is one definition, but the scope of this small post has to do with another form of legalism. This form is the kind that causes probably the most damange in the body of Christ. It is not something that belongs only to the cultists and the pagans. It finds itself in every corner of the common Christian church.
This kind of legalism is defined most simply as "moral goodness that is not done in faith". Some expansion upon this is required since "moral goodness" and "done in faith" are somewhat vague in themselves. Moral goodness refers to things that are morally upright. In this definition they are usually things that are perceptable, as well, which ties into our second key phrase in the definition. "Done in faith" means with an eye upon Christ, knowing that we are not righteous but are freed and accounted righteous before God solely by His righteousness. Doing a good deed in faith is doing it with no regard to its merit before God, before others, or before yourself. It is doing the good deed out of love and gratitude for Christ who alone has saved you by His goodness and perfection. So, legalism is doing that which is considered morally good with one eye upon ourselves. If they are things that are perceptable, it because the legalist wishes to appear moral before others or exalt themselves above others in their own hearts. Legalism means the one who does good is either doing the good out of fear of punishment or to glory in themselves. This is what we mean by doing moral deeds apart from faith.
Here is a Scriptural example of legalism: the Pharisees. They were very serious about the Law of God, being good, being moral, and showing others the "right path". The had rules about how to keep rules! But the basis of their system was pure legalism. It was about the Law and how it made them look and stand, not the Lawgiver Himself. They gloried in themselves, believing they were meriting God's favor, meriting the honor and approval of men, and being "all they can be".
"But isn't doing good a good thing?" Consider this: doing what we call "good" in a spirit of legalism is a slap in the face to God. It is defective, perverse, and un-good. It is re-asserting our independence from Him and seeking to bask in the glory of self. Piper, in that article, notes...
"The reason some Pharisees tithed and fasted was the same reason some German
university students take off their clothes and lie around naked in the park in
downtown Munich. The moral legalist is always the elder brother of the immoral
prodigal. They are blood brothers in God's sight because both reject the
sovereign mercy of God in Christ as a means to righteousness and use either
morality or immorality as a means of expressing their independence and
self-sufficiency and self-determination. And it is clear from the N.T. that both
will result in a tragic loss of eternal life."
I think that is dead-on and pretty insightful, actually.
So all of this begs the question... "What is legalism not?" For a Christian saved by grace to seek to obey God to the utmost out of love and affection and honor toward Him is never legalism. Exhorting a Christian to do good deeds and flee from sin is not legalism.
So aren't all of us legalists?
When it comes down to it we all have a tinge legalism it in varying degrees, yes. Our flesh, the "old man", is a dyed-in-the-wool legalist. So long as those who are Christ's battle the flesh, they will battle this. However, the point in this is not to make two lists: legalists on one, and "non-legalists" on the other. The point is identifying a real problem that is un-Biblical, seeing what things encourage it, what the effects are, and how to kill it. And one more thing to keep in mind... it is one thing to recognize something in ourselves that is wicked and to desire to put it to death, but it is quite another to encourage this wickedness and use the fact that all people struggle with it in some manner as an excuse for it.
There is a noticeable fallout from this type of thing within a church. Sometimes it is encouraged by the preaching, sometimes just by the attitude of some in the body, and sometimes both. It is recognizeable, though.
First, it can be recognized by a true lack of grace and compassion for sinners. Maybe there is some compassion for sinners who don't yet know the Lord -we tend to call this evangelism, but for Christians in the body there is none. If a Christian sins in a way that others find out about it, especially in something that is considered a "big sin" like adultery, people act as if they can never get over it -even when repentance is present. It is like their repentance is never genuine enough for the others to accept. Some even go out of their way to make an example of that person and condemn them before others.
Second, it can be recognized by a zeal for outward things and public display. Doing things that might be misconstrued as being bad by others -even when there is really no Scriptural mandate for it- are immediately shunned. You can never go and sit at a bar or a pool hall, for example. In contrast, the things that are hyped up are things where a good deal of public attention will be given to the good being performed.
Notice both of these things were also present with the Pharisees and Jesus condemned them severely for it. These are only signs of the third proble, though, which cannot be seen by itself: hardness of heart. This kind of legalism leads to hardness of heart, which in turn leads to these other things.
So good, we know what it is, and its bad, but how do you kill it? The Word of God working by the Holy Spirit kills it. This is how Jesus dealt with it. For the broken sinner, He showed grace, but for the hardened legalist, like the Pharisee, he gave Law to shame them and expose their sin. This is seen beautifully in the story of the woman caught in adultery.
1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to
the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The
scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and
placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been
caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such
women. So what do you say?" 6 This they said to test him, that they might have
some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on
the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them,
"Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." 8
And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it,
they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left
alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her,
"Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11 She said, "No one, Lord."
And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more."
So how do you fight legalism? Ironically to some, by establishing the Law in its true and full force to kill pride and self-glorying, and establishing the Gospel of Christ for mercy for all those (even Christians) broken under their sin. In short, we kill it by Biblically establishing those bookends I have already talked about in another post.
You can read that post here.