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The Danger of Legalism

September 22, 2019
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Note: In planning this blog series on grace I felt I wanted to cover the subject of legalism in some depth. I have asked my good friend, Pastor Joe Cassada, of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Maryland Heights, Missouri, to address this topic for us. This is the first of several posts covering the topic.

Legalism is a word that has received quite a bit of attention – usually because it used as a blunt force instrument. For example, Christians of the fundamentalist stripe have frequently been accused of beating people over the heads with the Bible, but if such a pugilistic spirit does find expression in our ranks, I think it is sometimes because we are simply trading blows with those that beat us over the head with the charge that we are being legalists or pharisees. In fact, it would seem the favorite punching bag of the young Christian social media phenoms is the previous generation’s legalism. Sometimes the punches land squarely on the nose, and other times they are wild swings whiffing through the air.

When traipsing through social media, it doesn’t take long before one comes across some fresh-faced video maven who is waxing eloquent about how “it’s about a relationship, not a religion.” His sweet words and sincere looks are convincing, and it’s easy to finish watching his four to seven minute sound-bite-sermon thinking that Jesus loves me so much he doesn’t really care what I do or how I live. Because “legalism is bad, and most Christians are judgmental prudes. But Jesus is totally cool. Maybe I should I get a tattoo just to prove to everyone that I am totally not a legalist” – or so the thinking goes.

Little effort is needed to find some zealous (and vocal) opponent of legalism who confesses to have “really struggled with it” in the past, and who now is apparently delivered of its powers. The evidence they offer for their deliverance is that they dress down for Sunday morning church, rap the snare drum for worship, and prater on pretentiously about their favorite microbrewery. They didn’t used to do those things, but now they do because they’re not legalists anymore. Of course, the suits-and-ties crowd cringe and bristle at stuff like that. They swear they aren’t legalists because “legalism is works salvation and we obviously don’t believe in that. And to prove we don’t believe in that let me remind you that we go soul winning every week for at least one hour. Every week. For one hour. At least. Exactly as the Bible says. Because if we didn’t, we would be backslidden. But then, if we were backsliding, we would be sure to hit the altar after the sermon to get right…of course we will do that anyways because if we don’t hit the altar, then that means we’re backslidden. Just like the Bible says. But, we’re not legalists. The Catholics are, but we aren’t. We don’t do empty rituals.”

By now you’ve picked up on the sarcasm, so let me just be frank: legalism is misunderstood and misdefined, and because of this it goes undetected and untreated. Like a cancer, it grows and corrupts individuals, families, and entire churches and denominations. It’s sneaky, deceptive, and a master of disguise. It’s the proverbial beam in our eye.

Permit me to continue the personification: legalism is a disgusting little monster that doesn’t care about your biases, creeds, or church’s statement of faith. Legalism is the slithering imp that is able to worm his way into your heart regardless of your profession of salvation by faith alone. He doesn’t care that you hate legalism in other people either, because he is all the happier to make a warm home in your own dark carnality (and antinomianism is one of his favorite roommates).

That’s the really terrifying thing about legalism: it doesn’t follow our stereotypes; it follows us. The starched-collar-preacher and the skinny-jeans-worship leader can both be guilty of it – and to the same degree. And while they throw stones at each other marked “liberal” and “pharisee,” the Devil laughs. If there is one area in the Christian life that we should stop pointing fingers and hurling insults without first seriously looking to our Savior and humbly asking “Lord, is it I?” this is that one area. The purpose of this piece is not to lampoon the caricatures of the culture spectrum, but to remind us all, whether young or old, whether #oldpaths or #newIFB; that this fight against legalism is every man’s fight, and your respective corners of the cultural boxing ring do not necessarily place you closer or further away from legalism’s insidious influence. Because wherever you go, you take him with you, son of Adam.

Legalism is a dangerous and hellish sin because it can grow like a weed even in soil that is on fire for God. Legalism is a sin that is capable of surviving massive doses of revivalism, righteous indignation, and well-intentioned reform. Legalism is not afraid of the fiery pulpit, the open Bible, or the bent knee.

Legalism will go with you to church and sit right next to you for worship. But he will also tag along to the bar and high-five some of his other friends that are frequently there. And legalism will hold your hand while you read your Bible and pat your back when you say your prayers. He won’t mind if you light up a stogie and proclaim your Christian liberty to all your Instagram followers. He’s down with that too, as the kids say. He’s just at home with the hipster in the tattoo parlor as he is the stuffed-shirt traditionalist in the sanctuary.

Herein is the terrifying danger of legalism: it loves sin and morality both. He fears neither conservative values nor progressive ideas. He is the ultimate chameleon.

Legalism loves how we’ve turned his sin into a generational issue, as if it wasn’t a matter of every individual’s heart. It’s the older folks who are the legalists, right? Legalism loves how the younger evangelicals carry on like craft beer is some kind of vaccination against it – or how so many think that encamping along the extreme edge of the gray areas is a sure-fire way to escape the touch of legalism. It isn’t. “How can I be a legalist when I embrace all the seedy elements of the subculture that my parents rejected? Jesus ate with sinners and hated the religious right, and so do I.”

Oh, foolish Christian! You play right into the enemy’s hands!

Legalism loves how the older folks tend to think that since they profess salvation by faith alone, then they are quite safe from any charge of legalism. They aren’t, because legalism isn’t segregated along denominational boundaries and doctrinal definitions alone. Legalism breeds just as well under conditions that are officially sola fide.

Wake up! Your Webster’s Dictionary definition of legalism doesn’t go far enough. You’re bringing a knife to a gun fight

There are two popular definitions of legalism that are leading people right into the trap: one is the idea that legalism is being too strict. I think an honest assessment would show that though most deny such a technical definition of legalism, it is nevertheless the most practical application of it. According  to this is common paradigm, the legalist is simply the guy who is stricter than me

The other definition that tends to hinder our victory over legalism is the understanding that legalism is only in believing that salvation can be attained through obedience to the Mosaic law. And while this is technically a true part of the theological understanding of legalism, it should not be our entire understanding of legalism. So, on the one hand, legalism is treated as merely old-fashioned strictness that is out of style and needs to catch up with the times, and on the other hand it is viewed only as bad doctrine that is easily rejected. But at its root, legalism is a grace-abusing condition of the heart that robs the Christian of true joy and communion with God.

Knowing your enemy is fundamental for victory on the battlefield, and having a biblical definition of legalism is essential to defeating it in your own heart. Since such an important term deserves careful attention, we will let the Bible (not the dictionary or our own prejudices) define legalism for us. This we will work through next time.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Concerning Jesus Blog. Used by permission.


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