It is with daily regularity that I encounter certain fellow Christians, although I suppose in some instances they are merely professing Christians, who practice or promote the errors of legalism. I’m sure that we all do, that is, cross paths with people who endorse and encourage some or other form of legalistic practice everyday. The heresy of legalism is rooted in an erroneous teaching or understanding which continually attempts to place the Christian under some or other system of law and thereby attempts to make salvation, or at the very least a few percentage points of our salvation, dependant on man’s own efforts.
Legalism promotes the belief that one can be saved by keeping, or to the best of one’s ability attempting to keep, God’s commandments. Very often adherence to additional rituals and rules are encouraged by the legalistic system in order to retain salvation. Certain aspects of human life are often considered taboo and are presented as being detrimental to the legalist’s success in ‘achieving’ salvation. Legalists believe that they can, through their own efforts at self-righteousness and legal obedience, impress God sufficiently so as to influence His attitude toward them, and therefore reward them with eternal salvation.
Legalism can be described as a false doctrinal position or worldview within certain Christian circles which emphasizes a system of rules, regulations and expectations through which salvation and spiritual growth can be achieved. In other words, it is a system which is in direct opposition to biblical Grace, which explains why the protagonists of and adherents to legalism, always fail to reach a position of assurance in their faith and in their relationships with God. When you speak to the legalist, you always realize how they cling to lingering doubts regarding their salvific position, as they never can be sure whether they have actually been ‘good’ or ‘obedient’ enough or whether they have performed up to a standard in their lives which God would find acceptably righteous.
Tragically, an additional result of legalism within churches or fellowships, is that very often those who do not strictly conform to the same legalistic prescriptions or traditions as the rest of the group, are simply isolated from that fellowship by the legalistic members. Common examples of this are found among those who hold to the belief that to be regarded as saved, one must by necessity not be a smoker, not make use of alcohol, not partake in dancing, not practice any form of gambling or betting, not read secular books, not watch secular movies or television, not listen to or play secular music and not break any moral laws.
Legalists often cite various forms of modern or secular music as being of particular spiritual danger. It is almost as if they are implying that modern or secular music itself, comprised of a combination of sound waves, by its very nature can transfer demonic attributes and needs to be avoided in an attempt to protect their salvation. The very same legalists usually compare modern forms of music to older styles, which they are convinced are somehow safer and more acceptable to God. In their wild attempts to add to God’s commandments and to the Gospel of grace, these legalists forget that the old music was once also modern and popular and that many of the composers of old music were equally as lost souls as are many of the modern artists. This same argument is made for and against worship music, and why legalistically traditional ancient hymns are somehow spiritually superior, how the message just somehow seems more honourable, but this is all a subject for another post.
I’ve heard the same unfounded warnings and arguments made against the drumming or dancing rituals of pagan cultures; that evil spirits can be delivered straight into the psyche of the legalist simply by their participation as an observer to these “sessions”. If that were possible, it naturally poses the question as to how weak the saving spirit is that these legalists perceive as supposedly having sealed their faith in the first place? How could it possibly be the same Holy Spirit spoken of as sealing the believer in Ephesians 1:13 and Ephesians 4:30, who would so easily be forced out of the believer to make space for the new pagan evil spirit proceeding from a drum beat? I doubt whether it could be that same blessed and omnipotent Holy Spirit. I know the God of the true Christian is all-powerful and will not allow Himself to be tossed out from His own.
The list of perceived restrictions on the believer seems to be endless and what makes it even more ludicrous is that, as cultural and social changes slowly take place and the world undergoes technological advancements and grows in diversity, the list gets added to on a daily basis. The truth is that avoiding all these things is no guarantee of spirituality. Legalism is simply an attempt to hide sin from others behind a curtain of false righteousness and implied holiness.
The apostle Paul gives us clear warning against these forms of legalism: Colossians 2:20-23 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch’! These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Legalists might have the appearance of being righteous and even spiritual, but they fail in all their attempts, simply because their legalism is aimed at improving outward (external) performance instead of affecting inward change.
In addition, the words of the apostle John remind us how to deal with legalism before we embark on some self improvement program, some success motivated outcome based plan, or try to combine Christianity with a materialistically successful way of life: John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ and also in Romans 14:10 You, then, why do you judge your brother?, Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat
While all Christians should will for their faith to increase, those who have given their lives to Christ realize that the success does not come through our own human efforts. We always fail. Faith is from God, a gift freely given, not earned or deserved. From 1 Corinthians 4:7 we understand the following: “For who sees anything different in you? (What makes you better than anyone else?) What do you have that you did not receive (from God)? If then you received it (everything you have), why do you boast as if you did not receive it (and rather earned it yourself)? ”
Christians are instructed to learn from God’s Word, to learn about His justice, His love, His will and His plan (Titus 1:13-14). We should wait upon the Lord to reveal Himself to us and bring change in us according to His will. Matthew 7:7-8 assures us that those who seek God will find Him. Is there more that we can do for ourselves through legalism and adherence to man’s commands, that Almighty God cannot do for us? As God changes us, we will do what is pleasing to Him by way of the Holy Spirit who guides us. Colossians 2:6-8 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Emphasis my own.)
God will use trials to test our faith 1 Peter 1:6-7 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Therefore, God Himself will test us through trials and temptations: how can we expect legalism of any kind to stand against God?Mission impossible. Christians hold to the hope of success over sin by His grace, through the blood of His Son, for there is absolutely nothing we can do ourselves to impress God. Contrary to the message preached by legalists and churches of a more Arminian persuasion, and contrary to the works-based gospel of the Roman Catholic church, we cannot manipulate God’s will by our good deeds (legalism).
I received a request from a dear fellow believer to write a post regarding the balance of not being legalistic but still honouring God. I think the question is not so much a matter of balancing legalism while still honouring God or of how much legalism we can retain. Rather, the question should be as to how much legalism we need to get rid of in order to honour God. The answer to that question is “All of it! Every single shred!”. By us retaining any legalism whatsoever, we dishonour God.
God hates all forms of self-imposed legalism, even our best efforts at doing good: Isaiah 64:6 But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. Romans 3:20 tells us: Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
It is clear that no legalistic practice can honour Him or bring Him glory. The law brought death and bondage to sin and therefore it was the one thing which Jesus condemned in the strongest possible language when He addressed the Pharisees. Their self-righteous legalistic messages and reliance on the law, their sacrifices and traditions which they assumed would impress God and sufficiently pay for sinful practices, is what moved Jesus to refer to legalists as a brood (generation) of vipers (Matthew 23:28-33).
In Christian Legalism: Mission Impossible (Part2) I will post an article by Don Koenig on the same subject. It is certainly worth a read. From his article I borrow these words: “Unless you are in leadership in a legalistic church and have great influence to change things, find a new church that understands about the Law of Faith and gives Christians the freedom in Christ that Jesus gives. Leave the legalistic Christian pastors alone to teach legalistic Christians who love their exclusive club of bondage. The scriptures are clear man is saved by believing that Jesus is God’s Savior plus nothing.”
Here follow a few quick statements about legalism:
# Legalism attempts to base salvation on the performance of good works or on the strict observance of rules and regulations
# Legalism imposes rules on self and others that are not based on clear biblical teachings
# Legalism or asceticism is that which leads the believer away from absolute reliance upon Christ toward a self-confidence based on his ability to do or to abstain from certain things not specifically commended or prohibited in Scripture
# The legalist believes his works earn or keep his salvation, while the child of God understands that he is living the way he does because they are saved
# Legalism is both a highly contagious and deadly disease which can go undetected and show no fatal symptoms for a long period of time
# If someone realized they were bound by legalism they would surely put an end to it.
# It is easier for a sinner to realize that he is a sinner, than for a legalist to realize that he is a legalist.
# The difference between the legalist and someone who possesses true righteousness is the motive of the heart.
# The apostle Paul warned about an ascetic legalism that was attacking the first-century church in Colossians 2:18-23.
18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,
19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations–
21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”
22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings?
23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
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