If you take Christianity seriously, you’ve probably been called a ‘legalist’ at one point or another. For example,
-Do you think God expects you to obey the Bible to the best of your ability? You’re a ‘legalist.’
-Do you teach that in order to become a Christian, one has to be willing to make tough life-changes? You’re a ‘legalist.’
-Do you like the phrase, “speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent”? Yep, you’re definitely a legalist!
You see, if there’s one religiousy-thing people seem to loathe these days, its legalism. People are passionately against it!
The problem is, most who call others ‘legalists’ usually don’t know what legalism is! But whatever it is, they know they don’t like it!
Let’s take a closer look at legalism:
What Is Legalism? Why Is It So Bad?
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘legalism’? Intolerance? Stubbornness? Close-mindedness? Actually, the dictionary definition is “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code” (Merriam-Webster).
Now what’s so bad about that? Is “strict” and “literal” adherence to the Bible such a bad thing? Of course not! On the contrary, Jesus applauded it! He congratulated the Pharisees for scrupulously following the tithing law, saying, “these you ought to have done” (Luke 11:42). Not once did Jesus condemn anyone for carefully trying to understand and follow God’s Law. In fact, He said,
Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:19, ESV)
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. (1 John 5:2-3)
Therefore, if we are going by the dictionary definition, legalism is a good thing! All Christians, in this sense, should be legalists! Jesus & His apostles expect it!
So what’s the big deal? Legalism becomes a bad thing when it becomes about us rather than about God.
Consider the Pharisees, who were the quintessential legalists. They were never faulted for following the Law, but for why they followed the Law. Jesus said,
Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matt. 23:23)
They neglected “justice and the love of God.” They were carefully following the Law not because they loved God, but because they wanted their “righteousness before other people to be noticed by them” (Matt. 6:1). Jesus said, “I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (John 5:42).
One of the most disgusting sights is a Christian who obviously doesn’t love God. One must “love the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind. This is the first and great commandment” (Matt. 22:37-38). Even if I follow the Bible to a T, if I don’t do it with love, it is worthless (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1-3). God must be the focus of all I do, and all I do must be done out of love for Him.
God Expects His People To Follow His Law
Yes, God expects us to follow His Law, but He wants us to do it because we love Him. Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23).
When you love someone, you want to please that person. If you want to give that person a gift, you want to make sure you give him/her something they will like. Since they may not like what you like, you will naturally pay very close attention to what they like and desire. This is how our relationship with God works. The way He speaks to us is through His Word, so we pay very close attention to what He says. We know His ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8-9), so we do not give Him anything we are not sure He wants. If He commands something, we eagerly obey Him. If He was pleased by something the 1st century Christians did, we assume He expects the same of us today. If this is legalism, than I am a legalist.
A Word Of Encouragement
If you insist on a “strict,” “literal” adherence to the Law, you will be called a ‘legalist.’ But it won’t be because people are tying to compliment you; they’re almost always using it in a derogatory way. But as long as you love God and are sincerely trying to obey Him, remember the words of His Son:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11-12)