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“You’re Just A Legalist!”

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LegalismIf 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)

John wrote,

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)

One Response to “You’re Just A Legalist!”

  1. Caleb Guard April 8, 2013 at 9:28 PM #

    Ben, I appreciate your zeal and desire to serve God. I agree with you fully that we should seek to be obedient to God and never waver from the faith when we are persecuted by being called names.

    However, I would be careful about claiming that Jesus wanted his disciples to be legalists. The Oxford English dictionary definition of legalism when used in a theological context is thus:
    “Dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.”

    It is almost always used pejoratively and is never taken to mean a mere desire to obey law. The term is usually used to describe superficial and/or prideful focus on the law, or a focus on law that neglects mercy and grace. “Law for law’s sake”, law as the end and not a means. Legalism usually involves obedience, rather than faith, as the principle means of salvation.

    In Romans 1:5 we are told that we have received Grace to bring about obedience. Acts 5:29, 32; Romans 16:19; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Hebrews 5:9 and other passages show that obedience, faith and grace are all central to our citizenship in the kingdom and our salvation in God. But legalism, “law-ism”, is a preoccupation with the law aspect, which ultimately leads to abuse of law, as when a scribe might condemn rescuing a mule from a ditch on the Sabbath because the law does say not to work on the Sabbath.

    It is for this reason I cannot see legalism in a positive light. We may rejoice in persecution because a misguided soul called us “legalist” for our obedience, but I cannot agree that this makes the term itself good or what it means good. If I am called such a name, I will take the time to reflect on what I believe about the law to be sure I am not a legalist. I would not want to be called a “legalist” for my obedience than I would want to be called an opposite term like “liberal”, “antinomian”, or “licensual” for my belief in the Grace of God or the power of faith. The Gospel is clear that it is not the law that saves us, so “law-ism”, legalism, cannot be fruitful if we look at what it means, especially in the context in which it is often used.

    However, I am confident that this disagreement is over the meaning of a word, and not over scripture. Grace and peace to you.


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