We as a Church are so quick to cry, “legalism.” We throw that word around with, arguably, little understanding of what it truly means.
Legalism is the human effort to win over the approval of God or peers through doing things, or abstaining from things. It focuses on good deeds, attempting to gain the favor of God, rather than on the heart of the believer. Legalism primarily emphasizes outward behaviors while neglecting the observance of internal, prideful motivations. The focus of legalism is misdirected as the ability of man rather than the depravity of man. To be a legalist is to prioritize a narrow, rigid moral code above the gracious Truth of the Gospel. The product of legalism is a religion of works, a religion far from the Christianity established by Christ’s teachings.
To state the assumed obvious: legalism is deplorable to Christ. The Lord’s primary concern is the state of our heart, which for the legalist is blackened by selfishness. We see this in Luke when Jesus comes to eat with the Pharisees.
Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? Luke 11:37-41
My argument and intent in this writing is not to define what legalism is, but rather to examine common areas of expectations of the Body of Christ that are erringly deemed legalistic. Concisely, to describe what legalism isn’t.
A life of striving for righteousness and holiness is not legalism, it is a life demonstrating the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a life that interprets Scripture literally and takes seriously its commands:
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14
I’ve had countless conversations on this matter and I wish I had a dollar for each time I have heard the repeated argument “it’s not about your works.”
True. The salvation that is made possible through Jesus’s death and resurrection is not made available by meeting some threshold of good works. Not even slightly. But while salvation is an incredibly generous gift that is not warranted by human actions, receiving salvation and becoming a disciple of Jesus is a calling to a life held to a new, higher, holy standard.
So while it is true that faith in Jesus Christ is not a matter of doing good works in order to hold on to salvation, James makes clear that faith without works is dead. A life yielded to the Spirit of our Lord will bear fruit–it will demonstrate works of obedience to the commands of Scripture. We as Christians are quick to confuse obedience with legalism. Holding believers of the Gospel to the standard of obeying God’s Word is not promoting legalism–it is living out the desire God had for the members of His Kingdom.
The freedom of Christ is not the freedom to disobey God with expectation of unconditional forgiveness, but rather freedom from the binding sin of the world. Living under grace is to live a life so understanding of the grace of the Lord, that the heart is drawn to obedience out of reverence. Of course, in cases of genuine repentance, sin is washed clean. But a heart of “ask forgiveness not permission” towards God is a severely misdirected heart.
A life striving to please God with every single choice is not legalistic:
Choosing to not listen to music, or watch TV shows or movies that promote behaviors that are entirely displeasing to God and deplored within Scripture is not legalism. How often we, especially the believers of my generation, pursue pop culture above righteousness. We preach that there is continual sacrifice involved in being a believer, but when that sacrifice involves admitting that Beyonce, Kanye, Nicki, and the vast majority of popular artists glorify behaviors that we would be appalled by if they took place by a believer in the pulpit in church, we are quick to defend our preferences and habits.
“Just because I listen to these words, doesn’t mean they change my actions.”
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Phil. 4:8
Do we overlook this command? Do we choose to ignore it for the sake of entertainment? For the sake of having common interest with our peers? Do we forsake the commands of Scripture for a good beat?
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Colossians 3:5-6
Perhaps these choices do not reflect a heart pursuing such immorality or impurity, but to choose to ignore the immorality and impurity that we condone while watching and listening is to revere these outlets over the glorification of God.
Similarly, it is not legalistic to set standards of engaging God in devotions daily, having routine prayer, or sharing the good news of the Gospel every day. It is not legalistic to abstain from using crude language, to not join in on the Cards Against Humanity game, or to skip the trip to the bars.
We cannot keep promoting that it is legalistic for a Christian to make their pursuit to please God by the way they live. We must aim to please the Lord in all moments–it is a mandate of the God we serve.
We must examine our actions and we must let this examination make it past the initial defense of “legalistic standards”.
We must start being willing to truly yield all areas of life to the glorification of the Kingdom of God.