First of all, in this discussion, we need to define legalistic.
The dictionary defines legalism as this:
excessive adherence to law or formula.
dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.
“Legal” has to do with the law.
of, based on, or concerned with the law.
appointed or required by the law.
relating to theological legalism.
permitted by law.
“-ism” has to do with adherence to a certain practice.
Ism: a suffix appearing in loanwords from Greek, where it was used to form action nouns from verbs (baptism); on this model, used as a productive suffix in the formation of nouns denoting action or practice, state or condition, principles, doctrines, a usage or characteristic, devotion or adherence, etc. (criticism; barbarism; Darwinism; despotism; plagiarism; realism; witticism; intellectualism).
So legalism is, by the way that the word was formed, a way to describe adherence to the law.
I was once told that legalism is a good thing.
Is that true?
Is adherence to law a good thing?
Well, that depends on what law you’re adhering to.
There are 3 possibilities that I can think of:
1) Adherence to Old Testament law or the Mosaic Law (called Judaizing)
2) Adherence to man-made law which may include various parts of the Mosaic law or human tradition or sense of morality (called moralism)
3) Adherence to the law of Christ (which is defined by grace instead of law and not what people mean when they say legalism).
If you’re describing following Jesus’ law as legalism, then, by all means, follow Jesus!
But that’s not how I’m using it. That’s not what people mean when they say legalism. I’ve never heard legalism used to describe following Christ biblically.
So if you’re legalistic, you’ve got a problem: you’re not following the bible correctly.
Legalism is used to refer to adhering to rules instead of living by faith.
It is used in contrast to salvation and living by faith alone.
People like to be legalistic so that they have something to boast about. Grace through faith gives us nothing to boast about and takes the pride and self-glorification out of the picture.
People want to think they are better than other people, therefore, they’re drawn to lists of rules to make themselves feel better.
But that’s not what the gospel or Christian living is about. It’s not about making ourselves feel better that we can follow a list of rules.
Salvation is by grace so that we can’t boast.
We are not even able to follow Christ except God makes us alive in Christ and empowers us to live for Him.
Legalism is usually used to describe the first two options in our list above: it is either Judaizing or moralism.
Legalism usually focuses on adding rules to what God has commanded or claiming that God wants us to live by man’s sense of morality.
Legalism is not a new concept. The Pharisees were guilty of being legalistic.
How were the Pharisees legalistic?
If you’re familiar with Old Testament, you’ll remember that in the time of the Old Testament prophets, Israel was judged for not following the commands in the Law of Moses (Mosaic Law). They were taken captive and moved away from their homeland. In an effort to keep their people from breaking the Law and being punished again, the leaders of the Jews made additional rules on top of the Mosaic Law. Their intentions were actually honorable, but their method was wrong.
The problem comes when you say “Thus saith the Lord,” when the Lord has not thus said.
“So for the Pharisees, they not only tried to follow the 613 commandments of the Mosaic Law but the literally thousands of new commandments that were created to clarify the original 613 commandments.”
It wasn’t good enough for them to have one single rule to keep the Sabbath day holy, for example. No, they had to specify in which ways you would or wouldn’t be keeping the Sabbath holy. They added thousands of rules just about how to keep the Sabbath day.
Jesus came along and challenged their rules when he walked through fields on the Sabbath and picked grain to eat. This was something that was not against the Mosaic Law but was against the Pharisees’ extra rules, against their legalism. The Pharisees were not happy!
Even the New Testament has laws, rules for living, the Law of Christ if you will. So, how do you know if you’re adhering to the right law? How do you know if you’re just obeying the Bible or if you’re being legalistic?
1) Was the rule given to a different people in a different time (ie, not Gentiles in the Age of Grace)?
2) If it was given during another time, does the context indicate that it’s a rule for all people in all time?
3) Is it repeated as a command in the New Testament?
As we’ve discussed before, God, though Paul, said the Law is finished and we no longer have to follow it. Then, to clarify –because He’s not a God who makes us guess– He inspired New Testament writers to restate or mention the commands again if they still applied today.
How else would we know what commands had ended and which hadn’t?
So, if it’s not repeated in the New Testament, you don’t have to do it. It’s not a command to us today.
It’s that simple.
For instance, every one of the Ten Commandments was repeated except keeping the Sabbath day holy. That’s why we don’t rest on Saturday. Biblically, we do not have to.
Those who claim that Sunday is the new Sabbath are twisting scripture. The Bible never says that. In fact, the book of Colossians has specific commands against judging each other on the basis of who keeps the Sabbath.
People try to say that there are all kinds of commands today solely based on Old Testament laws: women must only wear women’s clothes, we must tithe 10 percent, and many other Old Testament concepts that are not repeated in the New Testament. People also try to add to scripture, for instance, saying that it is wrong to drink alcohol when the scripture only says to get drunk.
Remember, we can’t say, “Thus saith the Lord” if the Lord has not thus said.
The most common type of legalism I see is people adding man-made rules to scripture.
Now, I make rules for my own family all the time. How do I know when I crossed from making reasonable rules to being legalistic?
The difference is this: do I try to say God is commanding everyone else to abide by my rules?
For instance, if I make a rule for my children –that they may only be online for one hour in the evening and in the same room with me, in an effort to keep them away from sinful things online like pornography– is that legalistic? No, not really.
What if I start telling everyone else that they’re disobeying God or not saved because they’re not doing the same thing with their children’s internet time as I am?
Making rules for my own family is not legalistic.
But, when I start…
–saying my rules are God’s rules,
–mistreating or judging others for not obeying my rules,
–saying they’re in disobedience to God or not saved,
…then I’ve crossed over into being legalistic.
I’ve mentioned before that unless you can back a rule up with a clear New Testament passage, you can’t say that it’s a rule for today.
God doesn’t make us guess about what He wants us to do. That’s not the kind of god He is.
Unfortunately, we’re often so busy worrying about man-made rules that we ignore actual verses that are commands.
If the command has to do with the exterior, we can be pretty certain that it doesn’t apply today (with a few exceptions).
God’s way more concerned about your heart than your clothes! And, we’re repeatedly told in scripture not to judge someone based on their appearance.
Do you try to enforce your sense of morality on other people?
Can you back up your position with clear New Testament scripture?
Do you judge or mistreat people who don’t abide by your sense of right and wrong –even if it’s not backed up by scripture?
Do you understand the concepts of Christian stewardship and liberty?
Do you understand that the Old Testament is history and that those commands in the Mosaic Law (and during previous dispensations) do not apply today?
Are you trying to still follow the Mosaic Law even though 9 out of 13 Pauline epistles warn about the dangers of trying to follow the Mosaic Law and even though the New Testament is clear that the Law has passed away and is finished?
Jesus had some strong things to say about the Pharisees who tried to add to scripture, add to what the Bible commands, and who made rules where God did not.
Jesus called them whitewashed sepulchers!
May we have a proper understanding of scripture and not put ourselves in bondage to a law that couldn’t save and only served to remind that we needed a Savior. Even in the Old Testament times, the Law was pointing toward Jesus, showing that no one could be good and everyone needed Jesus.
We have that Savior now and do not need the Law.
Let’s keep the Mosaic law in a proper perspective –as part of Bible history– as it should be.