The word legalism is a well known, and potentially overused word in the Christian realm, yet an important one, and probably misunderstood too. In the fifteen years I spent in a legalistic church, it was a word those fake, sincerely wrong, easy believing Christians used to say they could sin whenever they wanted…so I brushed it off.
But after spending some time reading Paul’s works, and especially Romans, I started figuring out what it was, and what God thought about it. As a matter of fact, I realized the only people Jesus Christ judged during his ministry wasn’t the harlot, the adulteress, or the tax collector, it was the legalists.
So what is legalism?
Well, by the Dictionary definition, legalism is defined as excessive adherence to law or formula, but the Theological train of thought on the subject is quite similar but pointedly different: dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.
I believe that falls right in line with Paul’s line of thought in Colossians when he warned the people not to let others draw you away from a true relationship with Christ;
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? – Colossians 2:20-22, KJV
Paul gave us the right way to look at living Holy before God in Romans:
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. – Romans 8:14, KJV
Thus, legalism is the departure of sanctification by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ, trusting in His works for salvation, and replaces it with personal works for salvation.
Furthermore, legalism creates an aura of self-righteousness. As you hold yourself to a standard that you believe makes you more holy, those who do not follow the same standard are then by definition, less holy. The result of this is running around preaching your own gospel of what holy is rather than being led, and letting others be led by the Spirit.
Tragically, and even if a legalist doesn’t run around preaching his/her standards, they will live with glasses colored by their definition of holiness. If other so called Christians don’t live the same way or follow the same standards, legalists tend to cast judgment upon them, which of course Paul warned us against.
Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. – Romans 14:4, KJV
By way of some common examples, the Pentecostal denomination I was part of is well also known as the Holiness movement. In other words, following the John Wesleyen’s Second Works of Grace standard, they believe salvation comes by following certain initial steps (Repentance, Baptism, and Infilling of the Spirit with Speaking in Tongues) but then it must be followed up by adherence to standards of Holiness in order to seal and maintain one’s salvation.
In their case (Pentecostal), Holiness is described as keeping a whole litany of physical restrictions and dress standards – ones that are believed to be required for salvation, under this context;
Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: – Hebrews 12:14, KJV
The primary Old Testament word for holiness means ‘to cut or to separate.’ Fundamentally, holiness is a cutting off or separation from what is unclean, and a consecration to what is pure.” In the New Testament the word for holy, hagios, is the same root word for saint and sanctified.
We are called to be holy, but not legalists, and most especially, not judgemental! The last service I went to in my old church the pastor from the platform literally made fun of those “Christians” that pray silently, shouting, That doesn’t work!, and then making fun of preachers who wear jeans and sit on stools, shouting, That doesn’t work!
That is what legalism does, it places the legalist in the position to privately interpret what is Holy, and then lets you put quotes around other believers as you judge their sincerity, and feel justified that the legalists ways are the more holy ways and only acceptable to God. Yet…
‘They worship Me in vain [their worship is meaningless and worthless, a pretense],
Teaching the precepts of men as doctrines [giving their traditions equal weight with the Scriptures] – Mark 7:7, AMP
The Cure for Legalism
Jesus Christ of course, and His example, and Word!
Look, consider all the times Christ refused to judge, label and do all the nasty things we new-age Christians tend to do. He, of course, used the phrase go and sin no more, yet he saw faith in people, and their desire to be led by the Spirit, and let them.
Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. – Romans 14:22, KJV
Christ looked at the adulteress and saw a heart, not a dress code. Christ healed the Roman Centurians child, seeing the heart of the man, not the pagan background. He called the Tax Collector but saw an Apostle.
The cure for legalism is to have faith in God, to thyself! Let your holiness be a spirit led relationship with Christ. You will not feel superior to other believers if you truly have the Spirit of Christ, you’ll feel a unity in the Spirit. Let Jesus be the judge of the quick and the dead, that is His role, not ours! Ours is to express his love to all that would be willing to look at it, but our behavior determines their willingness.
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – Ephesians 4:1-3
God bless you in your endeavors to Love Christ and to love people!