The Heart of Legalism
Conformity to Human Standards
I love the story told by Richard Foster of an influential businessman who had heard of the reputation of a certain man called Hans the tailor. This businessman wanted to look his best and brag about having something made by Hans, so when he visited the city in which the renowned tailor had his shop, he went to get a suit fitted.
A few days later the young man returned to pick up his suit. But when he got it the man noticed that one sleeve was twisted one way and the other sleeve another. Also, one shoulder bulged and another caved in.
After much pushing and twisting, the businessman finally got into the suit. He then took the bus home and on the trip met another passenger. The passenger, seeing his odd appearance, asked the man if Hans had made the suit. After the businessman said yes, his new friend then said: "Indeed Hans is truly a genius since only he could make a suit to fit such a deformed man as you!"
We may find this story amusing, but isn't that what many churches and individual Christians do with people? They get this idea of what Christianity should look like and then they shove their people into the most horrible configurations and make them fit into their molds, even if Scripture doesn't say anything about looking this way. That, in a nutshell, is at the heart of legalism and the Bible speaks out adamantly against it.
The Apostle Paul, who had to deal with legalists in his day, told the Christians at Colosse:
"Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence" (Colossians 2:20-23).
Simply put, legalism is a system of beliefs or rituals that people believe must be adhered to in order to obtain or retain favor with the God of the universe. For those who don't know Christ, legalism is adding anything to salvation besides accepting the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross by grace through faith in him in order to allow you to have a relationship with God.
For the believer, it is having to do certain deeds or refrain from certain deeds in order to be thought a "good" or "holy" Christian. It is saying that, although you are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, sanctification is a matter of submitting to certain rules and regulations or religious standards. So a person's progress in spirituality is judged by how rigidly they adhere to laws that are imposed.
Not that following these things are always bad in and of themselves. For instance, some think that a good Christian doesn't smoke or drink. Smoking has been proven hazardous to your health and your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. But there were several godly men who smoked before the Surgeon General told us this such as C.H. Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, and Johnathan Edwards. These were great men of God who did wonderful things for the Lord. They were used mightily by him. Don't get me wrong. I am not advocating smoking. I am simply pointing out that this can be made into an issue that separates a believer in Christ from a fellow believer.
And of course, drinking can lead to alcoholism and the misuse of it has lead to all sorts of sins. However, there is nothing in Scripture that forbids the use of alcohol in moderation. Rather excessive use is forbidden and getting drunk or allowing yourself to be brought under the control of alcohol rather than the Holy Spirit is a sin (Ephesians 5:18).
Legalism comes in many different forms. For instance, some churches have a certain dress code for their parishioners. Men may have to wear suits and ties and women may have to wear dresses. That was especially true several years ago.
Some say you should never go to movies, dance, or listen to certain forms of music. In a few churches, you cannot use musical instruments for the worship service because you have to make melody in your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19). I have even heard of a church that said that mothers should only breastfeed and not ever use a formula for their infants.
The trouble with legalism is that it deals with the outward appearance. Salvation by God's grace deals with the heart. The Bible says that if any man is in Christ he is a new creature (II Corinthians 5:17). It is the Lord who changes the Christian and gives them new desires. A changed heart leads to a changed life. And change usually happens over time as the person matures in Christ. It isn't something that can be manufactured by adhering to certain rules and regulations.
The Pharisees in Jesus' day were great at obeying the rules. And they thought that they had a special relationship with God because of it. But this is what Jesus said of them:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity. In the same way, you appear to be righteous on the outside, but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matthew 23:27,28).
A One Minute Lesson on Legalism
II. Defining the Christian Life
The Bible teaches that salvation and the Christian life are, from start to finish, a work of God. "Paul says:
"For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).
Our new life in Christ is a result of God's grace or unmerited favor received by faith and there is nothing we can do to win or deserve God's love (Ephesians 2:8,9). Indeed, the Lord loved us when we were sinners and when we were his enemies (Romans 5:8-10).
Paul even goes so far as to say that we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and God predestined us to be his children (Ephesians 1:1-4). It is hard to do anything to merit God's favor when we didn't exist yet!
Even when the Bible tells us to work out our own salvation it makes it clear that it is a supernatural work being done through us:
In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul writes:
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his purpose."
Nothing that we could ever do could make God love us more. And nothing that we could ever do could make him love us less. Legalism is diametrically opposed to grace because it says that man can do something to be in a right standing before a holy God.
The Bible teaches that Christ became sin for us even though he knew no sin so that we could receive his righteousness (II Corinthians 5:19-21). Any favor that we have or ever will have is not because of our own merit but because of the righteousness that we acquired by placing our faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who bore our sins on the cross (I Peter 2:24).
Also, anything that we do that is pleasing to God is because of the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit of God that dwells in us. That is why it is called the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22,23. And Jesus said in John 15:5 that:
"I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."
The Christian life is not you doing things to please God. It is God working to bring about his glory through us. Those who please the Lord are those who are already in a right standing before him, not those seeking to try to be in or remain in a right standing with God.
III. Legalism Changes the Gospel
One of Paul's harshest and most angry letters was written to the Galatian Christians. In the city of Galatia, there were some people, who have since become known as the Judaizers, who were trying to teach the believers there a form of legalism. They taught that in order to be saved a person had not only to accept Christ as their Savior, they also had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Here is what Paul had to say about this:
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:6-9).
We could easily paraphrase the words "let him be accursed" as "let him be devoted to eternal destruction in hell." Paul had no room for either adding to or taking away from the Gospel that the Lord had delivered to him. But that is what happens anytime legalism is involved. It puts the emphasis on man and not God. It brings glory to the individual and not to the Lord. Legalism takes the one time death of Jesus Christ on the cross and says that it just isn't enough when Scripture plainly teaches that it is enough (Hebrews 10:14). It changes the Gospel of Grace and makes it into a gospel of works (Titus 3:5).
The truth is that good works are a part of the Gospel in that they are a result of it and not the cause. A living fruit tree produces fruit and a living Christian produces good works. If God's life is in you, then your life will demonstrate that fact. Paul tells us that we are saved by grace through faith in Ephesians 2:8,9. But in 2:10 he goes on to say:
"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
As stated earlier, legalism's motive for doing anything is to gain the favor or retain the favor of Almighty God. Christianity says that the Christian already has favor with God and that we serve him out of gratitude for that fact. It is such a freeing notion to know for sure that our relationship with God is as a Father and his child and nothing that we can do will change that fact (I John 3:1; I John 5:13). He may correct us as any good father may do, but will never forsake us (Hebrews 12:7; I Corinthians 11:31,32).
There is a poem that I am told comes from John Bunyan. It goes like this:
"Run, Run the law commands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
Better news the gospel brings.
It bids me fly and gives me wings!"
The Christian life is not hard, it is impossible to live under our own power. It must be lived by the power of God who abides in us through the Holy Spirit. We are his temple and we bring glory to the Lord by allowing him to control us and work through our lives (I Corinthians 6:19,20).
We loosen legalism's grip on our lives as we stop thinking that the Christian life is all about our working to make God satisfied with us and start realizing that, if we are a Christian, he already is satisfied with us. When the Lord sees us, he views us through the righteousness of Christ and we are as righteous as he. Not because of what we have done or can do but because of what he has already done. Of course, we can grieve him as any father is grieved by a rebellious child (Ephesians 4:30). However, we can never lose a relationship with him (I John 5:11-13).
Let us thank God for his amazing grace and praise him for all that he has accomplished to make our salvation possible! And may we thank him that there is nothing that needs to to be added to it. We are complete in Christ. May we all rest in the fact that God has done it all! What a mighty God we serve!!
© 2018 Jeff Shirley