What comes to mind when you hear the word “legalism”? For me, I think of old, hard things. A big list of do’s and don’ts and a set of rules that you have to live by very strictly. The pictures that come to mind are stone-faced people who never laugh or smile or have any fun. If you’re not a Christian, that word might not make any sense, but you’ll at least get a connection to the law (legal) some how.
In my experience with different Christian people, the term ‘legalism’ also has a different meaning. If someone is a legalist, it means they’re very concerned with things that aren’t all that important, like using specific or technical terminology, or having a certain knowledge of something or holding to a certain position etc. Technically, the word as it’s used in the Bible refers to people who thought they could earn salvation by following/doing certain things that were written down in the law. The law did refer to the 10 commandments, but it also was used to refer to the Old Testament as a whole.
For a lot of Christians, when the word ‘legalism’ comes to mind, you might get a picture of the 10 commandments etched into stone tablets, and maybe the wrath of God comes to mind or something along those lines. Something like this:
Surprisingly, I think the two pictures in this blog have a lot in common. My generation grew up under the teaching of certain Biblical truths that I think are precious, but I think they have been over-stressed at the exclusion of some other ones. The things that were stressed were things like these:
- God is more concerned with the heart. (Acts 15:8, Luke 16:15)
- Don’t judge. (Matthew 7:1-5)
- Love is the most important thing. (1 Corinthians 13:13, 1 Corinthians 13: 1-2, Matthew 22:37-39)
- It’s more important to do, than just to say/think. (James 1:22-25)
- God wants a relationship with you. (John 3:16, 1 John 4:19)
There are more, but these are a few good ones. How does this relate to legalism? Well, legalism revolves around works, or our doing of something. The technical term has salvation as its end, the more modern understanding has some sort of obeying laws or using the right terms etc. as their end. I think these lead to the same thing, works or doing something to achieve a certain end.
There is truth in all the bullet points listed above (I won’t go into all of them), but when they are stressed to the exclusion of, or detached from, other Biblical truths, then we start to get into bad territory. Smarter people have defined this as “legalism lite”, and while that is an accurate way of describing it, I don’t think it really gets the feel of what this phenomenon is. I think it’s better to say that it is a lifestyle legalism.
The reason for this is that one of the mantras that came out of church culture in the 90’s was “Christianity is a relationship/lifestyle, not a religion”, and this idea of lifestyle is the driving force behind the new legalism. Lifestyle Legalism still stresses “do this, don’t do that” , but it’s sneakier and goes undetected because it’s nicer. Think of it this way, would you rather go listen to a lecture on ethics or watch a video on youtube about being a real, loving, good Christian? The two might have identical content, but one sounds boring and cold, while the other sounds happy and welcoming.
To make it more explicit, I’m going to list out some of the commandments of lifestyle legalism, without the more happy context.
- Be real
- Do not be fake
- Do not be hypocritical
- Don’t get drunk
- Don’t swear
- Wear conservative clothing
- Be loving, kind, and nice
- Don’t judge others
- Love people
- Don’t gossip
Those sound almost just as cold and law-like as the 10 commandments, don’t they? The idea that comes from this sort of teaching is that you have to live your life around doing or not doing so many things, that by doing them, you will be living the Christian life. Unfortunately, we too often get people who call themselves Christians, but are basically just nice people. The wonderful truth about the gospel is that we are free from being under the curse of the law, so that we may live as unto Christ. James makes it perfectly clear that good works flow out of what Christ has done for us and what the Holy Spirit is doing in us, , but they do not earn us anything. Salvation comes by grace alone, and we cannot add anything to the completed work of Christ. Sanctification and holiness are things God love and demands of us, while bringing us through it, but our own efforts lead only to law, and to death.
Whether the laws sound cold and hard, or they are the happy, nice, lifestyle laws of today, they do not save anyone by people doing them. Let us always be looking to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, to give us the strength to live our lives to glorify Him, and to become more like Him, and to rely on His strength, not our own.