Legalism ~ Ted Loy


Jesus' Condemnation of Phariseeism:

When we hear the word, "legalism," we most naturally think of the biblical Pharisees. What was it about them that Jesus opposed? In the first place, their religious practice was primarily for show for outward appearance. Jesus did not oppose their acts of righteousness such as giving, praying and fasting, but he did condemn their use of these acts of righteousness to elevate themselves in the eyes of the people, cf. Matthew 6:1-18. Secondly, to hide their inner greed and selfishness the Pharisees used outward acts of righteousness much like whitewashed tombs to hide the hideous rot within, cf. Matthew 23:13-36. Again, Jesus did not object to these outward acts of righteousness in themselves -- but to the Pharisees' intention to use them as a covering for personal sin. Thirdly, in his parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, Jesus plainly condemned "some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else," Luke 18:9-14. There is no doubt these "some" included the Pharisees. The Pharisee described in this parable told God in his prayer about all of his righteousness acts -- which in this case were repeated to remind the Almighty how much God owed him i.e. His eternal favor. This is the third misuse of righteous acts - to try to earn favor with God. Were the righteous acts wrong in themselves? No. It was their misuse. In this parable it was the Publican who went home from the Temple justified rather than the Pharisee -- because of his prayer, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Jesus Commendation of Regular Religious Practice:

Something strange has happened in the modern church. The pharisaical legalism as referenced above is rightly condemned, but the regular practice of righteous acts is also sometimes wrongly referred to as legalism -- when that was the furthest thing from Jesus' mind! Giving, praying, fasting, reading Scripture, etc. on a regular basis was certainly encouraged by the Lord Jesus in his teaching. Sometimes believers are told these days they don't have to be "legalistic" about such things meaning we don't have to feel bound by any kind of regular prayer, giving, or Bible reading, etc. This sort of regular religious practice is mistakenly called legalism by some in the modern church, but by Jesus' definition it is not. In fact, Jesus taught that being his disciple would entail the practice of spiritual discipline - regular spiritual exercise.

I wonder what some in the modern church would say about Daniel. When he learned that prayer could only be made to King Darius for thirty days, he still got down on his knees and prayed three times a day "giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before." Daniel 6:10. Some would say that Daniel was "legalistic." He didn't have to pray three times a day. He did not have to feel "bound" by this religious practice! What some folks in the modern church don't understand is this: Daniel didn't pray three times a day for any kind of pharisaical reason; he prayed because he knew he needed to! When we engage in any kind of regular spiritual exercise, we do it simply because we know we need to. It is a spiritual necessity! This is not legalism!

Would it not be ridiculous for someone to say the eating of three meals a day is legalistic or the practice of regular daily exercise? But that is exactly what some in the modern church are saying regarding spiritual habits. Pray every day? Read Scripture every day? Give regularly? Don't be so legalistic. After all, we're under grace and not under law. Nobody is going to talk to us about spiritual discipline. We'll practice our Christianity when we want to and how we want to.

Of course, the problem with this is the same thing that happens when we have no regular eating or exercise habits. We begin to fail in our physical health. Spiritually the same thing happens when we have no regular spiritual habits. We begin to fail in our spiritual health.

The warning is this:

We need to be careful how we use the word "legalistic." We have every right to use the word in order to condemn pharisaical acts of righteousness good spiritual habits used in the wrong way. (Please refer to the first paragraph.) We have no right to use the word "legalistic" to refer to the regular exercise of good spiritual habits as some are doing these days. In fact the regular exercise of good spiritual habits is absolutely necessary to our spiritual and physical well-being!

Dos and Don'ts:

There is another phenomenon occurring in the modern church with regard to "legalism." To distance itself from former "dos and don'ts" relating to drinking, smoking, card playing, going to movies, etc., the modern church has a tendency to swing the pendulum over to the other side without coming to some kind of balance. Since all of the old prohibitions are "legalism," then let's just go to the movies or watch videos any movie -- any video. No matter if these include profanity, violence, sexual content, etc. Alcohol is another issue. Once there are no dos and don'ts with regard to drinking, where is the line drawn? Where will our kids draw the line?

Formerly believers were very concerned that the church not become exactly like the world. They knew they were in the world, but as Jesus prayed in John 17, they knew they could not be of the world. They knew there ought to be a difference in their lifestyle from that commonly practiced in society. Unfortunately, some in the modern church believe this sort of thinking is old-fashioned.

Romans 14 is still in the Book! "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall." Romans 14:19-21. In other words, we do have a responsibility as believers to live exemplary lives since we influence others. We are not free to do whatever we like regardless of what kind of negative influence it may have on another.

Ephesians 5 is still in the Book! "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolater has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: 'Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.' Be very careful, then, how you live not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. Do not get drunk on wine which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Ephesians 5:1-20.

Some in the modern church are loath to teach and preach passages like the above because they sound too "legalistic" too "negative." There are too many "dos and don'ts." They seem to forget Jesus words, "If you love Me, keep my commandments." John 14:15. It is often heard that Christianity is a relationship not a religion not a matter of dos and don'ts. While it is certainly true that Christianity in its fullness can never fully be understood by merely following a list of dos and don'ts, it is a serious mistake to think that Christianity, therefore, does not include any dos and don'ts. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Matthew 16:24. This involves discipline, and discipline involves dos and don'ts.

When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the Law, He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." Matthew 22:40; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18. Jesus did not deny the value of commandments, he simply raised the bar. Loving God and people vastly multiplies the dos and don'ts necessary to truly love God and people as we ought. Loving God and people not only includes the Ten Commandments but also so much more!

In other words, there is no true practice of Christianity without dos and don'ts. Christian discipleship demands it. Legalism happens when we think dos and don'ts encompass all there is to being a Christian. Actually, dos and don'ts are involved in every decision we make as believers, but dos and don'ts do not -- in and of themselves -- make us Christians. It goes deeper than that. All of our decisions must flow from a deep motive to love God and love people because of the Cross.

What's the warning?

Beware of some talk in the modern church which downplays dos and don'ts characterizing all dos and don'ts as "legalism." Christian discipleship always involves dos and don'ts, but it cannot be totally understood until we comprehend that all we do must be out of love for Christ and in thankful response for his sacrifice on the Cross for our sins.

To summarize:

Regular spiritual disciplines are a necessity for Christians - as are "dos and don'ts." We can't be a disciple of Christ without them. "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me." Matthew 16:24. This is not legalism. Beware of those who characterize regular spiritual disciplines as legalism.

Of course, we must not fall into the trap of practicing regular spiritual disciplines for any reason other than that of necessity like eating and exercise. We need to! As Jesus taught: "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3. Eating (reading) the "bread" of the Word and putting it into practice must be as consistent as eating our "daily bread" because it is far more important. The outcome is either delight or disaster, cf. Matthew 7:24-27: "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."