"YOU MUST LET GO OF LEGALISM”
I once asked why church attendance among independent Baptists seemed on the decline. As a response, I received the following email:
“It’s no mystery. The ‘something missing’ is the grace of God. I know exactly what you are thinking: ‘we preach salvation by grace through faith, not of works.’ Yes, you do, as well you should. But after the sinner is saved, you toss grace out the window and legalism barges through the door. One book I read about believers like you summed it up this way: It’s grace for the sinner and law for the saint.
“Its name is legalism and it is unscriptural. None of your oppressive rules are written in the Bible. I’m not talking about things like adultery, murder, drunkenness, lying, homosexuality, abortion, etc.
“If you want your churches to grow and make a difference for Jesus, you must let go of legalism and return to grace. It’s for the saint too. Life is hard and people are hurting. They need Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden. Legalism’s yoke is heavy, and its burden is impossible to bear…that’s why people are leaving.”
As a result of this email, I did some real soul searching. It led me to research areas that no one ever taught me and I only heard preached about once or twice. This is a hot topic that most people don’t want to touch with the proverbial ten foot pole. Thousands have read this article over the last several years and it remains one of the most popular topics I discuss. The attitude of the average church goer has now prompted me to add some things to what I originally said here. Please read this with an open heart and let God's Word speak to you about this matter.
What is legalism? What is it not? Do we live by legalism or not? Legalism has plagued the church for centuries and has attacked the doctrine of salvation for thousands of years. It’s nothing new. We still fight it today, though. However, it’s not really the same thing as the fight over salvation by grace. Or is it?
Will you keep an open mind while we examine the Scriptures together? After all, God’s opinion carries much more weight than yours or mine!
What is legalism?
It was practiced in Paul’s time. He referred to it when he said, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” Acts 15:1 Paul did not believe this himself but he was referring to the beliefs that others held.
He continued, “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” Acts 15:5
“Now, therefore, why tempt ye God to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" Acts 15:10
“Forasmuch as we have heard that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, ‘Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment.” Acts 15:24
“But we believe,” Paul said, “that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” Acts 15:11
This clearly speaks of salvation but it also speaks about the notion that behavior after salvation maintains that salvation. And Paul points this out as error and as a burden. Still, he also clearly states that he does not agree with this theology.
Paul also addressed this issue with the church at Galatia. He noted that there were some that troubled that church in an attempt to pervert the gospel of Christ.
The Apostle considered this an attack on the issue of salvation by grace alone. Consider Galatians 1:7 and 9.
Such an error created a path that led men out of liberty in Christ and into bondage…..again. Take a look at Galatians 2:4
As a result, Paul said, it brought up troubling issues for young Christians which believed salvation was by grace alone. This is according to Galatians 5:12.
It all sounded so good. There was a bewitching or appealing ring to it, according to Galatians 3:1. What’s new about this thought? Men don’t like to think they aren’t good enough to get to heaven on their own. They don’t like to think they need “outside” help to live the Christian life. Look at Romans 7:18a.
Legalism proposed the idea that salvation is made perfect or complete by the flesh. Paul opposed it, calling it a hindrance to obeying the truth. Galatians 5:7
They called it something else in those days, but it was still legalism. There were already groups of men in New Testament times that formed early Christian ‘sects’. Not everyone agreed with their beliefs.
Nazarenes….orthodox Jewish Christians who also maintained a strict observance of the Law and Jewish customs.
Ebionites….who reduced the plan of salvation to strict law-keeping. They eventually came to teach that Jesus was only a man who became the Messiah at His baptism and who was important because of His legal piety…rather than His suffering and death. They also rejected the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Elkasaites….judaizers who taught that Jesus was the ideal man. They held the circumcision and repeated washings were required.
In New Testament times, Judaistic legalism was an effort to complete the salvation of men by some kind of work. Today, it is any teaching that says works are necessary for salvation, works are necessary to complete salvation or works are necessary to maintain salvation.
It seems baptism has replaced circumcision. Thus the need for what we call baptismal regeneration. The Bible doesn't teach baptismal regeneration, but some in the religious world have accepted this doctrine.
If you take away all the smokescreens used to hide it today, you find a simple formula for legalism:
Salvation=Grace + ___________
You can fill in the blank. It may be Sabbath keeping, speaking in tongues, knocking on doors, attending mass, or any one of a number of other things. Keep in mind that this is contrary to Romans 11:6.
Another New Testament term for legalism is Pharisaism. Perhaps the Pharisees are still with us, only under another name. Are independent Baptists modern day Pharisees because they have a list of things to do and not to do? Watch out! There was a big difference between Bible-believers and the Pharisees of Jesus’ Day just as there is today.
The Pharisees chose tradition over truth. Read Matthew 15:1-9 and John 8:47.
The Pharisees were self-righteous, not Christ-righteous. Read Luke 18:9-14.
The Pharisees said one thing and did another as hypocrites. Look at Matthew 23:13 and 14 and Matthew 23:3d.
ARE WE LEGALISTS TODAY?
To answer that question, we must also consider some other questions too. Is it wrong to have standards? Nearly every company in the workplace requires certain standards of behavior. Everyone has guidelines. The charges of legalism are leveled against anyone today who might be zealous for doctrine with another important ingredient. This element is not something needed to obtain salvation. It is a matter of personal purity, the weaker brother principle, and a lifestyle that shows there is a difference between the world and the Christian. One of the biggest criticisms of independent Baptists in general is that they appear to be legalists. Make no mistake, some independent Baptists seem to not be legalists from a theological point of view but still seem to practice legalism. Before pointing the accusing finger at them, consider all the other places that have standards of behavior. Let me put it this way.
Nearly every church that claims to believe the Bible has some standards. If you want to call that legalism, it becomes a matter of degree. All churches have the God-given liberty to exercise a flexible inner life, as long as they don’t violate the boundaries of Scripture itself.
The truth is that when your standards or beliefs are stricter than mine, you’re a legalist. But not me!
Standards must be preached because we are to exhort others in the church with all authority, the authority of the Word of God. See it for yourself in Titus 2:15.
In some cases, the rejection of standards is used as an excuse for sinful living. Galatians 5:13
That brings us to a crucial question today. Should Christians raise their standards or should churches lower their standards? While the thought may be disturbing, it is still our responsibility to speak the truth in love. Ephesians 4:15
We live in a constantly changing world and some of the things once considered taboo are now accepted. Other things that were once accepted are now rejected. Think about 2 Timothy 3:1-5.
These things include dancing, social drinking, movies and new concepts about dating that are the invention of one man.
Even if something is not evil in itself, we are to abstain from every appearance of evil. 1 Thessalonians 5:22
Is that legalism or is that practical Christianity?
The commandments of God show us that because we are unholy we cannot keep the ten commandments, and even if we could keep the law, it would not make us holy no matter how hard we tried to keep it! The reasons we are sinners is because we are born with a sin nature, thanks to Adam. Read Romans 5:12, Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:20.
Some of the areas of hottest debate include the following:
Dress codes. What is modest? 1 Timothy 2:9
Hair. How long is long and how short is short? 1 Corinthians 11:14,15
Music. What is a spiritual song? Ephesians 5:19
Amusements. How far do we go before we are in love with the world? 1 John 2:15-17
Television. What is a “wicked” thing and when does it cleave to me? Psalm 101:3
Legalism is not….
God expects us as His children to conduct ourselves in a certain way and that isn't with the purpose to obtain or maintain salvation. The Lord tell us that if we love Him we will keep His commandments. One of the great commandments is that we love the Lord with all of our heart, soul and mind. This is not Baptist doctrine, charismatic doctrine, or non denominational doctrine. It is Bible doctrine. If we label this behavior as legalism, we are calling God a legalist. But as we have already seen, this is not behavior to obtain salvation but conduct in the life because salvation is already present.
The Lord expects us to obey His commandments as one of His children, according to 1 John 2:3,4.
This is true even though we are not under the law. We live under grace. Romans 6:14
Grace is not a license to sin, though God knows we will continue to sin because it is our basic nature to do so. Yet, He asks if we should continue in sin. Romans 6:1
The Christian is under the law to Christ. 1 Corinthians 9:21
We still have liberty, but Peter told us we are not to use this as a cloak of maliciousness. 1 Peter 2:16
Nor is our liberty to be used as an occasion for the flesh. Galatians 5:13
Knowing these things may bring us to the bottom line of the matter. What is the reason we do what we do? Is it the bondage of the law? Is it the waving of the finger of reproof in our faces, warning us to maintain a certain type of behavior as a church member to make God happy? The Lord doesn’t want us living the Christian life as a legalist. We cannot earn our salvation and we certainly can’t do anything to keep it because Christ already did all of the work for us. Then why should I want to do what God wants me to do? Our motive should be the same as the motive we used to obey parents when we were younger, the same reason we want our children to obey us.
The issue really isn’t legalism. People call it that but that isn’t the issue at hand.
There is a written and an unwritten “law” in the Scriptures. Jesus said we should love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul and mind. Do you see it? The motive for these issues is love. It isn’t fear or dread, rebellion or anything else.
Jesus said it himself: “If ye love me, keep my commandments."
The letter said, "legalism's yoke is heavy..."
While this is true, it raises questions about what you mean by the term in the first place. It's a man-made term and not one from the writ of Scripture. Men alter the meaning of legallism to make it mean whatever they want it to in a given situation or setting.
The Bible says we are saved by grace through faith and not of ourselves or by anything we do other than trusting the Lord for our salvation. It's not a question about what we have done but it's an issue about what the Lord has already done for us.
This puts the focus on love as the motive to obey God. Any work as a duty to God in order to obtain a relationship with God that wasn't there before is removed by the element of grace. Maintaining a relationshiip with God, once a person is a Christian, is like a child wanting to continue as a part of the family by doing nice things for his parents. Good or bad, that child remains a part of the family.
That also seems to dispel some of the spiritual confusion raised about this subject. In the sense discussed here, legalism isn't standards of dress or behavior in or out of church.
Yes, God has standards and they're important. He wants us to come out from among the world and be separate so that we can help those around us get thirsty and hungry for the gospel and for the Christ of the gospel. If we lift Christ up in our lives, men will be drawn to him.
The letter of God's law "condemns" me because I'm a human and a sinner. However, I do the best I can to follow the spirit of the law because now I know why the commandments were give in the first place.
"Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh by justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin." Romans 3:20