We are looking into the matter of legalism in the Christian life and in the Church. We have argued that the issue in legalism can’t be reduced to having rules, but today I want to look at this issue of rules.
Legalism always ends up adding something to the gospel. What might those things be? Laws, rules, regulations, experiences, education, cultural taboos or political parties. So, yes, legalism is about laws or practices or beliefs that are added to the gospel, and the result of the addition is that it compromises the sufficiency of Christ or jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit.
Legalism often is noted by an overemphasis on performance that, in some way, calls into question the sufficiency of what Christ has done and what the Spirit can do.
Legalism always erects boundaries between people and puts a boundary between people who are designed by God and called by God to be at one. For Paul, this was seen in the Judaizing believes wanting the Gentiles to become Jews and, if they didn’t, then they were not accepted. Paul’s simple word against all of this is one: We are one in Christ (Gal 3:28).
Legalism creates an atmosphere that is pervaded by judgmentalism. Judgment, yes; discernment, yes. But legalism ramps this up and a judgmental spirit pervades a person — always judging others — or the church — always assigning who is in and who is out. Yes, discernment: the issue here is whether or not a person is accepted because of what Christ has done and how the Spirit can lead.
Legalism’s concerns are nearly always good things. The beliefs or practices are added to the gospel, and they are usually good things: not drinking too much or not putting yourself into a place of temptation or extra rigor in one’s spiritual disciplines — all these things could be, and frequently are, good things. But, legalism takes these things to the next level and calls into question the sufficiency of our acceptance in Christ and the adequacy of the Spirit’s power to guide us.
Legalism often goes beyond the Bible in order to protect the Bible. The additions we so often encounter in legalism are often ideas or behaviors that go beyond what the Bible says, and those extras are designed to keep us from getting near the Bible’s “rules” and “laws.” “Keep the Sabbath,” the Bible says. When does begin? Let’s say it’s 5pm on Friday evening. OK, that’s reasonable. At 5pm, one finds another working: Breaker of the Sabbath? Well, not necessarily. 5pm isn’t what the Bible says. I could go on.
Legalism, finally, often has a reverse logic: if I don’t break the law, then I am righteous. That is, “not breaking” becomes equivalent to “keeping.” But one can “not break” and not keep. I have not, the hypocrite says, had sex with another man’s wife, so I haven’t broken the law. I’ve kept the law. But, no, Jesus says, the law is about loving your wife and it’s about your mind and your heart….
Well, these are my points about defining legalism.