It’s difficult for people to find biblically sound middle ground on some topics. If cheap grace is at one extreme, then legalism is at the other. Legalism is a word that gets used a lot, but most of us struggle to define it.
The dictionary defines legalism as “strict adherence to the law, especially the stressing of the letter of the law rather than its spirit.” While this is an accurate definition it is not complete. It doesn’t help very much in determining when someone is being legalistic because it’s so open to interpretation.
For example, my idea of being strict may be very different than yours. While you may see me as stressing the letter of the law, I believe I am being faithful to the spirit of the law. This has a way of making legalism subjective and leads to accusing others of being legalistic merely because they feel that they must abstain from something that I think is okay. Normally, a person who really is a legalist doesn’t realize he is a legalist. As someone has said, “Like bad breath, legalism has a way of being obvious to everyone but the person guilty of it.”
What is wrong with wanting to strictly observe all the commandments that God has given us? Isn’t that a good thing? Why would that make a person guilty of legalism? Shouldn’t every Christian want to obey God’s commandments to the best of their ability? Clearly, it takes more than a desire to strictly obey the commandments of God to make one a legalist.
A better definition
Legalism isn’t about obeying the commandments, but is about the reason we obey the commandments. A legalist believes that he must strictly obey God’s commandments in order to retain his or her salvation. The focus of the legalist is on the rules rather than the relationship with God. God gives us commandments intending them to shape our lives to help us become more like Him. The legalist misuses or even abuses the commandments by applying them in ways God did not intend. Earnestly trying to obey the commandments isn’t the problem. The problem comes in when we think that our salvation depends upon rule keeping.
The legalist’s religious perspective is such that he really can’t tell the difference between matters of opinion and matters that are of primary importance to our faith. While you and I might not be able to participate in some activity because our conscience won’t permit it, we understand this is based upon our personal point of view. We don’t attempt to force it upon other Christians who don’t share that same conviction. This is a distinction that the legalist is simply unable to see. For the legalist, if it’s wrong for him it is wrong for everyone.
Because of this, the legalist’s opinions take on the same importance as commandments of God. After all, if you can’t tell the difference between opinions (which are built upon interpretations and inferences) from the actual statements in scripture, every conclusion one reaches about a Bible topic is the final word on the matter! In a legalistic mind all sort sorts of man-made doctrines exist that simply aren’t in the Bible.
Jesus’ sacrifice insufficient to save?
The inescapable implication of legalism is that Jesus’ sacrifice was not adequate to save. The legalist believes there is more that must be done. Whether at a conscious level or not, the legalist cannot believe Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient. Otherwise there would be no reason for the legalist to think there are things he must do to maintain his standing before God through his own works. By virtue of his own effort, the legalist believes that his works are securing his salvation.
Legalists, perhaps subconsciously, believe the more obedient they are, the more God loves them and the more they deserve to go to Heaven. Ironically, a legalists never feels secure in his salvation. In spite of all the effort that is expended to secure his salvation, the legalist knows he hasn’t lived up to his own standards. When asked the often repeated question, “If you died right now would you go to Heaven”, the legalist never can say, “Yes”. He never feels that he has done enough to merit his salvation. For meriting his salvation is exactly what he is trying to do rather than relying upon the generosity (grace) of God to bestow it upon him as the gift that it is.
As a result, the legalist typically has a strange mix of emotions. He is often a miserable person full of guilt and fear since he feels no eternal security for himself. At the same time he has feelings of arrogance, pride, superiority and condemns others who do not share his views.
Salvation isn’t about rule keeping
Legalism and grace do not mix. In fact, a legalist doesn’t comprehend grace, doesn’t depend on grace, and can’t even have a cogent discussion about grace. Grace simply isn’t a factor in the spiritual world of a legalist for he doesn’t understand it in the slightest. In the mind of the legalist, spiritual blessings depend upon strict rule keeping.
Salvation is about relationship; God is our Father. Over and over again the scriptures portray our relationship with God as that of a family. In any family there are rules of course, but the family is not defined by the rules.
“It’s like marriage. Husbands and wives will have certain rules they agree on (I get the TV for Monday night football. She gets the TV for “So You Think You Can Dance.” We pray that they never move “So You Think You Can Dance” to Mondays.) And there are certain rules inherent in marriage, imposed by God himself (sexual faithfulness, for example). But if you define your marriage in terms of rules, you’re a deeply confused person. Imagine your wife saying, “I love being married to Hank. He has found and strictly enforces exactly the right rules. I know he’s the man for me!”
If we were to compare the marriages of friends of ours, trying to decide which couple has the healthiest, most godly marriage, we’d not start by asking what the rules in their marriages are. Of course, if the spouses were cheating on each other, we’d know they have a very unhealthy marriage. But non-cheating isn’t the definition of a healthy marriage. It’s necessary. But it’s not nearly enough.
No, we’d start by looking at their relationships. Do they love each other? Do they support each other? Do they cooperate? Do they resolve conflict in healthy, productive ways, or are they passive aggressive? Do they enjoy being around each other? Is their relationship harmonious and peaceful? Do they retaliate for perceived wrongs or do they work those things out with forgiveness, apologies, and reconciliation?”
Grace can’t be earned
Grace can only be accepted. Our response to God, who is generous enough to give us eternal life, is to try to become more like Him. The more like Him we become the more we’ll do the things that He does. Those who understand this recognize that we don’t do good works in order to be saved, but because we are saved.
For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10 NIV)