Often there’s no other way to say things than to just say them out loud: nothing makes me want to behave rebelliously more than legalism does.
Of course, the truth is that I am prone to rebel. Like you, it’s in my DNA and, while they may differ, you and I have triggers. Little (or big) things that send us off on a path of building up or tearing down. When it comes to legalism in the Christian experience, I believe it calls for both: uproot and tear down the causes of legalism and replace them with by building up an authentic relationship with Christ.
Sounds simple, right? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either.
The Doctrine of LegalismIn theology, legalism is the belief that salvation is gained by what we do.Click To Tweet
In a judicial environment, legalism is an adherence to law, especially the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.
In theology, legalism is the belief that salvation is gained by what we do. You’ve heard it called the “doctrine of good works.” In times past, the “legalist” would teach that salvation is gained by adherence to the letter of a system of laws, usually Mosaic Law, and that one is either approved or condemned based on their obedience or disobedience to that law.
In most Christian circles where I’ve experienced “legalism,” it usually surrounds a conversation with some proclamation that “we would never fall into that!” Or would we?
Most, if not all, religions have long lists of customs, traditions and rituals that all fall soundly into the scope of legalism. Even and sometimes especially within the Christian faith. Let’s call this stuff what it is: extra-biblical baggage.
These things can be as innocent as well intentions, but they can also be as sharp and deadly as imposing control over others. Beliefs or practices that place unusual or abnormal restrictions on the lives of believers tend to be the building blocks of legalism. This can include teaching that only baptism into a certain denomination is effective. Things like style of worship, versions of Bibles, tithing, circumcision and even communion can land here.
Here’s another example that is easily encountered in virtually any Christian experience: church attendance. Sadly, on more than one occasion I have seen expected attendance used as a weapon to shame and guilt people. Let’s open that one up…There's a list of customs, traditions, rituals that all fall into legalism. That's baggage.Click To Tweet
Legalism vs. Obedience
How many times did you miss church only to have it addressed by some well-meaning person? How many times have you seen otherwise miserable people put on their Sunday best and fix a smile to their face for a few hours a week for the sake of an attendance expectation?
I’m not saying that church attendance is a bad thing or that it should be optional to the believer. I am saying though that while we are not to “forsake the gathering of the saints” (Hebrews 10:25), we must also remember that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, and that “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27; Mark 2:23-28) and it does not always look like Sunday morning.
When one puts on the good shoes and struts out to church each and every Sunday morning simply and only because there is shame involved, either from another person or from past experience, we may begin to encounter a nasty flavor of legalism.
Again, don’t pick up what I’m not putting down: we do what we do out of love and obedience for Christ, not out of obligation to the law. Sometimes that means we go to church every Sunday because that is the service of some, but is it always the service of all?
What I am trying to say here is this: worship in the company of fellow believers is healthy and should be something we want to be a part of out of love for Christ and is included in being a part of his body.
Here’s another angle. I’m not ready to say that occasionally not attending church because of a special event, or even for an inactive day of rest isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I will say skipping out on church at every opportunity probably is. Fellowship in a local church is indeed crucial, and serving in your place of worship is at least equally as essential.
On the other hand, skipping your occasional event or downtime and calling it Christian obligation doesn’t seem like a healthy approach, either. This is a symptom of legalism called self-denial, and efforts to partake in that with the hope of scoring extra points with God will fall flat and ultimately result in puffing you up with pride.
The Gospel of Grace Above the Letter of Law
Remember that legalism defined means that something you do (or do not do) grants or improves your salvation. Doing anything under this system creates resentment for the church, towards leaders, and even towards other believers. Ultimately though, legalism creates resentment towards God and his word.
And you already know that’s a bad thing.
In his article How Christ Fulfilled and Ended the Old Testament Regime, author and pastor John Piper said of Matthew 5:17-18, “Jesus came to fulfill all that was written in the Law and the Prophets. All of it was pointing to him even where it is not explicitly prophetic. He accomplishes what the Law required.”
In Christ, we have the only avenue to salvation and according to Romans 10:4, Jesus Christ is the completion and the end of the law to those who believe in his righteousness.The law is good but there is something it cannot do. It cannot save me. -Francis SchaefferClick To Tweet