Would it make you uncomfortable if I told you we should LOVE the law of God?
Love the law? That’s legalism, right?!
Actually, it’s not.
We tend to think legalism is taking God’s Word too seriously (although, it is the Word of God…which I’d say is a pretty serious matter!). Christian influencers and popular speakers will tell us taking the Bible seriously is too rigid (“times are different now than when they were back then, lighten up!”), too black and white (“there are many ways to interpret that passage, have an open mind!”), too ethnocentric (“different passages have different meanings depending on your culture!”), too…legalistic.
But Scripture is full of people who loved and kept God’s law, and we are called to do likewise. King David begins the Psalms with:
“But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and in His law he meditates day and night.”
and this theme is carried throughout the Psalms:
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I shall observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart. Make me walk in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.”
Likewise, in the New Testament we see John and Jesus speaking of loving God’s law and obeying it.
“For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments;
and His commandments are not burdensome.”
1 John 5:3
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”
We should desire to be like David, John, and Jesus in loving and obeying God’s law…it is a good thing! Legalism is not, as popular Christianity will tell us, loving and obeying the law of God. Legalism is distorting the law of God. It is loving man’s law above God’s law, and expecting others to do the same. Legalism teaches and believes that works lead to salvation, instead of works being a tangible indicator of a heart that knows, loves, and fears God. We should beware of the twisted truths legalism produces. We see examples of them all over popular Christian culture today…things like:
Telling someone who identifies as a same sex attracted (SSA) Christian that as long as they don’t physically act on their desires they are not in sin.
The Bible is clear on the sins of sexual immorality and lust. Legalism, however, says the Bible is not clear, it is gray, and so declares a human law- a law that one can identify as SSA and just not act on it. What a crushing, heavy weight to put on someone in same sex attraction. Instead of coming alongside and calling them to turn to God in repentance and for help in fighting sinful desires, they are told to create an identity out of their sexuality that they can never act upon.
“They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.” Matthew 23:4
Lacking obedience to God’s Word because “there’s grace.”
Legalism will have you cringe at the words “obedience” and “repentance.” It says don’t worry about whether or not there is fruit in your life, God will accept you no matter what. In this we see an abuse of God’s grace by encouraging a life lacking repentance and obedience. Legalism says that because works do not save you (which is true!), obedience and repentance are irrelevant (not true!). It cries that whatever law you want to create and follow for your faith, do it because there’s grace.
“Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’”
“By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected.” 1 John 2:4-5a
Demanding penance for racism and partiality
Instead of calling people to repent and turn from racism and partiality, legalism stamps the label “racist” on all, and demands a penance in order to have it removed: reading X amount of books by black authors, sharing the Gospel with X amount of minorities, etc. Although even then, legalism says we are still racist, and that repentance of the sin of partiality is not possible.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
1 John 1:9 (emphasis mine)
Examining Our Own Hearts
I wonder why are we often so quick to accuse others of legalism? Perhaps we feel convicted by our brother or sister’s pursuit of holiness or reverence for the Word. It is much easier to call someone a legalist for not watching a TV show than it is to examine if the TV shows we watch are pointing us to live a godly life (and then I might have to give up one of my favorite shows! yikes. This has been me!). It is much easier to brush a sister off as legalistic in her pursuit of reading the Bible each morning than it is to admit I haven’t been consistent in my own reading (I’m guilty of this one too!).
-Is what others are doing actually legalistic, or could it be a nudge from the Holy Spirit to pull the log out of my own eye? (spoiler: normally, it is indeed a big ole’ log in my own eye).
-Are they actually twisting God’s law or viewing behavior as a way to salvation? Have you asked them?
-Why, when it is actually legalism, do we cry “legalist” instead of going to our brother or sister, showing them their sin, and pointing them to repentance?
We are called to love (an inward sign) and obey (the resulting outward sign) God’s Word. I have many times looked at the outward works of a fellow sister and assumed that her heart motivation is out of legalism without taking the time and love to speak with her about it. Do you think someone needs to change their behavior because they take the Bible too seriously? Be cautious, it might actually be you that is the legalist (including myself here too!).
Trust the Holy Spirit
When trusting and relying on the Holy Spirit (and not our own power) to live a life that glorifies and honors God, we can know that:
Obeying the Word of God is not legalism. It is a command from Jesus.
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”
Striving to live a holy life is not legalism. It is a command from Jesus.
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Repenting of sin is not legalism. It is a command from Jesus.
“From that time Jesus began to preach and say,
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
May we not mistake taking God at His Word as legalism.
May we not mistake obeying God as legalism.
May we not mistake pursuing a life that glorifies God as legalism, but let the godly actions of others spur us on in living godly lives.