You Legalist!

by Dave Hart

“You…you… legalist!!”

I remember the first time I was called a legalist. It was not a compliment. The response was given after I had shown what the Bible commands on a particular subject. The exact words were, “I think it’s sad that you’re such a legalist.” Since then, there have been many times the term “legalist” has been thrown my way, usually in discussions on topics such as social drinking (Proverbs 23:29-35; I Thessalonians 5:6-8), baptism being necessary for salvation (Mark 16:15-16), instrumental music in New Testament worship (Ephesians 5:19; Proverbs 30:6), divorce (Matthew 19:9), withdrawing of fellowship (I Corinthians 5; II Thessalonians 3:14-15), and denominationalism (I Corinthians 1:10-13; John 17:20-23; Philippians 2:1-2). Perhaps you know what I’m talking about because the same thing happened to you. Is this something that we should be concerned about? Is being known as a “legalist” something to be avoided, or is it something to strive for?

Interestingly, one of the dictionary’s definitions of “legalism” is “strict adherence to the law.” In other words, obeying the law. We now know where legalism gets its legal root word from, don’t we? Obeying the law. Strict adherence to the law. Is that a terrible thing? In religious circles, it seems to be…but is it really? Let’s think about this concept outside of religion for a second.

  • Do you make a point to stop your car at every red light? You do? Why? “Because the law says so,” you say. Guess what? You’re a legalist.
  • Do you make it a point every April to pay your taxes? You do? Why? “Because if I don’t, I’m breaking the law.” I hate to break this to you, but you’re a legalist.
  • When you’re at work, do you strive to do your job? Let me clarify. When you’re on the clock, do you do your best to do what your employer tells you to do? You do? Hmph. You legalist.
  • Teachers, you assign your students papers to write in class, right? Do you share the writing guidelines you expect them to adhere to while writing that paper in the syllabus? Sure you do. Do you dock them points if they turn in a five-page paper with two-inch margins instead of the twelve-page paper with one-inch margins you asked for? You do? Why are you being so legalistic?

Here’s the thing: Outside of religion, I have never in my life heard or seen anyone have a problem with being a legalist regarding the law of the land ... Scratch that. Yes, I have. I see them on the news every night. They’re called criminals.

Plus, now that I think about it, I could add people continually being fired from their jobs because they don’t want to do what their boss tells them to that list.

Let’s add the students who are flunking out of school because they want to do their own thing instead of doing what their instructors tell them to do in their classes.

Do you get the point? In the secular world, legalism is a good thing. Legalism is what keeps us free men. Legalism keeps us out of jail. Legalism keeps our records clean. Legalism plays a significant role in keeping us employed with food on our tables. Without a legalistic mindset, that goal of wanting to follow the rules strictly, none of us would have ever received an A in our lives at school.

So why is legalism such a dirty word in religious circles? Should strict adherence to God’s laws not be a noble goal for every Christian?

Ask any professed Christian if they want to follow God, and they’ll say, “Sure!” Ask them if they will obey God, and they’ll reply, “You bet!” without hesitation. Now, ask them if they think they’re legalists. Most, if not all, will recoil in disgust. Why?

Perhaps harkening back to the great insight and wisdom of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride gives us the answer. We’ve allowed the religious culture of our day to take a term that literally means obedience and turn it into a dirty word that we practically consider an insult right up there with any vulgarity that is thrown at us. Why?

Is it because we don’t have the right idea about obedience's role in the salvation plan? Yes, we’re saved by God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8), but did you know that God’s grace “instructs” us to do certain things (Titus 2:11-12)? What happens if we purposefully disobey what God’s grace instructs us to do? The Bible says we “insult the spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:26-31). No wonder Paul rhetorically asked, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2).

Yes, we’re also saved through faith, and Paul clarified by adding, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Jesus did say, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). But the Bible also says that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-26). In other words, true faith is obedient trust and loyal compliance with the requirements of God’s will.

In other words, living faithfully requires one to be a legalist regarding God’s Word.

If one defines “religious legalism” the same way one defines “secular legalism,” then religious legalism means “strict adherence to God’s law.” Now, read your Bible with that in mind, and you’ll be amazed at how many legalists you find on its pages. Here are a few examples:

  • God told Isaac He would bless him by keeping His promise to Abraham “because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). Sounds like Abraham was a legalist.
  • One of the last things Moses said to Israel was, “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you…So you shall observe to do just as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right or to the left…Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it” (Deut. 4:2; 5:32; 12:32). Sounds like Moses was a legalist.
  • The apostle Paul asked, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16) He also told the Corinthians to “learn not to exceed what is written” (I Corinthians 4:6). Sounds like Paul was a legalist.

Were they wrong? Can any professed Christian honestly say they were?

I doubt that we can honestly commend disobedience to God’s commandments. After all, the apostle John wrote, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (I John 5:3). Wow, it sounds like even John was a legalist.

Christian, do you love God? Of course, you will say you do, but does God think you do?

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments…” (I John 5:3).

What about what came out of the mouth of Christ directly? Consider the following statements Jesus himself made:

  • If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
  • "Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me…” (John 14:21).
  • “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10).

Wow, it looks like even Jesus was a legalist.

Let’s raise the stakes a bit. Christian, is Jesus your Lord and Master? Of course! With that in mind, let him ask you this question:

Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46).

Obviously, God wants us to obey His commands. We should strive to do so to the absolute best of our ability to avoid the eternal punishment that awaits those who do not obey him (II Thessalonians 1:7-9). When we do that, we are saved, and it’s not because of what we did (Ephesians 2:9). That’s one way religious legalism is defined, you know — salvation by meritorious works. There are two problems with that.

First, no matter how much we obey God, we can never “earn” salvation through obedience because we’ve all still sinned (Romans 3:23), and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). That’s why we need God’s grace (which, incidentally, requires obedience, as seen above.)

Second, again, the word legalism means “strict adherence to the law.” Thus, Christian legalism is “strict adherence to God's law.” When you look at it that way, anyone who lovingly uses God's word to help us obey his commandments is blessing us with one of the greatest acts of love and friendship that any human being could bestow upon another.

And yet, why do some in the church ridicule the one who speaks the truth in love to help others grow closer to Christ in all aspects (Ephesians 4:15) as being a shallow thinker, narrow-minded, and legalist? Why is legalism associated with the Pharisees? That last one is puzzling to me, considering that Christ never actually condemned the Pharisees for keeping the laws of God in the Old Testament. He recommended to his Jewish listeners that they do what the Pharisees tell them to do since they “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2-3), i.e., teach the commandments found in the Old Testament. Instead, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for hypocrisy -- “For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:3) -- and adding to God’s Word (Matthew 15:1-9) something which the Old Testament expressly forbade (Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:6). In other words, he commended them for teaching legalism (“strict adherence to God’s laws”) while condemning them for not actually being legalistic (“strictly adhering to God’s laws”) themselves. So the people who call you “a legalistic Pharisee” for simply promoting doing what the Bible says to do have it all backward, don’t they?
In truth, this kind of name-calling often serves as an attempt to justify departures from sound doctrine and recent introductions into the church, which have no scriptural authority. Men and women who stand up for what God’s word says have always been persecuted in various ways, and unkind and unwarranted accusations, such as being called a legalist, are just a few of Satan’s many arrows that he throws in attempts to wound and bring down God’s faithful.

My friends, God does not want us to be lukewarm in our service to him (Revelation 3:15-16). He wants our obedience to all of his commands. Today, the church needs more legalists like Abraham, Moses, John, Paul, and Jesus. We need more people who will strive to adhere strictly to all of his commands, not just some of them. We especially need men and women who are “obedient from the heart” (Romans 6:17).

That last one is the most important. Jesus condemned a Pharisee who, while being a proper legalist in the sense that he kept all of God’s commands, lacked a heart of humble, penitent sorrow (Luke 18:9-14). None of us have nor ever will attain perfection (I John 1:8). There will always be a need for us to plea for the mercy of God, no matter how strictly we strive to obey him, because, in some ways, we will always need to improve. What will help us to constantly improve and thus continue to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness (I John 1:7-9) is a strong desire from our heart to obey him.

Jesus said to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:37) and defined that love as obedience (John 14:15). When we obey from the heart, we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant."

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