Legalism is an often poorly applied word in Christian circles today. In fact, there are only two definitions of legalism that the Bible clearly opposes. The first definition is the doctrine that salvation can be gained through good works. The second definition that the Bible opposes is that of adding laws to God’s. But, both definitions are variations of the same definition which is that of purchasing grace. In contrast, calling a sinful act a sin is not legalism. Rather, legalism is primarily practicing or preaching the belief that grace can be purchased through our actions or in-actions. Interestingly, the word “legalism” is not even in scripture. That does not mean it is not a problem, because it definitely is. For example, the book of Galatians is nearly entirely devoted to the problem of Biblical legalism without mentioning the word.
And, the proper Biblical definitions beg many questions of our modern day Christians. Is obedience legalism? Is preaching on obedience legalism? If so, was Jesus guilty of legalism? What about preaching on practicing wisdom? Is that legalism? How about one Christian brother advocating wisdom to another Christian brother? Is that legalism? I believe the answers to these questions should be Biblically obvious. But, the errant preaching of individual Christians today tend to confuse that which should be obvious until it is not.
Take for example 1 John 2:3-6 which says, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Is that passage promoting legalism? Or is this obvious advocacy of obedience and wisdom, which is the “walk” that Jesus walked? Was Jesus ever disobedient? Was Jesus ever unwise? The answer to both of those questions is “Of course not!” But, my brothers and sisters who liberally accuse of legalism at the mere suggestion that we obey - they unwittingly beg the opposite.
The second definition of legalism that bears addressing is that of adding to God’s law. This was a huge problem in Old Testament times. And, it remains a problem to this day. For example, calling slow dancing absolutely always a sin is probably not going to appeal to God. That said, when someone advocates wisdom in an area that is clearly a moral area, this is not legalism. I will share another extreme example to invoke clarity. You would be hard-pressed to find a passage in the Bible that clearly condemns polygamy. But, is it truly a moral question to God? Don’t we have enough guidance from scripture that polygamy is beyond unwise and a practice that no Christian should partake in? Is me saying that legalism? No. We don’t need a verse to say “Thou shalt not” to understand the heart of God. Even Jesus implored us to pursue holiness that exceeds the written law in His Sermon on the Mount. If we bathe in God’s word daily, like our life depends upon it (and it does), understanding God’s heartbeat will not be that difficult. God’s Spirit resides in every believer. And, God wants His desires to be found. He does not shroud them in lifelong mysteries. In fact, searching scripture for strictly references to “Thou shalt not” is actually a form of legalism. To those who find loopholes to behave badly, you are actually guilty, not those who wisely advocate for the heart of God’s gospel which should permeate every area of our lives – yes, every area!
Finally, to those who today still advocate for the purchasing of free grace in any form whatsoever, you are wrong. Grace is free, period! God’s mercy is so rich and yet 100% free. Therefore, His grace and mercy should still amaze us all. And, that amazement always leads to repentance, obedience and wisdom.
Before, you think this blog is advocating a new brand of Phariseeism, it is not. In fact, instead of pointing you to Leviticus, I leave you with the parting commands of Jesus, our Lord, Savior and God. If you daily focus on these few commands of Jesus in every area of your life, moral clarity will not be elusive. Before Jesus ascended, He left us two commands. His final command was the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:16-20. But, prior to that and just prior to His crucifixion, He left us with His other parting command as recorded in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Brothers and sisters, today obey these commands of our King. And, do so not in order to purchase grace, but because you were purchased by it.
P.S. In case you have not heard, my book, “Reason If You Will” was finally published last week on Amazon.com. You can CLICK HERE to learn more and/or purchase a copy. You can also do so by clicking on the picture of the book cover at the top right of screen. Remember that the launch proceeds for this book will be donated to Camp Bahamas, a Christian youth camp for underprivileged youth of the Bahamas, my homeland. I pray you enjoy this book and that it richly blesses your life with our King. Keep the Faith!
You can also follow @ReasonIfYouWill on Twitter.