Are They Legalists? Are You?
"They don't let their kids watch PG-13 movies?" he asked, astounded.
"Nope," she replied.
"That's so legalistic!"
"I know," she agreed. "Plus, they don't let their girls wear two-piece swimsuits or even go to prom! Talk about legalism."
Wait a minute. Let's not jump to conclusions. Before accusing anyone of legalism we need to know more. I would argue that there are two basic things that make people truly legalistic:
1) Relying upon the law in addition to or instead of the gospel for salvation.
2) Creating laws that are not in the Bible and then looking down on others who do not practice them.
These two things are evidence that someone is legalistic. The accusations in the dialogue above are without merit unless it can be shown that the accused demonstrate one or both of these things.
Let's explore the first one. It's the big one. It's the reason Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians. The false teachers were persuading the Galatians to believe that, in addition to faith in Jesus, performing works of the law was necessary for salvation. This is blatant legalism. Paul warns that this teaching is a different gospel (1:6) and that believing it will sever you from Christ and make you fall away from grace (5:4). The pure gospel is this: "A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ...because by works of the law no one will be justified" (Gal. 2:16).
How does this kind of legalism come up today? Whenever people think that God will accept them into heaven because Jesus died for them and because they have tried to do their best. It's the "and" (along with everything that comes after it) that's the problem. I love the hymn, The Solid Rock, in which we sing: "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness." That's so true. It would also be true to sing, "on nothing else than Jesus' blood and righteousness."
The first kind of legalism is relying upon the law in addition to or instead of the gospel for salvation. The people accused of legalism in the dialogue above may not, in fact, be depending on their strict practices for salvation. For all we know they trust in nothing less and nothing else than Jesus' blood and righteousness. Their pious, even strict, behavior is not evidence to the contrary.
Let's move on to the second thing: creating laws that are not in the Bible and then looking down on those who don’t practice them. The Pharisees did this a lot. Not only were they scrupulous about following the Mosaic law, they also followed the tradition of the elders, which served as a hedge around the law to keep them extra-extra pure. In Mark 2 the Pharisees looked down on Jesus and his disciples for plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. In Mark 7 they sneered at them for not washing their hands before eating. These laws did not come from the Bible, but from the tradition of the elders.
Now, I don't think it's always a bad idea to make up extra laws to follow. We all do this to an extent because it's a good way to give order and discipline to our chaotic lives. The problem arises when we begin to think more highly of ourselves because we follow these extra laws and when we look down on those who don't. Parents do this with how they raise their kids as compared to others. Pastors do this regarding the liturgy they follow as compared to others. We can do this with how we budget (cash envelopes!), with how we date (courtship!), and with how we do our daily devotions (morning and evening!).
For those of us who are disciplined rule-followers, this kind of legalism is a daily struggle. Therefore we need to constantly repent and believe the gospel, which not only reconciles us to God but also helps us look upon others with grace.
On the other hand, for those of us who are not particularly well-disciplined rule-followers, the temptation is to look down on those who are. We might think that we have come to understand the freedom of the gospel while they are still living under the bondage of the law. That's when we need to repent as well. We should put the most charitable construction on those who follow strict rules, like the parents who don’t let their kids watch PG-13 movies or go to prom. We should not assume they trust in their practices for salvation or that they look down on others for not behaving like them. Instead, we should assume they are sincere Christians trying their best to keep themselves and their children unstained by the world.
Legalism will continue to trouble us from within and without. It’s good to understand what it is so that we’ll repent when we see it in ourselves and be discerning when we see it (or don’t actually see it) in others. The constant remedy for legalism is the pure gospel. We are justified by faith in Christ, apart from works of the law.
sola gratia. sola fide.