The very word, “Legalism” is a controversy in itself. People define it and redefine it as our culture tends to do, according to what they want it to mean.
Some define legalism as simply an attempt to follow a system of rules.
Others define it as when a person tries to tell others about a system of rules with the desire that those persons would either experience shame from their lawlessness, or would conform to the system of rules.
Still others define it as a theology of salvation by works, and others still look at it as a word used to justify sin among those who love their sin.
Dictionary.com gives us 3 definitions for how the word is most commonly used and supposed to be used in the English language:
1. Strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit.
a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
Based on these definitions, for someone to bring up that fornication is wrong or murder is wrong would not be legalistic. In fact, to show someone that they’ve broken a law (God’s law or man’s laws), would not be legalism at all. But for someone to bash others over the head with a system of rules because they feel that they follow that system better than anyone else and that they are therefore better than anyone else, would be explicit “legalism.”
The great hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time was that they would hold to the most publicly visible moral laws (often created by themselves), while committing all kinds of sin in private. For them, laws were a means of controlling the populace and ensuring that they would be seen as a higher class of citizen.
Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of calvary. It does not come by following a system of rules, nor by creating new, arbitrary rules for others to follow and enforcing them upon ourselves and others without faith. In such cases, that is just arrogance and insecurity hiding behind a system of rules as a means of obtaining a sense of personal value and worth.
However, a major weakness of the first definition of legalism listed above is that if the Holy Spirit should give a person a particular conviction, for instance the conviction that driving over the speed limit is not of faith and is to be avoided as much as possible (with the exception of extreme emergencies), this person would now appear to be strictly adhering to laws and so could be called a legalist even though they are operating by faith from a God-given conviction.
I choose a person who follows the speed limit in this example because it is far less controversial than other areas of personal morality – such as guidelines for Christian dating, the clothing we wear, the music we listen to, the way we handle our money, dancing, etc. Often, the moment we hear about someone following a set of rules regarding those subjects we are tempted to cry out “legalism!” While in fact, a person who’s standards may seem “higher” than our own may have been led to those standards by the Holy Spirit. This is not necessarily because they have a better relationship with God than us, but because God knows them better than we do and knows where their greatest weaknesses are located.
Of course, the challenge for all of us is to make sure we do not reject the call of the Holy Spirit to a certain level of personal holiness out of the fear of being called a legalist. Another challenge we face is to not look at someone else’s Holy Spirit guided level of personal holiness and to just adopt it as our own without thoroughly thinking through it and discussing it all with God, examining what His Word says about it before we choose to hold to that system of personal morality.
In today’s American church, there are many people who are ready to cry out “legalism!” regarding many practices that they themselves should be practicing. At the same time there are many other church practices that are accepted as normal by many believers even though those practices are actually a form of legalism. For instance, why does every church building have to have a replica cross in it? Where is that mandated in Scripture? Yet most do, right in the front of the building, and many of us would judge that group of people for not having one there.
The only available solution to the difficulty we face in discerning the difference between legalism and antinomianism (lawlessness), is to read our Bibles, study what they say in context, pray, consult God on how we choose to live, and check whether obeying a particular rule simply makes us feel puffed up (which may be pride and therefore legalism), or if by obeying that rule we are appeasing our consciences and making sure not to grieve the Holy Spirit.
The wild thought in all of this is that for many rules that most people can agree are good rules, such as “do not murder,” we approach those rules with a prideful sense of legalism, pronouncing ourselves as “good” citizens and better than others because we have followed a particularly popular law.
What we must all realize is that according to Romans chapter 3 … and most of the Bible 😉 …. all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are all hell-deserving sinners, and if we are to be faithful to the Scriptures we must help others to see this as well – not as a means to legalism, but as a means to showing them the need for the Savior of the world, Jesus, the Messiah.
We only truly acquire God’s righteousness and true goodness through trusting in the Good News about Jesus to the degree that we truly care about what God’s Word says and that we begin the process of obeying what the Holy Spirit speaks to us about how we are to live.
This will lead to a lifestyle of being confronted with God’s truth, repenting of past and current sin, and placing faith in the work of God in Jesus. Through this process we begin to experience greater and greater depth of relationship with God, walking in greater holiness and devotion to Him as time goes on. In this way, we truly begin to move from glory to glory as the Scripture says.
Thus, our salvation is not acquired by legalism, nor is it a license to sin. Some will call you, my dear reader, a legalist simply because you obey the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Still others may call you lawless because you walk in freedom in an area of life that they do not know freedom.
In both cases, love your accuser, seek God’s voice through prayer and the Word, repent if necessary and continue on in God living boldly and joyfully for His glory.