Saturday, May 23, 2009


“Legalism” is a word that is thrown around by many Christians, generally in a very inaccurate manner. Many seem to believe that legalism is anything or any situation that involves rules and standards rather than complete “freedom” to do as they please. Examples of such thinking abound, but the following few should suffice to illustrate the point:

▪ Often in a Christian school setting, there are complaints from students, and sadly, also from parents, that the school is too “legalistic.” By that, they mean that the school has rules, and students are actually expected to obey them.

▪ Frequently, people of various ages complain that their parents are or were “legalistic,” meaning that their parents had rules for their home and expected the children to obey those rules.

▪ Sometimes churches are referred to as “legalistic.” Generally, such churches are those with an expected standard of conduct and sometimes even an expected standard of dress.

By the kind of thinking expressed in the examples above, it is likely that Jonah could have said, “I ran away from God’s command because God is just too legalistic. He told me what to do and actually expected me to do it.”

All too often, believers fall into the trap of believing that Christian liberty means there are no rules, no standards, no commands, and that anything goes. This really does not square with what the Lord Jesus Christ said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” He did not say, “If you love me, do as you please.” Such teaching is foreign to the Scriptures, which teach us that our freedom is not the privilege of doing anything we please, but it is the freedom and power to do right by obeying the Lord. “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (I Peter 2:15-16, NASB).

The Scriptures give us many rules for Christian conduct. Following are just a few:

"This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 15:12, NASB).

“Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:13-14, NASB).

“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Colossians 3:12-17, NASB).

“Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.’ Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:19-22, NASB).

“To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. For, ‘The one who desires life, to love and see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. He must turn away from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it’” (1 Peter 3:8-11, NASB).

“Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love” (2 Peter 1:5-7, NASB).

Those who say there are no rules, no “do’s” and “don’ts” for Christians, will experience great difficulty dealing with the above and many other passages.

Another trap is the very popular idea today that Christians are to operate according to “relationships, not rules.” Jesus did not say, “If you love me, have good relationships.” Instead, He said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” There can be no such thing as good, solid, healthy relationships without “rules.” Unless relationships are based on truth, they can never succeed. Far too many Christians get hung up on the idea of unity. Unity becomes their mantra, even unity at all costs. Yet the Scriptures make it very clear that when truth and unity come into conflict, truth always takes precedence. (See John 17 and the book of 2 John.)

The big problem when the subject of “legalism” comes up is the total lack of understanding on the part of some believers relative to what legalism really is. It is important that we let the Bible define it for us. “Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’" (Acts 15:1, NASB). This makes it clear that the Bible definition of “legalism” is that in order to be saved, a person must obey the Law of Moses or some other list of things to do and things to avoid. It amounts to salvation by works, which negates the grace of God. “Legalism” has to do with salvation, not with daily living. We could never be saved by obeying God’s commands. Scripture makes that abundantly clear. However, God’s moral law has never changed, and God has granted authority to those in charge to make “rules” and standards for all involved to obey. Without obedience, there can only be anarchy, and God is a God of order, not of confusion.

Real legalism, which is salvation by works, appeals to human nature. People want to believe they can do something to add to or even earn their salvation. It is likewise true that unlimited freedom with no restraint also appeals to human nature. Man wants to do as he pleases. What really does not appeal to fallen human nature is the truth that salvation is all of grace, and that after we are saved by grace, God expects us to live in obedience to Him. Man by nature rebels against this, yet it is God’s truth.

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