I have great readers and an amazing circle of friends, both in the real world and the virtual world. I received via email this outstanding description of legalism, and share it with permission… I know you’ll enjoy it.
Thoughts on Legalism
by Mike P, Atlanta, GA
Legalism speaks the language of “must, should, and ought”; creating rules and regulations that create bondage and rob freedom.
Legalism is man’s attempt to flowchart the work of the Trinity so that by replicating the steps, we demand specific results without submissive hearts. Box God up, package him, place him up high on the shelf where we can ignore him while feeling righteous. This makes it OK to get away from God.
Legalism attempts to polish the exterior that others see without concern for the interior; like polishing a cow chip. Despite the appearance, the aroma remains constant.
Legalism allows men to justify ignoring the unexpected activity of God
Paul speaks of this in Romans 7:25b that “I myself… am… in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” Legalism tries to breathe ‘spirit’ life into the ‘sinful nature’ instead of allowing it to die by crucifixion. It feeds the ‘sin bacteria’ instead of sterilizing it, creating a whole new deadlier strain than existed before. Legalism permutates sin into hardly recognizable new deadly strains of selfishness and self-righteousness that propel us further from the health-giving, life-sustaining presence of God.
What is the opposite of a legalist? No single word comes to mind (or would it be a Label?)
Instead, I recognize the times in my own experience where legalism has been apparent.
My legalistic prayers sounded well-phrased and mentally stimulating soas to evoke men’s admiration; authentic praying desired only to carry me into the intimate, passionate presence of heaven (and when in corporate situations, served the Holy Spirit’s purpose as an usher to others, seating them into that intimate circle).
Studying the Bible legalistically was for competitive achievement proving my greater knowledge and position – “See what I know!” was my cry. And my knowledge became my power to tell others what they should do, ought to do, must do if they wanted God’s/my approval and if they wanted to achieve God’s/my lofty position. Legalism allowed me to look at truth without allowing truth to look into me.
Tithing – now there was a painful act for me as a legalist. It can’t be perfect unless it’s off the gross instead of the net. And it must include EVERY monetary resource. Frankly, I often had to grit my teeth while writing that check. Nowadays it’s not God’s 10% – he owns it all! Now writing the check IS an act of worship – joyously given to his pleasure, in amounts small and large. The act of worship supersedes the placement of the decimal or other considerations. I just want to know his smile.
In truth, legalistic thinking dominated much of my early religious AND spiritual life. As a child growing up in church, legalism took away many alternatives by applying restrictive measures that created a barren place. Eventually I was so sick of the religious that had I not met Jesus (instead of hearing about Jesus), I would have dismissed true church. Legalism leached all minerals from the soil of my soul and left only self-righteous nothingness; empty and hollow living that held no joy or pain or much-of-any feeling. But for all that I sure looked good! The patterns of legalism lingered well after I met Jesus, too. Legalism raised the ‘expectation’ bar further in how perfect I was to be and how to judge others where they lacked. “Work it out for Jesus!”
Eventually the barrenness of legalism was for me a planter for seeds of bitterness. After taking root, these manifested themselves as anger against God. Only after a decade of wallowing in sin like a fool did I profoundly experience grace. From the vantage point of freedom it is easy to look back across at legalism and refuse to return to that hellish prison. But how to free the others? That question remains.