Legalism Revisited (Guest Blogger)

innerphariseeI 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.phariseeslegalists

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.


9 thoughts on “Legalism Revisited (Guest Blogger)

  1. Great ‘guest-post’ Bill, thank you. Very helpful the way he fleshed out legalism from his own life in those very specific areas that are so, so familiar to the ‘professional Christian.’ Ouch; but a good ouch. Convicting and encouraging.

  2. Great post; I commented a smart alec one on Facebook too. I just posted on a very similar topic after meeting with a group of pastors the other day. From an external perspective legalism looks good & is very attractive. In the long run it ruins so much.

    You rock Dr. G!

  3. Friends…

    My comments are intended to provide balance to an otherwise outstanding commentary against legalism.

    Our struggle against legalism sometimes can take us too far to the other extreme, and that is to neglect our obligation to love our fellow Christian (who tends to be the one committing the legalistic disruption among us). In the process of censuring legalism, we can neglect our obligation to love our fellow Christians in the process.

    Both James and John say the same thing. You cannot your brother (whom you can see), and at the same time say that you love God (whom you cannot see). In other words, “grace” does not relieve us of the injunction to walk in the light, and therefore love our brother in Christ. In Galatians 5:6 (an epistle with vehement injunctions against legalism), Paul says that our faith “works” through our love! We are obligated under the “law” of liberty (James) to walk in the light and so love one another (John). The tongue is the first indicator (according to BOTH James and John) as to whether or not we are “liars” in regard to this principle of Christian agape love.

    No one in this blog commentary is going in that direction, and let me emphasize again, I thought to provide these comments to provide some balance to an otherwise sensitive topic. The bottom line is that by walking in the light (filling in the Spirit) are we able to love one another. Otherwise, our lust for control and covetousness will result in our “murder” of one another (James 4:2).


  4. thanks Joseph…..although, I feel loved when people point me in the direction of grace. Jesus loved the Pharisees therefore He was pretty direct (downright tough) when He pointed out their legalistic tendencies that were so far from the heart of God. Sometimes loving our brother means tough love….of course we must always check that our motive is for God to be glorified.

  5. Cheri…

    You know, I stumbled onto something in recent days while thinking about this blog.

    First, there are a lot of similarities between James and First John. Both apostles were “pillars of the church” (Gal 2:9) who corroborated together in Jerusalem during the first century. Maybe they “shared notes” which may explain why their respective epistles contain several of the SAME key points in the SAME order in their respective epistles (sharing material goods with believers who are in dire need; guarding of the tongue; hypocrisy; love as true demonstration of “invisible” faith; murder as image of Christian conflict; etc.)…

    Anyway, here is the kicker. Both epistles end with the admonishment to save fellow believers from straying from the truth (i.e., broken fellowship with the body). James alludes to this as “sickness” (James 5:14 ff.) and John alludes to this as sin “not leading to death.” (1 John 5:16-17).

    [By the way, the “sin leading to death” is in reference to the unbeliever (1 John 3:14). That is, the saved believer in broken fellowship is the context of “sin not leading to death,” while the unbeliever is the context of “sin leading to death.” In other words, we do not pray for unbelievers to be “restored” to Christian fellowship, because their problem is salvation, not restoration to Christian fellowship.]

    Anyway, here is the bottom line: Both ending of both epistles — and the topic structure in both epistles in remarkable — James and John admonish us to intercede to God on behalf of Christians who are struggling in their faith, and legalists (who are SAVED believers) are struggling. Their sin is not leading to eternal death (because they are still saved). Notwithstanding, legalists truly are the sorriest category, because as First John says, “If we say that we have not sinned — legalist — we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). That is why my outlook with legalists is not so much as “tough love” but merciful compassion…


  6. Joseph,

    Your words are well noted and express truth gracefully.

    Your insight regarding ‘the saved believer in broken fellowship is the context of “sin not leading to death,”‘ prompted the thought that this S-N-L-T-D is (in it’s legalistic form) a “sin leading like-unto-deadness”. I am reminded that Jesus saved his greatest ‘rants’ for Pharisees & Saducees, and used a whip to remove from the temple the corruption from which these legalists milked profit.

    If legalism is not a ‘sin leading to death’, it certainly promotes behaviors amongst legalists allowing them to elbow those teetering on the brink into the chasm and push the heads of the drowning back underwater to finish the job. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Matt 23:4

    Jesus had no problem publicly calling this ‘snakes & vipers’ movement to judgment. And we do well to separate the title “Pharisee” and “Saducee” from the choice of legalism or from the person who becomes a legalist. Not all P&S were bad in Jesus day. Many of them ‘got’ his message loud and clear; they were the few among the many – failing as salt and light to their own kind.

    Legalism is not an alternate route, nor a side street, a roundabout or a cul-de-sac. Legalism is a dead end. If you find yourself there, slap it in reverse and head back the other direction.

    As a recovering legalist, I profess very little stomach for that which enables the disease to maintain a foothold – in my life or in the life of fellow-sufferers. While we suffer together, we are called to (and experience) grace together.

    Gimme s’more of that tough love.


    Mike P

  7. Mike…

    I agree with everything you said. Let me add a few more thoughts that occurred to me over the recent days.

    First, you do not want to lose the moral high ground of grace-orientation to the legalists in your church. If you become nasty to them (tough love approach??), your salt may lose its saltiness. Do you remember when Paul discussed his confrontation with Peter about Peter’s legalism in Galatians 2? Paul essentially told Peter that he (Peter) was losing his testimony to the unsaved world, because Peter was acting like someone unsaved (Pharisee). Peter was losing his saltiness.

    What did Paul say to Peter in Galatians 2:14? He said, “How is it that you are saved, but you act like as if you are unsaved? How is it then that you would compel the unsaved to get saved?” This is my translation of Galatians 2:14. Remember: The reference to the term “Jew” in this context is “Jew-by-nature” (Galatians 2:15 and Romans 2:28-29) or anyone who is saved regardless of their race or ethnicity. This Jew-by-nature concept from Paul stems from the scope of the New Covenant, which is based on the Abrahamic Covenant…….

    I forgot one thing. You mentioned Pharisees (in the posts, above) as legalists, and this is very true. However, they were unbelievers (and in at least one case, some of these legalistic unbelievers blasphemed the Holy Spirit). The legalism among believers is no less insidious, however, I am not sure that the way Jesus addressed Pharisees should be the model that we address legalistic believers who are among us in our local congregation. In other words, Paul did not address Peter in the manner that Jesus addressed the Pharisees.

    I think that the pattern between Paul and Peter is better, because both were believers. (That is, Peter was the errant believer who was caught up in legalism.) The outcome was favorable, because in 2 Pet 3:15-16 (which was written many, many years after Paul wrote Galatians), Peter compliments Paul and even accords high respect, i.e., Paul had won Peter’s heart.

    Finally, here is one more tidbit. In Acts 15:20 and in Acts 15:29, Jewish Christians in Jerusalem had asked newly-converted Gentile Christians not to eat (strangled) animals that were sacrificed to idols. Many years later, in First Corinthians Chapter 8, Paul tells the predominantly Gentile believers in Corinth that consuming meat sacrificed to idols is actually all right (“meat for the belly, and the belly for meats”), as long as such consumption is not done at the expense of the walk of other Christians… That is, do not eat such meat sacrificed to idols if other Christians might “stumble”…

    Here is the problem. Many, many years after Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the Lord Jesus mentioned the abuse of eating of meat sacrificed to idols in Revelation Chapter 2 (see admonishments to Church at Pergamum and Church at Thyatira). Please note — there was NOTHING wrong with Paul’s theology in his epistle to the Corinthians; the problem instead (Pergamum and Thyatira) was that the liberty of grace (eating meat sacrificed to idols) was somewhere lost — and resulted in immorality in other areas, i.e., sexual immorality.

    What am I saying? First, do not let Christian legalists in your church pull you down to their level of carnality. If you succumb to bitterness toward them, your “grace” approach in daily Christian living will lose its saltiness. Take Paul’s approach, and tell the Peters among you that they are losing their saltiness in their testimony to an unsaved world. Finally, we must understand that our position on grace must be contingent on our filling and walk in the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, without the Spirit’s control of your life, many “grace” liberties can morph into other behaviors that our Lord Jesus would describe as “immoral.”


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