Christian Legalists Return to Self-Effort
"Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal 3.3).1
Although as believers we are no longer "in the flesh" (Rom 8.7-10), the flesh — the unrenewed mind and will bound to the material world and bent on self-gratification — is still in us. The result is an on-going duel between the Spirit and the flesh that will only end when our redemption is completed (Rom 8.4-13, 23; Gal 5.16-17). The flesh also draws protests from the conscience as it pursues its selfish ends. To deal with this dissonance, the flesh employs one of two techniques: it may soothe the conscience by drumming up respectable behaviour, or it may exhaust the conscience by persisting in shameful deeds.
We are used to thinking of the flesh only in terms of its wild side, and forget that the flesh regularly oscillates between the opposite poles of decency and indecency. If we have not learned that the flesh is two-sided, we will fail to detect its well-behaved side, and confuse refined flesh with true spirituality. In fact, the flesh is most deceitful when on its best behaviour. When it operates in its legalistic, respectable mode, the flesh is perfectly willing to confront its lawless alter ego with bursts of manufactured piety. When this happens, however, the flesh ironically ends up gratified rather than subdued (Col 2.21-23).
As believers, we must recognize that joyless, guilt-driven, performance-based, do-it-yourself Christianity is fleshly legalism. If we have grown cold in heart we will easily fall into this trap. Although we obtained salvation by grace, we are constantly tempted to maintain it by works. How deplorable that we who renounced works and status and tradition when we believed the gospel should now fall back on rote law-keeping to advance our spiritual growth (Eph 2.8-9; Col 2.16-23)! We gladly embraced saving grace then, but now strangely want to keep sanctifying grace at arms length. We depended on the Saviour to redeem our souls, but wont depend on the Spirit to redeem our lives. Since we believe that only grace can save, we must also believe that only grace can sanctify (Eph 2.8-9; Titus 2.11-14).
Some Christians unwittingly encourage such legal externalism in their fellow believers in the name of moral control. They understandably fret about practices that they deem unspiritual in the lives of others. Rather than allowing the Scriptures to speak and letting Gods Spirit work, however, they resort to legalistic rules to control such people. Their regulatory zeal often moves from correcting to overcorrecting the errant ones by adding matters of personal taste to the official list. Paul asks, "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls" (Rom 14.4). If we start to bind peoples consciences where God has left them free, we are purveyors of legalism.
Legalism is not Obedience, but Disobedience
"You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?" (Gal 5.7).
People commonly define legalism as overly strict obedience to Biblical rules. But while legalists may indeed appear to be strictly obedient, it is crucial to understand that legalism is not true obedience, strict or otherwise. Instead, legalism is striving to achieve a good standing with God through keeping rules, rather than humbly receiving that standing through faith in Christ. Legalists perform compulsory works in the energy of the flesh, while the truly righteous perform voluntary works in the energy of the Spirit. The legalist is satisfied with externally complying with the wooden meaning of the law, but the righteous person is motivated by inwardly delighting in the widest meaning of the law.
Although legalism may look like obedience, it is actually disobedience, for no operation of the flesh can please God (Rom 8.4-14). In fact, legalism is the opposite of obedience, for true obedience arises from faith, which the flesh never employs (Rom 1.5; 16.26; Heb 11.6). After faith receives grace (Rom 4.16; Eph 2.8), the Spirit of grace motivates and empowers obedience (Rom 6.14; 1 Cor 15.10; 2 Cor 6.1-2; 12.9; 2 Tim 2.1; Heb 12.28; 1 Pet 5.5). Legalism, in contrast, stubbornly bypasses the Spirit of God, the grace of God, and faith in God. For proud and fleshly reasons, it attempts to obey all by itself — and fails.
It is vital to recognize that Gods law itself cannot be the problem with legalism, for the law is holy, just, and good (Rom 7.12). Legalism is a disease of the heart that has nothing to do with rules themselves. In order to diagnose legalism accurately, we need to know not merely whether a person obeys Gods Word, but why and how. If the obedience we see springs from a redeemed heart that loves God and yields to His Spirit, if we detect genuine faith and hope and love, then we are observing liberty, and the epithet legalism is a misdiagnosis.
Those who belittle Christians as "legalists" because they "live by a lot of rules" betray a fundamental animosity toward law. This negative bias toward Biblical law must be sinful, for "sin is lawlessness" (1 Jn 3.4). Commonly, we notice that the same people dismiss the keeping of Biblical commands that they dislike as "legalism" — another tip-off that they themselves are in bondage to lawlessness. The spiritual believer has a changed heart that loves Gods law, and so he does "live by a lot of rules" — Biblical ones, including the "picky negative rules" — because by keeping these rules he glorifies the God who values them.
Such people will further say that anyone who is afraid to break rules must be a legalist. Granted, the typical legalist does fear that God will reject him if he slips up. However, a liberated believer also fears to break Gods law. He has no craven panic that God will dislike or reject him, but instead maintains a reverential fear of dishonouring the Master he supremely loves. If he refuses to miss the Lords Supper to attend a very special football game, the lawless types will quickly brand him as a legalist. Moderate obedience is fine, they say, but extreme obedience is definitely legalistic. However, the people in bondage in this scenario are the football fans, not the conscientious believer. The Christian who lives by such an uncompromising standard is not legal, but loyal. God is an extremist — He is extremely holy, beautiful, merciful, gracious, and faithful (Ex 34.6-7; Is 6.3) — and He calls His people to extreme obedience (Lk 9.57-62). He is worthy of nothing less.
To be continued.
1 In this series of articles, unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations from Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version.