In my walk with our Lord, I have come to see that the road to virtue is a tightrope betwixt legalism and licentiousness. More often than not, a growing Christian will either live as though grace were a onetime gift to cleanse only our past, or take grace for granted insomuch as it becomes irrelevant to our daily lives. I have not often seen a new Christian progressing from faith to virtue balanced and free of hypocrisy. The young in the faith need the seasoned veterans to sensitively coach them over that tightrope; knowing all the while that they are going to have to lovingly fish them out when they fall.
I fell on the side of legalism; so thoroughly entrenched that I isolated myself and my family from fellowship with most mainstream Christians. Adamantly against denominationalism and anyone associated with it, I simply had to set myself apart from those who would be so divisive. Curiously, those steeped in legalism are not the least bit aware of it; even when directly accused like I was. I saw myself carefully walking in obedience and trying to encourage others to do likewise. Observe this tract I wrote to that effect. While much of what I said is valid, connect the underlined portions; I was oblivious to the oxymoron.
Can you spot a Legalist? Pop Quiz:
The freeway speed limit is 65mph. recognizing his tendency toward L.F.S. “lead-foot syndrome” a certain man has purposed to set his cruise control (once he gets up to speed) at 63mph whenever he travels on the freeway.
This is an example of: Circle one
Legalism or obedience
There are many Christians today running scared about legalism, as if it is the unpardonable sin. Some go so far as to question or even reject adherence to the New Testament writings for fear of being legalistic (never mind the fact that those letters make up the apostles’ doctrine to which we are to “hold fast”) (Act.2:42)
Yes, Jesus condemns the priests of his day for their legalistic approach to God’s law. But, many of his day preformed the very same rituals in the exact same way that were in no way condemned for legalism. And many in antiquity were obedient to the word, which when violated they had to recompense accordingly as the law prescribed; not one (as far as I can recall) being accused at any time of being legalistic.
Just to name a few were David, Samuel, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, Able, Zachariah (and his son John the Baptist), Nicodemus, Job, Hezekiah. In fact, Jesus himself, instructs a man healed of leprosy to go to the high priest to be examined according to the law, a ritual process which took three days to complete (Mat.8:1-4, Mrk.1:40-43, Luk.5:12-14). If you need more examples see Gen.-Mal.
So, what is the difference between legalism and obedience?
Defined in Webster’s Dictionary:
*Legalism is: strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.
*obedient is: submissive to the restraint or command of authority.
Legalism lacks heart; actions taken are done for appeasement as a means to an end.
True obedience is from the heart; actions are taken because you know they please God and you want His will manifest in your life.
Legalism looks for loopholes that provide technical compliance, to allow them to commit prohibited actions.
Obedience looks for all applications of the principal taught in the direction given, as well as the direction itself.
A few references
1John 2:6, Hebrews 5:9, 2Timothy 3:16, 2Thessalonians 3:14-15, Galatians 3:1, Romans 6:16, Acts 5:32,
Many today, however, abandon the original direction, claiming to adhere to the principle because the original direction is no longer applicable in their opinion. These individuals view obedience as legalism and are blind to the differences defined herein. Those who tend toward this viewpoint often struggle with the answer to the question above. This line of thinking treats the Bible as any other philosophical volume subjecting each point to the right/wrong concept of each individual rather than forming one’s concepts according to scriptural guidelines. In short saying “I have authority over scripture” rather than “scripture is my authority.”
If I am in error in my conclusions brethren, please show me where I lack in my understanding.
Well, I was in error! But nobody could have convinced me so. To me the snare of legalism was technical compliance, always on the lookout for loopholes in the scripture. This was not MY goal. I wanted to know the direct application from when it was written, the equivalent situation for today, and the core principle of the passage that I may know the appropriate application to the gambit of possibilities! That is CLEARLY obedience, NOT legalism!... (Pardon the aside, but I am inexpressibly thankful for the grace of God as He patiently draws us ever nearer to Him. We are to “grow in grace” and He has grace enough to endure our growth.) My break from this restrictive lifestyle began while I was carrying one of those principles to its logical extreme. In my purge of paganism and pagan influences, I came all the way to our daily calendar, its months and weekly days named for various gods and historical figures. As I pondered what we as Christians should rather be calling them I had a BRILLIANT revelation! This is getting RIDICULOUS. While I may know how the month got its name, the rest of the world doesn’t and really only cares that everyone shows up on the appointed day. Why create an unnecessary barrier of confusion? Does it really matter that we use something with a tainted history? After all, God uses us. As the Lord continued to loosen and untangle my self-imposed chains He led me to a verse in Romans 2 that revolutionized my reading of the law.
“They show the work of the law written on their hearts.” Upon much prayer I realized this meant the purpose to which the law was written, which always ultimately boils down to producing the image of God in the adherent. The purpose of the scripture was not that it should be meticulously obeyed but rather, that the whole person should be reformed, renewed and restored to be able to walk presently with God. While we walk in His spirit sin is impossible, and there is no way He could lead us contrary to His word since God does not lie nor does He change. This was the work that the gentiles showed; they didn’t need the law, they were walking daily with its author. As much as I had poured into understanding the details and implications of each verse, I missed the purpose every time. Much like the cautious motorist of my illustration needs to learn that the point of a speed limit is not to uniformly regulate local vehicle velocity, it is a matter of public safety; for him and anyone else in his potential path. Being more concerned for the wellbeing of yourself and anonymous bystanders than your timely arrival at your destination would be the ultimate end of most traffic laws in existence today! I no longer question “how many ways can I obey this passage?”, instead my prayer is “thank you LORD, for leading me into your presence.”