Legalism is a human system which counterfeits the work of God. It settles for religion when God actually calls us into relationship.
I know. I was a legalist for 25 years.
In this two-part series, we’re looking at the fifteen “feathers” which help identify a legalist. You can read the first post here, which explains feathers 1-7. Let’s conclude with feathers 8-15.
Are you a legalist? Try these “feathers” on for size:
8.) Security: You prefer simplistic security rather than an adult challenge. Part of the appeal of legalism is a warm-fuzzy environment in which you appear to gain cosmic assurance based on the pronouncements of a spiritual leader. This requires little of you except to obey and submit. It reminds me of the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when one of the prisoners can’t handle freedom after so many years of lock-up and prison routine, so he commits suicide. Legalists prefer a harsh but predictable system to the unpredictability and bracing responsibility of liberty.
Solution: Accept God’s requirement that when you become a spiritual adult you must make decisions for yourself; sometimes these are very difficult decisions. But you are responsible for your decisions, not your pastor, not your elder, and not John Piper or some other public Christian figure. The Bible considers faith a stewardship which requires personal faithfulness (1 Cor 4:2). Each person is responsible for his or her own soul (Ezekiel 18).
9.) Correctness: You try very hard to do what is right, to think what is right, and to feel what is right. Legalists toe the line, study the letter of the law, and construct elaborate extrapolations of scripture in order to avoid stepping out of line. Many people who struggle with legalism can quote scripture letter-perfect but misunderstand both its interpretation and spiritual application. The Pharisees obeyed the letter of the Old Testament Law, but failed to grasp the character or spirit of the law (Matthew 23:23). By focusing on “rightness” and “oughtness,” a legalist very often misses the entire purpose of God’s commands, which is love.
Solution: God focuses on what is good, not on what is right. “Rightness” has to do with matters of law; “goodness” has to do with character. Jesus recognized that God alone is truly “good” (Luke 18:19). Paul expresses this distinction when he says that few people would choose to die on behalf of a righteous person (that is, someone who is punctilious about matters of the law); but that someone might possibly dare to die for a truly good person (that is, a morally upright person who demonstrates godly character). God, however, expressed his love for us by dying for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:7-8). If you want to be good—not just “right”—then you must reflect the character of God by showing mercy and grace to undeserving sinners.
10.) Trite and Unbalanced: You focus on secondary matters instead of primary matters. Legalists confuse the unimportant with the most important. They believe that every matter of faith or Christian living is of equal value. They also believe that every verse in scripture is equally important. To support this, they quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17. But they misunderstand that while all scripture is inspired by God and has value, some scriptures are more valuable than others. For example, the genealogical charts in 1 Chronicles 1-9 are not as salvifically practical to Christians as the Gospels, the Book of Romans, or Ephesians 2. Anyone who claims that all of scripture is equally applicable to modern Christians has lost any sort of biblical perspective and makes God out to be a fool—or an unbalanced tyrant. Instead of being perfectly balanced as a result of trying to hold all scripture at the same level of importance, legalists are actually doctrinal Gargoyles. They practice a hideously distorted, out-of-proportion faith which results in misinformed and harmful practices.
Solution: Put first things first. Paul explains the core doctrines of the faith: the Person and work of Christ, repentance from sin, faith in God, baptisms, the laying on of hands (possibly related to spiritual gifts and commissioning by church leadership), and final judgment (Hebrews 6:1-2). If Paul recognizes a hierarchy of doctrine, we would do well to avoid a simplistic avowal that every verse in scripture is equally applicable or important. They are not. They are equally inspired, and that is a different matter altogether.
11.) Legislation/Control: You prefer that an authority figure mandates matters so that you no longer have to think for yourself. This relates to the idea of security explained above. Legislation makes life seem more simple and orderly. If you can have the heart of God spelled out in black and white, then you can control the Almighty and manage him in predictable ways. This means that no matter how many songs you sing about God ruling over all, you still remain in control of your own life and eternal destiny. Legislation of God’s commands attempts to remove God from his throne in favor of your own meticulous obedience and merited rewards.
Solution: Grace. Legalists must come to see that when the Bible speaks of grace, it means unmerited favor. We encountered this earlier when we referred to Romans 5:8. There is nothing we can do as human beings to deserve God’s salvation. Repentance doesn’t make him save us. And an obsessively rigorous approach to living morally does not make him bless us. We cannot control God, no matter how hard we try or how punctilious our lifestyle appears. Grace is messy and blasts our narrow categories of merit.
12.) Simplistic: You ignore the complexities of life and prefer black and white thinking. Legalists are difficult to dialogue with because they try to reduce mysterious matters into polarized categories. For example, a legalist may camp forever on the sovereignty of God without acknowledging that the Bible also speaks of human responsibility. They cheerfully quote verses about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12) without remembering that the Bible also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart as he exercised psychological liberty (Exodus 8:32), and that Pharaoh admitted his sin, thus accepting responsibility for his own actions (Exodus 9:27; 10:16). A legalist rarely exercises critical thinking, preferring the apparent security of one-dimensional living. This means that when a legalist sees a Bible verse which warns against drunkenness, he or she might make a false application which disallows drinking any alcohol ever. Rather than exercising self-control and moderation, legalists find it easier to write off the entire category of alcoholic beverages altogether.
Solution: Recognize that there are a wide range of “gray” matters in which the Bible demands critical thinking and grants freedom for diverging opinions and practices (Romans 14-15; 1 Corinthians 8). Accept that part of God’s “God-ness” is his unfathomable mystery (Judges 13:18). He does things beyond understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9) because he is beyond our understanding. Healthy Christians embrace a good deal of tension and mystery in life as they walk along in dependence on the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Heresy, not faith, removes most of the tension in life.
13.) Materialistic and 14.) Religious: You focus endlessly on things you can quantify, measure, handle, taste, touch, etc. (Colossians 2:20-23). Because legalism is fundamentally a human system, it must deal fundamentally with the five human senses. This means that while legalists talk about God all the time, in reality they spend their lives obsessed with physical matters. Just look at the questions legalists ask: Is it okay for me to go for a run on Sunday? To use a piano at church? To wear blue jeans in the sanctuary? To drink a beer? To play cards? To dance? To wear my hair below the ears? To sing a contemporary worship song with a 2-4 beat? To use the NIV instead of the KJV? Legalists profess God but obsess over stuff.
Solution: Embrace the ministry of the Holy Spirit as you live focused on what Christ has done for you. While an obsession with physical things and an ascetic approach to life appears religious, in reality it is living life in accordance with the basic principles of this world:
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
“Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:16-23)
15.) Idolatrous: Finally, you place someone or something else in the place of God in your life. Someone: By this, I mean that you often exalt a particular teacher or preacher as the authority on spiritual matters in your life. This fixation on authority figures usually traps legalists in an idolatrous relationship, putting a man or woman in the place of God. In my former church, our pastor acted as the mediator between us and God. We gave him this power over us. Something: Alternatively, a legalist may exalt scripture to the place of Godhood. There is a term for this: “bibliolatry.” Bibliolatry refers to worship of the Bible itself. Many legalists are experts at quoting scripture. They believe that simply quoting a Bible verse can magically solve a relational problem, break a spiritual bondage, or simplify a complex moral matter. Unfortunately, there is no difference between this behavior and the chanting of a witch doctor. Satan himself quotes scripture, but without the power of true interpretation or application which comes only through the Holy Spirit. It is not the reciting of Bible words alone which has power, but rather the understanding of those words through spiritual discernment which is received by a humble, wise heart in dependence upon the Spirit of God.
Solution: Recognize that all men are sinners (Romans 3:23); worship God and serve him only (Luke 4:8). There is only one mediator between God and people, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). Remember that each Christian is now a priest who has access to God directly, without the need for a human mediator (1 Peter 2:9). Remember that God’s Word is a sword which only has power when it is animated by the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 4:12-13).
These are the fifteen “feathers” of a legalist. Understand them so that you can identify them in your life or in others’ lives. God has so much more for us as Christians than for us to flock together in legalistic, human-based systems or churches.
Let’s fly out of the thickets and upward on eagle’s wings (Isaiah 40:28-31).