Friday, June 04, 2010
Common Misuses of the Word "Legalism"
I just read and can commend another of Robert G. Spinney's TULIP booklets. This one is titled "Are You Legalistic? Grace, Obedience, & Antinomianism." In the excerpt below, Spinney discusses common misuses of the word "legalism" before grounding true legalism in denial or ignorance of the doctrine of justification by faith.
Here are some unbiblical uses of the word legalism.
We see a believer applying the Bible to a real-life situation. He’s careful to obey God’s commands, even God’s seemingly little instructions. He’s serious about his Christian life, perhaps more serious than we are. This brother has convictions or practices that seem odd to us (which often only means not like our convictions or practices). We don’t say it publicly, but we think, “He’s way too serious about obeying God. He should lighten up.” And we look at that brother and think, “He’s legalistic.”
We see Christians discussing the meaning of a Bible instruction, like the Ten Commandment’s “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The discussion makes us uneasy, largely because we are unsure how to implement such a command today. Instead of joining our brothers and contributing to the difficult task of applying God’s Word to our life, we dismiss the issue as unworthy of our time. We think, “I don’t even want to consider how to obey that commandment. Obeying that command in any way today would make me look weird. I don’t want to be legalistic.”
We are having a discussion with a brother in Christ, and he suggests that we reexamine our ethical behavior in some area. We ask our friend for the biblical warrant for making such reforms, and he points us to a passage in the Old Testament. We respond by saying, “Oh, but I am a New Testament Christian. Jesus fulfilled the law, so I don’t have to obey any part of it. All Old Testament laws are abolished.” We walk away thinking our brother who values the Old Testament is legalistic.
A friend encourages us to apply God’s Word to a seemingly small issue. He may suggest that we make financial restitution for a sin we committed years ago. He may suggest that our clothing is immodest. He may suggest that we should be more faithful in attending the church’s Wednesday night prayer meeting. This strikes us as being too picky, an unnecessarily conscientious application of Bible teaching. We regard this careful (we would say overly careful) faithfulness as legalism.
In a local church, pastors do what the Apostle Paul did: they call upon the flock to fulfill biblical duties. These godly elders reprove, rebuke, correct, and exhort. They are even willing to say, “That particular unbiblical behavior will not be tolerated here. God’s people must obey God’s Word.” Church members criticize such church leaders as legalistic.
A local church attempts to conform itself to the Word of God. In order to do so, the church establishes biblical standards of conduct. Maybe they write these biblical guidelines into their church’s constitution and expect church members to honor them. But for some, the very appearance of rules and standards (regardless of how scriptural they are) provokes anger. They complain about legalistic church rules.
All of these uses of the word legalism demonstrate common misunderstandings of this concept. The unfortunate thing is that there is something called legalism. It is alive and well in the Christian world today; in fact, many of God’s people are being wounded and burdened by genuine legalism. However, we rarely recognize it. Real legalism flourishes right under our noses—undetected—while we wrongly call obeying God’s commandments legalistic.