Have you ever heard of someone saying that someone else was being “legalistic”? Have you ever said it yourself about a friend or acquaintance? This word, legalism, is probably one of Christianity’s favorite insults or judgments to bandy about. For many, it’s an easy way to put a name to behaviors they don’t agree with, particularly when someone seems to be overly committed to piety. Or, to avoid the trap of legalism, we might say, “Well, I guess I could do [blank] because I wouldn’t want to be legalistic.”
But what is legalism?
I recently heard a definition for it on the radio that sort of makes sense, though it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. The speaker said that “legalism” is the separation of the Law from the God who gave the Law. In my own words, this would be a form of idolatry, where the Law becomes the object of worship and means of salvation rather than God. This is a very natural thing to do. It’s easy too!
We don’t have to try very hard to head down this road, especially when we’re trying to do our best to please the God who loves us. When the almighty, good and loving father tells us to do or not to do something, it makes sense for us to then take that rule and place safeguards around it. If God says, “I don’t want you to have any cookies after dinner.” You might then say, “If God doesn’t want me to have any cookies after dinner, then I will just not touch the cookie jar after 4pm.” This is logical. Since dinner usually happens somewhere between 5 and 9pm, you can’t possibly have any cookies after dinner with your new rule.
But where God gave you one rule, now you have two. Soon, you might ask, “what did God mean when he said no cookies after dinner? Was he saying no dessert? Or was he saying nothing sweet?” To be safe, you decide that he really meant you can’t have dessert. Also, just to be safe, you decide that the cranberry walnut vinaigrette that you were looking forward to on your salad might also be considered dessert if you were to include all things sweet. You might then decide that cookies are a form of bread so baked goods are also entirely stricken from the table. Eventually, you might think that since the cookie jar is in the kitchen, you have to stay away from the kitchen altogether because, in your preparation for dinner and cleaning up after, you might accidentally bump into it and break our second rule, which is to not touch the cookie jar after 4pm.
What have we ended up with in order to avoid having cookies after dinner is a complete ban on dinner and reduced access to one of your favorite rooms in the house. This is legalism, and it’s not at all what God was asking for.
When God set forth the Law, he made a good start with the Ten Commandments. In fact, as Jesus explains in the New Testament, God’s first two commandments should have been enough since all of the rest of the Law and the Prophets are wrapped up in them. It was man who asked, “But… how??” and was subsequently terrified by the answer. The remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, after God hands down the 10 commandments to the Hebrew people, is full of the explanation and expansion of the Law. This portion of the Bible is part of the Torah and spells out the terms of the Mosaic covenant between God and His people, the Jews. Failure to meet these requirements meant death, not only to the body but to the soul.
The story of the Old Testament Jews is like that “no cookies after dinner” problem. Once the Law was given, the people gave themselves over to legalism in the extreme. When they came upon a lost or wounded animal that needed to be rescued on the Sabbath, they had to leave it and hope that it didn’t die before the next day. If it was time to give the tithe to the Lord, they had to then go and divide out the first tenth of not only the flocks, but also the produce, herbs, cash, and children, giving them over to God as an offering.
Today, we are no different.
Today, we still take the Law, the thing God intended for our benefit and His glory and worship it instead of Him.
Today, we enslave ourselves to the obedience of every last parenting/dieting/nonviolence/exercise rule we see.
But the story doesn’t end here. Some of us have evolved and moved on from such archaic requirements. Some of us have read scripture and know that we have something the Jews living under the Old Covenant never did; for us, the Law has been fulfilled. For us, there is a New Covenant between God and Man where Jesus, having fulfilled the Law through his crucifixion and resurrection, has removed from us consequence of breaking the Law.
If the consequence for breaking the law has been removed, are we now free to do as we please?
One of the biggest criticisms of Christianity is that Christians are hypocrites. We claim to hold to a higher way and yet often show that we are no different from our neighbor, neither in act or deed. This is a fair criticism, which we have earned.
Many (probably all) Christians have at some point or another wrestled with the question of what to do with the Law. Since the Gospel is that Christ has fulfilled the Law on our behalf, we now get to experience freedom from the burden that it represents. So, to exercise our freedom, we run headlong in the opposite direction of the Law. Believing that the Law no longer holds any significant weight, we scrap it and divorce ourselves from its code. This is what the scholars call “Antinomianism.”
antinomian. 1 : one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.
In other words, someone who thinks that they can do whatever they want because they’ve been saved by faith and grace covers all sins is an antinomian. Unfortunately for the believer, this too is a wrong response to the Gospel. Scholars in the past have reasoned that both the Legalist and the Antinomian both suffer from a wrong relationship with the Law. Indeed, both are still a slave to it. Jesus explains this to us in his Sermon on the Mount:
17 “Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20 CSB
Jesus’ statement about the Law paints a hard picture. You see, the Pharisees and the scribes knew the Law. They knew every letter and pen scratch making up the Law and could run circles around the rest of their Jewish brothers when it came to living it out. If the Pharisees were the epitome of legalism and Jesus tells them off multiple times for it, then we don’t want to be like them! But we don’t want to be antinomians either! What is a Christian to do? Are we supposed to keep the Law or not??
In my next post, I will discuss a right relationship with the Law and how Christians today should relate to it.