25/4/2021 [Thematic Message 125]                                                                                                                                                                          www.lifechurchmissions.com  

What is Legalism? <Mt 5:17-20; Gal 3:1-3; Mk 10:17-22; Ro 14:20-21>

Prelude: Legalism is an enemy of the gospel, and is definitely what we believers must reject. It not only damages our souls, but also our relationships. The heart and mind of a legalist can be said to be a platform for the enemy Satan, and also a tool by which he uses to accuse others. Relatively speaking, people like characteristics of freedom, mercy and kindness, so we keep a distance from a legalist. This is even more so for the modern people. When we live in a society that is very free and advocates human rights, of course we all dislike legalists, and we will start to resist even the slightest hint of legalism. Then, to add on, some “grace-centred” churches often use legalism as the main topic of attack. As long as the church talks a little more on the responsibilities of believers, areas where they should work on, or some formalities, they are generalized as legalism. Legalism has caused many people to be resistant toward contents in the Bible that discipline people. In fact, these cause us to have less understanding of what the Bible says about legalism. This is like a shooter shooting randomly, and in doing so misses the target. Therefore, let us first understand what is “not legalism”. First of all, legalism is not determined based on the norms of our culture. For example, according to our modern culture, we are more accepting of friendly people. Some people consider a person to be a legalist based on the tone of his speech, or if his expression of words and deeds makes them feel uncomfortable (not aligned with their standard of friendliness). Some people may be frank and direct, but they cannot be regarded as legalists just based on that. By doing so, we only use our own culture and bias as the standard, and not the Bible as the standard. In addition, legalism is not narrow-mindedness. Sometimes, when we talk to some people, we feel that they are not open-minded. This is like how some people think that sisters’ skirt length should be beyond the knee, or how young people should have certain etiquette towards their elders, or that the country and society should have the older generation’s ideas. These cannot be regarded as legalism. It is possible that some of these thoughts are due to an individual’s conservativeness or his cultural background, and we cannot thereby think of them as a kind of legalism. If so, when times change, a new generation of people will then say that we are legalists. Therefore, we cannot determine what legalism is based on people’s changing cultures, ideas and practices. Furthermore, we should also be very careful not to regard a person who teaches people using God’s holy words as a legalist. When some people hear the preacher talk about sin or call for repentance, they think it is legalism. They think that people who talk about love using the Bible, often using a very friendly attitude that appeals to the masses are those who truly preach the word of God. In fact, sometimes it is just the opposite. There are many famous pastors and loyal servants of God who boldly use God’s words to rebuke people and stir their conscience to admit their sin and repent because they love the flock. Some church members commit adultery in their private lives, use unconventional methods to make money, behave unscrupulously, and even get involved in many immoral things. They look for churches that do not directly talk about human sins. These people stay in church for more than ten or twenty years, living a life committing sins daily and yet feel numb. They do not repent, nor do they see the need to repent because the message from the pulpit never share the holy word that rebukes them for their sins. Because they are guided by hired hands or shepherds in wolf’s clothing, their souls continue to be ravaged by sin. Therefore, let us not misunderstand legalism. If we do, we fall into the trap of the enemy instead. Moreover, let us not think it is legalism when we open the Bible and say that “people need to make effort”. Nowadays, the modern church also has a teaching that regards human efforts as humanism, or the old way of the written code, which originally came from legalism. This is also a big misunderstanding. Yes, the Bible clearly tells us that God does all things in His sovereignty, and everything comes from His grace, but God does not abolish human responsibility. The Bible clearly says that regeneration is monergistic, while sanctification is synergistic. After the Holy Spirit regenerates our lives, He immediately performs the work of sanctification. At this time, He is working in our lives, to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose <Php 2:13>. The Bible also instructs us who have been born again and saved to rely on the Holy Spirit to put to death the misdeeds of the body <Ro 8:13>. Therefore, after people have listened to God’s word, they have the responsibility. God’s grace not only saves us, but also stirs up our response, and even rebukes us for our non-response. When we see some people often saying, “I know, but I cannot do it”, we cannot continue to use God’s love and let them remain like that. Instead, we have to speak the truth in the Lord’s love, and even ask them to confirm the state of their lives. Because the Lord Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands.” <Jn 14:15>. A person who loves the Lord, even though he has repetitive weakness, will not say, “God’s commands are too difficult”, and then remain helpless. On the contrary, he will be humbler to rely on the grace of the Lord, and thereby gain the ability to submit to the Lord. Finally, there is also this misunderstanding of legalism, that it is legalism when one says that others are wrong. In this way, does it mean we are not legalistic if we accept everything? If this is the case, why do we need to read the Bible? Why do we need doctrine? We may as well say that messages that appeal to our ears are not legalism. In particular, we live in a generation where truth can be compromised for friendly relationships. We should not be imperceptibly influenced by liberalism, such that we become someone who dare not correct and teach others using the words of the Bible.


1.  Basically, the Bible reveals four kinds of legalism

1Consider law-keeping as the basis for salvation

In fact, this is the most severe kind of legalism, because the Bible clearly tells us that the function of the law is to let us know what sin is <Ro 7:7>, but it totally has no power to save us from sin. Thus, the law is meant to point man to Christ, but it is not to replace Christ. Those who are saved will know God’s holiness through the law, and by Christ, they will live out the essence of the law, which is to love God and men. Therefore, the intention of such a person is to imitate Christ, instead of keeping the law. Today, the representative example of legalism is those who try to be saved by their works or human merits. Such people twisted the “theory of salvation” revealed by the Bible, and turn the doctrine of salvation by faith to justification by works. Hence, Paul questioned the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit (meaning, born again and saved) by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? <Gal 3:2> From here, we know that using the law to replace the gospel is the worst error among all forms of legalism. Next, we will talk about three other kinds of legalism which obscure God’s law, such that it loses its original meaning.


2View Christian faith living as one which has to observe rules and dogmas

Some people only treat Christianity as a law-keeping religion, such that their whole idea about the faith is “what should Christians do or not do”. Their ultimate goal is to keep the law, instead of imitating and following Christ. We must know that when God gave the Ten Commandments to His people, those were given with the covenant between God and His people. That was how the Ten Commandments started. God told the Israelites, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.” <Ex 20:2-3>. This is like a husband saying to his wife, “You belong to me exclusively; other than me, you can have no other man.” In fact, this is an exclusive loving relationship built upon grace, instead of binding man to a standard of law-keeping. A theologian said, “The essence of theology is grace; the essence of Christian ethics is gratitude.” Our fear of God and our submission to Him all take place in this gratitude. This is like a wife doing all things for her husband out of gratitude, instead of dogma or responsibility, and all the more not out of fear. Thus, legalism abolishes the freedom and joy in the grace and gratitude of the gospel, thus greatly weakening the redemptive love.


3Observing the letter, but denying the Spirit

We must know that the New Testament very clearly differentiates the letter (external) and the Spirit (internal) <2 Co 3:6>. Therefore, such legalism is to separate the letter and the Spirit. They obey the letter of the law, but go against the Spirit of the law. For example, in Singapore the speed limit on the normal road is 50 km/h. There are two types of drivers who keep within the speed limit. The first type thinks that driving up to the speed limit is his entitlement and it is not against the law. However, when it is raining heavily, it could actually be dangerous to drive at that speed. On the other hand, in some special situations, we may need to send someone who is very sick to the hospital or urgently need to visit someone and while there are no cars on the road, we insist on keeping to the limit. Here, both have complied with the traffic rules and have not contravened any laws. But from another angle, they are actually doing what they please. Therefore, externally, a person may be observing the letter of the law, but his heart is far from revering God, neither does he want to obey the Spirit of the Law or submit to Christ. We can also say that, even if we have not committed adultery or theft, it does not mean we have obeyed the law. Or even if we have obeyed God and have given tithes, shown hospitality or served the Lord in other ways, God is looking at our heart in doing this. The most challenging thing in the whole faith is to live by the Spirit, but this is also what we need to grasp most. This is the difference between a spiritual and carnal person. When the pandemic is upon us, there is a restriction on the number of congregants, but as the leaders of the church and the shepherds of the Lord’s sheep, we cannot reject those who want to come to the church to worship. We cannot say we cannot sing hymns or cannot shake hands, because the law of the land says this. When we comply with the regulations, we are in a way obeying God, because God commanded us to obey authorities. However, when we obey these regulations, does it mean we are truly obeying God? Actually, it is easy for us to use laws or dogmas to determine things. But if we want to revere God and submit to Him in all things with our heart, that is not easy, but it is pleasing to God. Having said this, we must be careful, do not think that just because God looks at the heart, we can use it as an excuse not to perform the duty of a Christian <Mt 23:23>.


4Do not add man’s regulations to God’s laws, and even worse, make them absolute

Such is a deadly form of legalism, to add man’s rules, traditions and standards on top of the laws in the Bible, and pass them off as God’s commandments. This is what our Lord Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” Besides the laws and commandments of God, they also added 613 decrees that originated from human traditions. For example, if you do not wash your hand thoroughly, you must not eat. Many Christians believe that Christian faith is about obeying a right set of rules, or performing above the rules. Sometimes, it is not that these rules are not good, but we cannot see them as equal to the laws from God. This is like every church may have its own policies and governance practices. Hypothetically, we can forbid children from eating titbits, or not encourage them to watch meaningless cartoons. But we must not make this absolute and claim that doing these will be going against God. Some believers like to gather to play mah-jong for leisure, or sample some wine, we cannot say those who have done these are not saved. We cannot use doing or not doing these things as a barometer of true faith. If we do so, we are replacing the fruit of the Holy Spirit with human traditions. We must be careful not to add on man’s rules and standards on top of the freedom given by God. Indeed, the gospel calls us to repentance, lead holy lives but we must not distort the essence of the faith, and use the name of Christian morality to promote legalism. Sometimes, if we are not careful, we will be over-sensitive to what people wear, drive, use, live in and excessively judge their godliness. Of course, in things which the Bible does not directly object to, when we choose to do or not do that thing, we have our own standards as we face God. In evaluating others, through our gradual understanding of the person, we can make a more accurate judgment. But we must know in what areas the Bible has not directly pointed out and we must not make our judgement absolute.


2.  How should we face the threats of legalism?

1First admit that we are legalists

Actually, we are all a legalist inherently. Because of our sinful nature and as we are also living in a sinful world, our spirits are always being accused, and we too accuse others. Perhaps some people have friendlier and more easy-going personalities, but when others touch on their painful areas, they immediately criticize another person based on right and wrong. To judge others is our nature. Hence, we see that the easiest tendency of many people who know some truths is not to use the truths they know to examine themselves, but to use those truths to judge and accuse others. Often, we first give in to our difficulties, then we demand from people around us; or we think we can do it, thus others must do it too. Or we learn not to treat people legalistically in one area, but once a new situation arises, we will easily stem from a legalistic heart again. Very quickly, we only act by the letter, or we critique based on whether the dogma says it is right or not right, instead of wanting to have the Lord’s heart in the problem we face. Why is that so? This is brought about by our sinful nature.


2Know God’s word, but receive Christ’s heart in doing things

We cannot learn just once, but for our whole lives. However, the basis of our learning should not stem from wanting to be considerate to men. But we should truly know that the sinless Lord substituted all sinners on the cross. From here, we know that after knowing our sins and repenting, for our whole lives we should learn the Lord’s heart in every matter. In dealing with every complicated human affair, we should not seek the easy way out. The more complex things are, the more we should pray till we receive the heart of the Lord. Example: Some people say that the children in the church are all playing with the mobile phones, but they are not interacting with one another. Of course, this is a problem, but tough restriction may bring worse results. Therefore, the church tries to create an environment for the children to interact. For example, buy a “foosball table” for them to play together, parents also do their part to encourage their children, or urge their children to put away their mobile phones. Certainly, the church must have certain principles in management. These principles may not satisfy all brothers and sisters, but we try our best to explain. Whether it is the person leading in front or those serving or attending meetings, after some adapting, they will all acknowledge God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.


3Try not to provoke the legalistic hearts of others due to personal displeasure, but seek the more beautiful guidance of God

Normally when a problem appears, people’s hearts are displeased, then we will easily hear people complain. Usually, grumbles will bring about more grumbles. Because in grumbling, people will accuse and blame one another, and push the responsibility to people beside them. Usually, many immature servers will be hurt, even leaving the church. Then the church will come out with more laws to restrict people’s freedom, such that brothers and sisters feel there is less and less grace. In fact, all these are reactive ways, which bring the entire church no benefit but only harm. In <Ac 6:1-4>, we see that there were complaints arising from the distribution of food, then the apostles found people who were full of the Spirit and wisdom to manage such complicated matters in the whole church. Therefore, there are many complicated affairs in the church which have to be managed by co-workers who rely on the Holy Spirit and who possess wisdom. It is not merely solving problems by implementing rules. However, when there are more people, some basic rules to maintain order are also important. This also has to be carried out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The early church had done well in this area, thus it brought about the advancement of God’s word <Ac 6:7>. This is because the church was managed well, so brothers and sisters were united, then when the Lord’s word was being preached, it also had clear evidences.


4Christians who love God and men will all be restrained by the great principle of “not stumbling brethren”

<Ro 14:20-21>: Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.  It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. This scripture is the principle of love which the Lord gives us. Although in Christ, we all have relative freedom, we must be careful not to stumble brothers and sisters because of what we wear, eat, and do. Sometimes, we cannot give ourselves the excuse, “We have the freedom to do this.” Such as, we have the freedom to drink wine (only do not get drunk), freedom to play mah-jong (only do not gamble). Especially in the internet age, some people like to post online whatever they enjoy doing, to show others. We always have to ask, when people see us do these things, how would they think? We cannot control how others will think, and cannot demand everyone to understand us. But we always have to ask, if we do certain thing, if it is controversial though it is not restricted by law, can we choose not to do it out of love for brethren? For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” <Gal 5:14>