There most certainly exists a sliding scale of obedience within Christendom. The lines between what actions are right, wrong, and nuetral are blurred, and in some cases obliterated. Inevitably, when pushing the boundaries of Christian Liberty, there will be those in the church that accuse other “not so free” Christians of being legalistic. Unfortunately, these accusations are often subjective and based on something other than the clear tenets of scripture properly interpreted. What is legalism, or what does it mean to be legalistic? Lets take a look at three kinds.
1. The first kind of legalism is where the law of God is kept in order to obtain salvation. This is contrary to scripture, and an affront to Christ and His suffering on the cross. It is, in fact, heresy. See Romans 4:5, Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:21, and related passages. It is theological and practical impossibility to earn, attain, or obtain your own salvation. Any attempt by others to require you to do so may be classified as legalistic.
2. The second kind of legalism is where a person tries to keep or maintain his salvation by keeping the law. This is also a false doctrine. Our salvation is attained by faith, not our ability to “do good things.” Ephesians 2:8-9 We are justified by faith, not our works. Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:21, Romans 4:5, Romans 3:10-12 Galatians 3:10 directly opposes this line of thinking. “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” In a nutshell, if a person is trying to maintain his or her own salvation by keeping the law, then he or she better keep the whole law. Salvation is not kept by any effort of our own. James 2:10
3. The last kind of legalism, and the thrust of this article is where a select group of Christians follow certain laws or rules and hold in contempt those who do not measure up to their preconceived holiness. These “laws” or “rules” are often based on misinterpreted scriptures or based on some other private and subjective revelation outside of scripture. There is little debate that murder, theft, lying, and the like are wrong. Whether we as Christians like to admit it or not, there are “debatable” areas. There are biblically grey or neutral zones in behavior. We must take great caution in calling others to comply with our own convictions in those areas. Romans 14:1-12 speaks directly to these issues and how we should handle them.
In any of the three cases above, “legalism” may rightly be applied. However, the point I wanted to address is when Christians cry “legalism” unjustly because they simply don’t want to obey. Christians Make Disciples. It’s not just part of what we do, it’s what we are. We are to “be” makers of disciples makers. Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Jesus commanded many things and part of being a disciple of Jesus is to obey those things. It is human not to obey. It is human to want to place many of those commands into the debatable arena, the neutral zone, or the grey area so that we don’t have to obey. As that zone of permissible activity widens so too do the accusations of legalism get hurled against those who are trying to conscientiously trying to follow Christ. The next time you hurl the “legalist” accusation at someone, ask yourself if you’re doing so because you simply do not want to obey what Christ has clearly commanded.
A few questions:
Are there many debatable, neutral, or grey actions in being a disciple of Jesus? What are some examples?
What precautions must we take in exercising our personal Christian liberties?
Can we, and should we, ever accuse anyone of being legalistic?
Interested in looking at all of Jesus’ commands in detail? CLICK HERE.