What is Legalism?
Basically, legalism is the idea (propagated by many evangelical churches) that puts an emphasis on works, and acting a moral life as set forth in the Bible. They are against anything that doesn’t come close to (in their eyes) to representing the true God, and take the “follow these rules” to an incredible extreme.
What’s wrong with Legalism?
I’m going to start off with some quotes which basically sum up my position on the subject:
I believe that there’s a tainted picture of God because of legalism. It takes away the element of His love for us, because people think that He’s a set of rules. God loves us, in spite of our mistakes, and I think that we need to stop painted that picture of God, that He’s this…Figure that’s, you know, that cares whether our hair is cut above our ears, because it’s simply not the God that I know, nor the God that I serve. There are far more important issues at hand: where are peoples’ hearts, are we loving people the way that God would want us to? Those issues are far more important than the legalistic issues that, at times, certain churches seem to get caught up in. —Toby McKeehan of dc Talk, Free at Last: The Movie
You may be saying, “All right Chris, that kind of makes sense, but he’s a little biased; he’s a Christian hip-hop artist and the leader of a Christian rock group, and legalism would tend to say that all forms of contemporary music, Christian or secular, are wrong.” Well, let’s look at someone who doesn’t have that kind of bias:
While the troops of Mahomet II surrounded Constantinople in 1493 and it had to be decided if the Balkans would be under Christian or Mohammedan [Moslem] dominion for centuries, a local church council in the beseiged city discussed the following: What color had the eye of the virgin Mary? What gender do the angels have? If a fly falls in sanctified water, is the fly sanctified or the water defiled? It may only be a legend, as concerns those times, but peruse church periodicals of today and you will find that questions just like this are discussed.
The menace of persecutors and the sufferings of the underground church are scarely ever mentioned. Instead, there are endless discussions about theological matters, about rituals, about nonessentials….In formerly Communist Russia, no one remember the arguments for or against child baptism, for or against papal infallibility. They are not pre- or postmillenialists. They cannot interpret prophecies and don’t quarrel about them, but I have wondered very often at how well they could prove the existence of God to atheists. —Richard Wurmbrand, Jewish Lutheran pastor from Romania who spent fourteen years in a Communist prison, Jesus Freaks: Volume II, page 208
I can’t see a single bias there. Basically, what both Toby and Pastor Wurmbrand are saying is that living a good life is great, but following the Ten Commandments doesn’t get you to heaven; accepting God’s love, as shown through His Son Jesus Christ is the only way to get to heaven.
Work of the Spirit
If following a set of rules gets you to heaven, the majority of anyone who has ever lived would get there, because so many of the world religions have rules on morality that resemble the Ten Commandments or Buddha’s Eight-fold Path. In fact, nine out of ten people on the street, if asked what being a Christian means, would say that it has something to do with going to church, not lying, not having sex before marriage, etc. Sad to say, legalism has done the most to help foster this false image of the Christian faith. Works aren’t your ticket, but faith is.
Let’s look at Ephesians 2:8-10, one of the most often quotes passages of Scripture about salvation through faith alone:
“For it is by grace you are saved, through faith—and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance to do.”
Sounds good, but what’s all this stuff in verse 10 about how we were created “to do good works?” It simply means that we as Christians are to do good works in Christ as a testimony to what God has done for us. It also seems to indicate that we have special gifts and talents specifically oriented for doing these good works.
Some examples might be speaking, teaching, the ability to lead in worship of the living Christ through music (be it “traditional” or “contemporary”), a specific desire to see and lead people to Christ, or in a more modern context, a desire and technological ability to spread the gospel through radio, television, or the Internet. For example, for years it has been my desire to use my technological skills in front of the keyboard to advance the kingdom of God, and specifically to defend the faith using basic logic, reason, and sound evidence (basically, be an apologist), as well as setting the record straight about how Christians are viewed in mainstream culture.
One Last Thing…
You may be saying, “Wait a minute! Does this mean that you can be a Christian and not have to do good things?” NO! Let’s look at that passage again:
“For it is by grace you are saved, through faith—and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance to do” (NIV emphasis mine.)
This means that the Holy Spirit is to be the force in us that causes us to want to do good works out of mercy and love, instead of just “going through the motions.”And that is what it is all about: mercy and love, a microcosm of God’s love, as shown through the ultimate sacrifice of His Son Jesus on the cross.