The Foolishness of Legalism (Part 2)

Well, I never got around to blogging yesterday. Good thing I’m not legalistic about it….

In the last post I outlined the foolishness of legalism in the work place. As dangerous as it can be there, it is even more dangerous in the Church, because legalism either stems from or leads to a completely inaccurate understanding of salvation.

In the Old Testament there were a lot of rules given by God that the Israelites had to follow. This was known as the Law. The entire point of the Law, however, was to reveal to the people that in and of themselves they could not possibly keep the Law. As it says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The word “law” appears more than 500 times in the Bible (in the English Standard Version) so it is clearly an important matter. More than 300 of those instances are in the Old Testament, but that leaves more than 200 instances in the New Testament, meaning the subject of law is not an Old-Testament-only issue. In the New Testament, however, the perspective completely changes; Jesus brings a “New Law.” Jesus Himself came to fulfill the Law–He is the only one who could ever do so. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (ESV).

The problem was that the Pharisees, the Law experts, completely denied who Jesus was because while He fulfilled the Law He violated many of the additions to the Law that the Pharisaical traditions had added. Just like some churches and denominations do today, the Pharisees were not content to leave the Law as God gave it alone; they thought it was necessary to clarify it and add to it in order for everyone to know exactly what they could and could not do, particularly on the Sabbath. Of course the Pharisees then also (1) took great pride in their adherence to the Law, and often drew attention to themselves for their “righteousness,” and (2) found many and creative ways to adhere to the letter of the Law while still doing what they wanted to do (such as pocketing a handful of dirt from their yard in order to go wherever they wanted while still adhering to the stipulation that they not leave their land).

Today there are churches, denominations and parachurch ministries that add stipulations and restrictions on behavior: do not go to movies, do not drink alcohol, women cannot wear pants, do not use playing cards, do not have drums or guitars in church, etc. These are just a few examples of legalistic rules that I have heard of or had experience with myself. In Jesus’ day, and then during the first century after His ascension, it was things like men must be circumcised, do not eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, do follow the feasts and traditions of the Jews, etc. Jesus and Paul spent considerable time addressing the error of strict adherence to such rules in a legalistic manner.

And it is the “legalistic manner” that causes the problem. In the last post I provided a definition of legalism, but provides more to that definition as legalism pertains to theology: “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works; the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.” Legalism, as alluded to above, usually stems from and/or results in a works-based idea of salvation. If I keep all the rules, I’m good with God, in other words. This is not biblical–see Titus 3:4-5. No one can work their way to salvation.

Now, if I, or anyone else, is convicted about certain behaviors it is perfectly fine to establish boundaries–“rules” even–regarding those behaviors. For example, if someone is convicted, and convinced from their understanding of Scripture, that going to a movie theater is not honoring to God, then he or she should not go to the theater. At the same time, though, he or she MUST not believe that by avoiding the theater he or she is somehow gaining points with God, or that if I choose to go to the theater I am somehow sinning or dishonoring God. These things fall within the realm of Christian liberty; when we try to impose rules we become legalistic…we become Pharisees. And, at the end of the day, we undermine, if not deny, the truth of the Gospel message–that salvation is by faith alone through Christ alone.

I happen to be convinced from Scripture that drunkenness is a sin, but I am not convinced that consumption of alcohol short of drunkenness is a sin. That said, I do not consume alcohol. At the moment I am employed by a Christian ministry that has asked me to agree to a code of conduct that does not allow the consumption of alcohol, but even when I have not been under such a code I have chosen not to consume alcohol. That does not make me any better than someone who does choose to drink, nor does it earn me anything with God. I choose to wear dress pants and a tie to church on Sunday, too, but that doesn’t mean I’m any closer to heaven than someone who wears a flannel shirt and jeans.

In Philippians 3 Paul talks about the abundance of reasons he had to be confident in the flesh–in other words, in his works. At the end of his recitation he said that any gain he had he counted as loss for the sake of Christ. In another passage he refers to his works as so much dung. At one point in Galatians (4:20) Paul tells the church in Galatia that he is at his wits end with them because of their tendency to accept the addition of works to salvation through faith.

It was foolish for a county in Michigan to fire an employee for turning in to police a loaded gun he found. It was foolish for the Pharisees to suggest that failure to wash their hands before a meal was a sin on the part of the disciples. It was foolish for the Pharisees to be more upset that Jesus had “worked” on the Sabbath than excited about the fact that a man who had been blind since birth could now see. It is just as foolish for you or me to get caught up in adherence to rules that the Bible does not contain.

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