23 Jul 2019

Legalism, What is It?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Corinthians, Discipleship, Faith, Grace, Hermeneutics, Holding On, Holy Spirit, K. C. Moser, Precision Obedience, Salvation, Sectarianism, Spiritual Disciplines, Unity

Many people use words in a very slippery way. We will call a person a “liberal” as a way of dismissing what she has presented. No real discussion or examination need be taken because we can simply dismiss the individual. Many people also use the word “legalist” and there is not much content to the word.

I was called a “liberal” so I think it is proper to think about “liberalism” and “legalism.” I think there is something that is legitimately “Liberalism” and there is something called “Legalism.” Defining theological “liberalism” is far easier than “legalism.” Neither of these words or the ideas they represent can properly be used as a way to shut down conversation, nor thrown at some one simply because he or she disagrees with “me” or “you.”

Real Liberalism is a position that rejects certain fundamental Christian beliefs. These include: the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the reality of miracles. Liberalism is essentially Rationalism applied to Christianity. A person that accepts the deity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection, the virgin birth, the miracles as real can never be honestly and legitimately called a theological liberal. If you accept the Bible you are not a liberal. It is that simple and there are virtually zero genuine Liberals within the fellowship of Churches of Christ.

Legalism is real and a far greater danger to folks within Churches of Christ than theological liberalism. Jesus was in a discussion with a “legalist” once. The discussion was not about legalism per se but about love. The legalist actually correctly defined what Scripture said and was even able to say what he knew was “most important” and said love God and love neighbor. But he wanted to justify his lack of love and said to Jesus “well who is my neighbor.” (Lk 10.25-37). Jesus actually wrestles with legalism frequently in the Gospels.

Today, we often say with the Pharisee, “but what is legalism” (seeking to justify ourselves as well).

Legalism is tough animal to define in a single sentence. How do you define “beautiful?” or more appropriately how is “life” defined? How do you describe colors like “red” and “blue?” It is pretty tough to do.

However, we know beauty when we see it; we recognize life when we encounter it; we know love when it is shown and we know colors when we behold them.

But defining these basic and fundamental realities is exceedingly difficult. We know beauty by the response it elicits from us. We know life by its fruits. Paul even says we know the presence of the Holy Spirit by his Fruit.

Perhaps “legalism” is like that … we know it by its fruit. Yet the difficulty in defining beauty or life in no way suggests these are imaginary concepts.

But I am not going to leave it there. Legalism is an orientation that views the human walk with God as something that is primarily generated, and rooted, in human action rather than divine. Legalism is a worldview.

Legalism is not about obedience vs disobedience to the King. Legalism is the framework in which such obedience is understood. Legalism conceives the central issue of Christianity as what I do, what I know, what I think. It is about humans getting it right or else.

Let me unpack the previous paragraph with some concrete “identity” markers for “Legalism” flowing from the definition I have given.

1) Legalism conceives of Scripture as primarily a record of divine commands given to the human race that we are to fulfill precisely. The heart of the Bible is a call to exacting, even precision, obedience to those commands. Scripture is about what humans must do.

According to legalism, Scripture is not primarily the inspired Story of the God’s love, of God’s gracious move to make space in the divine life for something as alien as matter, of God’s sacrificing Godself so that matter can continue to dwell and indeed become partaker in the divine nature! No Legalism says Scripture is fundamentally the commands of God directed to us so we by our own precision obedience can be right with God. The ground of acceptance is not God’s work but human response.

2) Legalism regards the New Testament (the Hebrew Bible is not even on the radar screen of legalism except as a caricature in most cases) as a large number of commands, examples, inferences … all of which are equally important. Exact obedience to each is necessary to salvation. Missing even one damns as much as any other. This is the very essence of the “rebaptism” debate among us.

Legalism will, btw, often use the word “grace.” Legalism says that God in God’s grace revealed the legal code to us, or that Jesus died to give us the code or pattern (the Pharisee could talk about God’s love and knew the command to love was divine!). However, we are bound to these commands for our own good. The code/plan/pattern provides the means by which we can do something sufficiently well enough to be with God. Grace, in legalism, is the revelation of the command that we have to obey with precision. Failure to precisely perform each of these commands will result in our damnation. So grace, in the worldview of legalism, is not God’s gift to save us but rather commands so we can ultimately save ourselves provided we meet the exact requirements with precision. I cringe at the very notion.

When the chips are down, there are no secondary matters in legalism, in fact the secondary matters are likely the most important matters. Here #2 simply puts a fine point on #1 above.

3) Legalism is known by its trinity: Anxiety, Fear, and Arrogance. The slightest infraction of the “code” or “pattern” breaks the bond between God and humanity therefore legalism never knows if it has been good enough (thus the fear and anxiety). The mangled body of Christ is the fruit of legalism.

Ironically sin is so externalized in legalism, and thus made “manageable,” that we can affirm our precision obedience and arrogantly look down our noses on anyone not quite as perfect as we imagine ourselves to be on those measurable items (even as we live in fear of damnation ourselves). People’s failure to arrive precisely at our understanding means they are either dumb or willfully disobedient to God.

Legalism does not feel the need for grace. The words “have mercy on me, a sinner” are hard to utter within a legalistic framework. We don’t need mercy, we simply need propositions and get on with it.

Legalism is human centered religion, it is “me-ism” religion. Christianity, however, is a God centered faith. Legalism is more focused on positions on issues than relationships with God and his people.

Conservative, by the way, is not a synonym for “legalism.” But neither is Progressive a synonym for “liberalism.” There are liberal legalists. Conservative is not a synonym for faithful or truthful. Conservative is not a synonym for love of anything, much less God and neighbor. Why people equate these is a mystery. Some one will say “I take the conservative position” as if that is by default the correct position. But it is not now and never has been.

If we find that we have to qualify God’s grace when we hear it or say it, then our orientation may be human one rather than a God centered. Scripture certainly does not feel obligated to qualify God’s grace but magnifies it.

In Scripture it is the divine indicative that is always the ground for response and obedience. It is the divine indicative that enables obedience. This is why K. C. Moser used to quip that “legalism is the father of the denial of the indwelling Spirit.” Legalism had no need of the Holy Spirit.

The essential and basic issue of legalism is God oriented or human oriented. The chasm between biblical faith, in both Testaments, and Legalism is as wide as the canyon between Abraham’s bosom and the place of torment.

I will have nothing to do with legalism. First Corinthians 1.1-9, written to the most messed up church of God in history could never have been penned by a legalist.

3 Responses to “Legalism, What is It?”

  1. Dwight Haas Says:

    Bobby, legalism pushes for a state of “deserved grace”, especially and in particularly “deserved grace” through collective worship action…meaning church. As an individual you might be wrong and get grace, but if you are wrong in in your worship in assembly you are doomed, because you are knowingly sinning….there is no grace available, no matter how you live your life to God. But if you do assembly correct you will receive the grace you rightfully deserve.
    This of course goes against the argument that God makes to the Jews when he tells them He hates their worship, feast, everything He commanded in worship, because they lacked love and compassion for others. So just because we may worship “correctly” doesn’t mean we are worshipper of God in the grand scheme of our lives.

  2. Darryl Willis Says:

    “Legalism is not about obedience vs disobedience to the King. Legalism is the framework in which such obedience is understood. Legalism conceives the central issue of Christianity as what I do, what I know, what I think. It is about humans getting it right or else.”

    Excellent way of putting it, Bobby! Thanks!

  3. Clarence Campbell Says:

    My brother, love the thoughts here. I had someone tell me “you have the right to be wrong”, meaning since I did not agree with his legalism, I (of course) had to be wrong. I believe many would agree “legalism is a killer”! Thank you once again.

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