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Drawing the Line of Legalism

Drawing the Line of Legalism

Exploring the Delicate Balance Between Law and Love

Mitchell Leach

Community Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

January 22, 2024

My kids are bad artists. It is a hard thing to say, but as I step back from my emotional connection to my kids and their art, and critically look at what they’ve made, it’s not something an art gallery would hang. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing better, or more precious than when my children make art out of their pure childish imagination, and give it to me out of pure love. I still have a — misspelled — card that my son made me in my office from two years ago, simply because when he gave it to me it was him saying “I made this for you because I love you and this is the best that I can do.” But later, this same son of mine (in an attempt to get out of cleaning the playroom) made me a crayon drawing and said “Here is a picture, now I don’t have to clean the playroom.” At that moment that artwork wasn’t something I wanted to cherish or even keep. It was a worthless piece of paper, because of the heart behind it. Our children’s art doesn’t have any monetary value, nor would it win any awards. When it’s given out of a heart that is trying to earn something from us, it actually disgusts us (or at least it did for me). But when given as an act of love in response to the love we’ve given to them, it is priceless.

This is a similar way that God feels about us trying to earn his favor or love through our good works. This is called legalism.

It’s not in our Bible

You’ve probably heard the term legalism, or legalist used — not just in the church — but in culture abroad. Legalism carries a clearly negative connotation (and for good reason). Yet legalism isn’t a word found in the English Bible, but that doesn’t mean the Bible doesn’t say anything about it. Paul uses the phrase “works of the law” eight times in his writings (Romans 2:15, 3:20, 3:28, Galatians 2:16, 3:2, 3:5, 3:10).

The point that Paul makes as he talks about “works of the law,” or legalism, is that no one can be justified by works of the law. Legalism is one of two heresies that deal with how we respond to God’s laws. Paul brings this topic up most often in his letter to the churches in Galatia because of the faction in the Galatian churches that insisted that to be saved, you must adhere to all Jewish customs in the Old Testament.

Adding To Scripture

Legalism is the attitude that identifies morality with the strict observance of laws or that views adherence to moral codes as defining the boundaries of a community. [1]

Word Partners is an organization that equips pastors to put the Word of God in the driver’s seat of the church and put His glory on display. One of their teaching principles is the easiest way to visualize this concept.

This is an easier way to think about legalism, that it adds to scripture. Legalism — at its core — is not trusting God and his word. It is saying subconsciously, “Not only is God’s grace not good enough for me, but also his word isn’t sufficient for my holiness. I must add more rules to his law so then I can make sure I’m extra holy.”

Learn From the Pharisees

This is exactly what the Pharisees are guilty of in John 9 when Jesus heals the man born blind. In this story, Jesus miraculously heals a man who had been blind since birth. This is so amazing that some people are questioning whether it is actually the same man, or if it is a look-a-like. This creates such a stir that the Pharisees check into this. As they question this man, they aren’t moved to worship as clearly a miracle has happened. Their sticking point was that this was done on the Sabbath.

In their defense, God commands us to rest on the Sabbath. But sadly that’s where my defense of the Pharisees ends, because they had missed the point. They had added to that commandment to rest. They made up rules — initially to help people guard their Sabbath for rest — that made stricter regulations on what was and wasn’t rest. And by doing this they took a good thing God had given them, and in a twisted way made it oppressive.

Replacing Jesus

Legalism is a way that we think we can save ourselves. We think that we can please God by avoiding sin and doing what he commands. Before you write an angry email or comment, hear this. God is delighted when we are transformed by Jesus trading places with us on the cross by taking our sin, then by coming to new life with him through his resurrection and then responding by obeying his laws and commandments. This is precious to God. 1 Samuel 15:22 says, "But Samuel replied: 'Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.’" But this isn’t only confined to the Old Testament, the apostle John in John 14:15 quotes Jesus when he writes, "If you love me, keep my commands.” God loves when we obey what he has told us to do because his law actually reveals part of who he is. When God commands us not to worship other gods, it’s because he is saying, “There’s only one God and I’m him.” When he tells us not to worship carved images — not just of false gods but also of the one true God, he is saying “I’m infinite and eternal. I cannot be contained in something material. Not even your mind.” God wants us to obey because he knows what is ultimately right and true and every time we don’t follow, we break away from our creator. God loves our obedience, when it is done with the right intention.

Our Obedience as Rebellion

But when we try to leverage our obedience towards God as an act to earn God’s favor it is disgusting to him. Isaiah 64:6 says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” [2]

While this passage has some clearly strong language against good works, our English translations have softened what was communicated in the original Hebrew. Where we read polluted garments, the original Hebrew would have said something like a rag used by a woman while on her period.

What Isaiah is saying is that our good works are as disgusting as a used tampon. This is because we’ve perverted what God designed for our good and turned it into evil. As if we could by our own self-made righteousness, twist God’s arm into loving us more, or blessing us more.

Just like a child who tries to trick their parent out of cleaning their playroom, God is greatly displeased when we use his law as a weapon against him.

Legalism is the opposite of the Gospel

Legalism affirms that we can save ourselves. That if you somehow work hard enough God will say, “Well done good and faithful servant. This is what you deserve. You’ve been good, so I’m happy with you.” But the reality is that Christians can hear “Well done good and faithful servant” only because the Father treated Jesus like us to treat us like Jesus. For us to insist on getting what we are owed is to insist on our destruction.

Bleeding Charity

One of my favorite dialogues from all the books I've read is a passage from The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In this dialogue, the Ghost (representing a soul from hell) clings to a sense of self-righteousness and entitlement based on its own deeds and perceived moral standing. It believes it deserves certain rights because of its actions and life choices.

Look at me, now," said the Ghost, slapping its chest (but the slap made no noise). "I gone straight all my life. I don't say I was a religious man and I don't sav I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that's the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn't mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That's the sort I was and I don't care who knows it."

"It would be much better not to go on about that now."

"Who's going on? I'm not arguing. I'm just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I'm asking for nothing but my rights. You may think you can put me down because you’re dressed up like that (which you weren't when you worked under me) and I'm only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?"

"Oh no. It's not so bad as that. I haven't got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You'll get something far better. Never fear."

"That's just what I say. I haven't got my rights. I always done my best and I never done nothing wrong. And what I don't see is why I should be put below a bloody murderer like you."

"Who knows whether you will be? Only be happy and come with me."

"What do you keep on arguing for? I'm only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity."

"Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought."

As Christians, our hope eternally is based on the reality that we are charity cases. We need the bleeding charity of Christ. This is the understanding that we are poor in spirit. Insisting on earning our favor or our righteousness is — as Tim Keller said — “being middle class in spirit.”

  1. Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 72.

  2. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 64:6.

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