Legalism is defined by Chambers Dictionary as “strict adherence to law…the tendency to observe letter or form rather than spirit, or to regard things from the point of view of law.” It also helpfully illustrates the definition with a reference to the opposing doctrines of salvation by works and salvation by grace. I do like The Chambers Dictionary and commend it to you.
But what is wrong with keeping the law? Surely as Christians we believe in being law-abiding? There is certainly enough in the New Testament about obedience to authorities. We are instructed, “obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph.6:1); obey your earthly masters with respect” (Eph.6:5); obey your leaders and submit to their authority” (Heb.13:17) and we are reminded “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good” (Titus 3:3)
When we witness to those with a legalistic bent we are often challenged with these and similar texts. Sometimes we are accused of antinomianism, “being emancipated by the gospel from the obligation to keep the moral law, faith alone being necessary” (that’s Chambers again)
Of course, if we were antinomian in our teaching and practice our prisons would be full of Christians. In some parts of the world Christians do find themselves imprisoned and worse but for entirely different reasons. The folly of legalism is highlighted in Matthew 19:1-12 as Jesus answers what his interrogators think is a difficult question. It had certainly exercised the best Jewish minds for generations. Moses said:
“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes here a certificate of divorcement, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord” (Deut.24: 1-4)
Legalism insists on formulaic answers to such questions; answers by the book that go into incredible detail covering every eventuality. In Jesus’ day there were two schools of thought. The scholar Shammai taught that “something indecent” meant marital unfaithfulness. Hillel emphasised the words “who becomes displeasing to him” and taught that if she did anything he didn’t like, such as burning the toast, it justified divorce.
You see, that is the trouble with legalism, not that law is a bad thing but that we always put ourselves in the place of God and make it mean what we like, or what seems right to us. In our everyday lives we are often very sure of what are our rights and what are other people’s obligations. Legalism isn’t at all fair in its judgements. Jesus’ answer cut right through this tangle of opinions and interpretations by appealing to the purposes of God.
Someone following either the school of Shammai or Hillel might feel justified, righteous and superior for having nailed it, but neither was right, although Jesus clearly took the side of Shammai over Hillel. Divorce, he said, was granted because of sin. God, whose purpose and ideal from the beginning had been that the two would be one, graciously accommodated his purposes to circumstances because of sin that caused damage to people. The Pharisees had asked the wrong question. They wanted to know what was permitted or forbidden when they should have been asking what was the purpose of God.
They asked when and under what circumstances disappointed and hurting people should separate. They should have been asking how broken relationships can be mended and people healed from their hurts and disappointments. It is a stark and frightening insight into what they cared about, and what we care about when we address these life issues from the point of view of legalism.
Jesus preached the standards of the kingdom which see citizens as servants who seek each other’s good and the heart of God in every matter. Of course Christians believe in and practice obedience but from a heart changed by the miracle of the new birth, not from a list of statutes, permissions and prohibitions. Where do we find and how do we follow these standards of the kingdom that speak so eloquently of obedience yet offer citizenship not to the obedient but to the believing? As Jesus taught Nicodemus:
“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (Jn.3:3-6)
We are saved into the kingdom by the miracle of rebirth. We take hold of and begin to understand the will of God and the standards of the kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit. The regenerate person has a renewed mind (Ro.12:12), has the law set in their minds (Heb.8:10;10:16) and has the mind of Christ (1 Cor.2:16)
In our witness we teach truth, correct doctrine, and bring understanding. We are not, like Shammai and Hillel, simply interpreters of the Bible but offer to people nothing less than new birth, renewed minds, the mind of Christ in all matters pertaining to the kingdom,
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.
And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.
‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor.2:12-16)
You can read more on legalism in Robin Brace’s article ‘Moving Away From Legalism’