Writings: All Writings

Beyond Legalism

How not to throw the baby out with the bath water

Preached in chapel at Great Lakes Christian College

Author: John C. Nugent

04/01/05+ Share

The term "legalistic" is applied in such careless ways that followers of Jesus are inclined to shy away from his radical demands for fear of lapsing into legalism. This sermon analyzes six forms of legalism that the New Testament denounces in order to distinguish them from the common misuse of that term and to free up believers to follow Jesus completely and without fear. 

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In Matt 13, Jesus says: "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it" (vv. 45-46).  

Many of us are familiar with this teaching as well as its negative counterpart in Matt 16: "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?" (vv. 25-26)

The undeniable teaching of the New Testament is that God's kingdom is of such worth that we should forsake our old selves and embrace fullness of life in Christ. There are also countless passages that call into question our secret love of sin and beckon us to renounce the perverse humor we enjoy, the sexual images we crave and continually imbibe, the self-advancing competitive spirit we wittingly cultivate, the bloody violence with which we frequently entertain ourselves, and the insatiable consumerism that has become the rhythm of our lives.

In Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, and to stop conforming to the pattern of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:1-2). In Galatians Paul warns us that those who gratify the desires of the sinful nature—sexual immorality, impurity, hatred, and selfish ambition—will not inherit God's kingdom (Gal 5:19-21). In Philippians he teaches us to rid our minds of earthly things and to focus on things that are true, right, noble, pure, admirable, and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). James draws a clear line in the sand when he claims that those who befriend the world make themselves God's enemies. He then calls us to wash our hands, purify our hearts, humble ourselves, and draw near to God (Jas 4:4-10). Peter reminds us that we spent enough time before our conversion behaving like pagans and that our new life, which is ordered by God's will, not human desires, will be scandalous to unbelievers (1 Pet 4:1-4). Finally, John uses stark imagery to convince us that those who claim to have fellowship with God but continue to live in darkness are liars and frauds and that only those who walk in the light have true fellowship and are purified of sin (1 John 1:5-7).

Yet when we first converted many of us assumed that we were not ready for that kind of commitment. "I'm just getting started," we told ourselves, "perhaps when I grow up in the faith, I will revisit such passages." For some of us that may never have happened; for others, something happened that jolted us into make some hard choices. Perhaps it was a traumatic experience, a religious epiphany, a calling to disciple others in their faith, or maybe even an inspirational sermon. In any event, we decided to scale down our worldly activities, attend church more consistently, tithe regularly, and even clean up our language. For some, even that was not enough. We took more drastic measures. We got rid of the trashy music, games, and videos we once owned and we dropped the habits of drinking, swearing, and fornicating. But then something rather strange and unexpected took place. Instead ofunbelievers being scandalized by the things we no longer do (1 Pet 4:4), Christiansbegan taking offense, and they branded us with that dreaded in-house term of derision: legalist.

Now those who draw excessive attention to themselves and broadcast their moral superiority probably deserve such scorn. Similarly, those who launch personal piety crusades that tear down rather than build up fellow believers also understandably draw such fire. But those who are seeking to be faithful to Christ in all things, who take seriously the shape of the temple in which God's Spirit wishes to dwell, who strive to hate what God hates and love what he loves, who care so much about Christian witness that they are unwilling to believe the popular myth that the best way to lead others to Christ is to show them just how worldly a Christian can be and still get saved are not being legalistic –- at least not in any New Testament sense of that term.

In this sermon I discuss six types of legalism that the New Testament addresses. My hope for doing so is twofold. First, I hope that the Holy Spirit will convict any of you who are guilty of one of these legalisms to genuinely confess this guilt and repent of its accompanying attitudes, thoughts, and practices. Second, I hope that the Holy Spirit will also convict any of you who have been careless in your use of the term "legalism" and have wielded it against fellow believers in ways that lack biblical backing. I hope that you, too, would confess your guilt and genuinely repent of its divisive attitudes, thoughts, and practices.

Hypocritical Legalism

The first form of legalism gets the most press, but is least understood. It is sometimes called Pharisaic Legalism. Many people assume that the sin of the Pharisees was that they made too big a fuss about moral purity and that Jesus had to come along and tell them to loosen up a bit. This caricature may be common but it is not biblical. Jesus's primary problem with the Pharisees is not that they were trying to be too holy or that they were trying to convince others to be too holy. Jesus's main problem with the Pharisees is that they were not holy enough. They looked clean on the outside but were filthy on the inside. They held others to a high standard but did not adhere to it themselves.

Early in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:20). Part of what he meant by this is evident in the string of oppositions that follows: "you have heard it said 'do not murder,' but I say to you 'do not be angry with your brother nor call him names.' You have heard it said 'do not commit adultery,' but I say to you, 'do not look lustfully at someone of the opposite sex'" (paraphrased). You see, the Pharisees had no problem avoiding the obvious "professional" sins of murder and adultery, but they had a big problem with sinful attitudes, thoughts, and practices that they considered to be of little consequence to God. But, for Jesus, these "minor" thoughts and actions cannot be separated from their major counterparts—even if they never result in them. The Pharisaic logic must have gone something like this: "I can handle lusting and harboring bitterness against my brother because I know that such inner thoughts and feelings will never lead to outward adultery and murder. As long as they start and end with me, there is nothing really wrong with them. I can handle them."

In mathematical terms, they might say, "sinful thoughts A and B do not lead me to sinful action C, so I can do A and B as long as C does not result." But Jesus's answer to this line of thinking is clear: God is not only concerned with external sins and end results, he lays claim to our entire lives, including and especially the seemingly harmless roots and seeds of sin.

The Pharisees did not see it this way. This is why Jesus says of them in Matthew 15, "You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 'these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me'" (vv. 7-8); and in Matt 23 "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them" (vv. 2-4); and in Luke 12 "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (vv. 1-3).

You see, the legalism of the Pharisees was not the strictness of their moral teachings. Were that the case, Jesus would not have instructed his followers to obey their teachings. The true legalism of the Pharisees was holding others to standards that they themselves refused to meet. The lesson Jesus would have us learn from the Pharisees is not to shun radically holy living, but to exceed the Pharisees' duplicitous righteousness. Jesus rejected this form of legalism and we should too.

Point-Missing Legalism

A second form of legalism may also be associated with the Pharisees. This form is potentially more harmful than the first because it is carried out with all sincerity and a clean conscience. It entails misunderstanding the heart of God's law and then holding others accountable to that misunderstanding. For example, some Pharisees accused Jesus of violating the Sabbath by picking grain and healing people on it. They had come to associate Sabbath observance with avoiding all activities on Saturdays that require one to expend a significant amount of energy. The main point of Sabbath laws for them was to protect God's sacred day from being violated by excessive human activity.

Jesus exposes their error in two ways: he informs them that he is Lord of the Sabbath, and he instructs them that the Sabbath was made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). We should not assume, however, that the Pharisees were idolatrous calendar worshippers. They honestly believed that God had eternally decreed that a particular day was so sacred that it had to be honored at all costs. They were striving to honor God by honoring God's special day, and they had plenty of biblical support for doing so (e.g., Exod 31:14-17).

What certain Pharisees did not realize is that the purpose of Sabbath was not to honor a special day for its own sake, but to allow humans to experience at least partially the goodness of God's intentions for creation, even in a fallen world, at least one day a week. Sabbath served as a sign that points backward to the way life was in Eden and forward to what it will be like in God's kingdom. It was God's gift to humans—a gift of rest, revitalization, enjoyment, and hope. If the Jews were going to enjoy this experience, they would all have to be on the same page. Employer and employee had to recognize the same day. So what better day for God to choose than the day on which he himself rested: day seven. The seventh day was God's means, human restoration was his end. Unfortunately, the Pharisees focused on the former to the neglect of the latter.

Christians are tempted to commit the same error in our own day. We can sometimes latch onto a biblical precept that is important to God, lose sight of its ultimate purpose, and then enslave one another with our misinterpretation rather than honor God. For example, it is not uncommon for believers to deduce from God's command not to bear false witness that humans must adhere to a narrow notion of truthfulness that does not allow for playful exercises in imagination. According to this interpretation, it is entirely deceitful for a wife to mislead her husband in order to pull off a surprise birthday party, or for parents to pretend with their children that the Sandman helps them fall asleep at night.

It is not clear, however, that surprising a spouse or pretending with one's children violates the intention of God's prohibition against false witness. In its context, the ninth commandment advocates a fair legal system in which people must not lie for money, since that would undermine God's plan for how Israelites should settle major disputes. God was concerned that his people not falsify truth for personal gain at the expense of others; he was not trying to stifle playful activities that are pursued for the sake of imagination, family bonding, and mutual enjoyment. Whereas such families are expressing love and affection; perjurers in court show no regard for the victims of their lies. Whereas God's command served to unify the Israelites under a just legal and economic system, legalistic Christians divide the body of Christ by outlawing harmless practices due to a failure to understand the heart and intention of God's precepts. This seemingly pious form of legalism is all too common today and should be rejected along with all the others.

Weaker Brother Legalism

In Romans and 1 Corinthians, we confront a third form of legalism that is often defined using "weaker brother" language, although such language is only used in Romans. This form originally manifested itself in two ways as Christians began convincing both pagans and Jews to follow Christ. One way involved pagan converts doing everything in their power to avoid contact with any activity that was remotely connected to the idolatrous practices they formerly observed—practices like eating meat at an idol feast. To protect themselves from lapsing back into idolatry, new converts wisely abstained from all sacrificial meat in any meal context, even though it was acceptable, according to the Apostle Paul, for believers to eat leftover sacrificial meat that was sold in the marketplace outside of the context of idol worship. The second way involved recent Jewish converts who continued to observe certain traditional Jewish practices that were meaningful to them, but not necessary for all believers—practices like Sabbath observance or abstaining from foods deemed unclean in Torah. In 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14, Paul instructs churches to accommodate both groups of Christians, but not to allow them to legalistically impose their otherwise neutral practices upon others.

Oftentimes today, Christians will with good reason withdraw from practices that, biblically-speaking, are not off limits to all believers. To the extent that this follows from a careful reading of Scripture, the present cultural context, and the specific faith journeys of the persons or communities involved, such withdrawal may be necessary. Yet such persons and communities must neither canonize nor blacklist such practices for all Christians in all times and places. They must not presume that what the Spirit has led them to do or not to do in their time and place is what the Spirit would lead all believers to do in all times and places. The Apostle Paul recognizes the situation specific nature of the Spirit's guidance in local churches and, for the sake of the gospel, adjusts his practices accordingly. He says in 1 Cor 9, "For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew…to those under the law I became as one under the law…to those outside the law I became as one outside the law…to the weak I became weak…I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel" (vv. 19-23). To replace Paul's missionary sensitivity with rigid conformity to extra-biblical practices is another common form of legalism that Christians should avoid today.

Pre-Conversion Legalism

The Apostle Paul encountered a fourth form of legalism that involved a group often called the Judaizers. In Gal 6:12-15, he addresses this Christian group, saying, "It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.  Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!"

These Judaizers believed that before a Gentile could become a Christian, he or she must first become a Jew by observing specific practices that set Jews apart from nonJews in Torah. Foremost among these practices are dietary regulations, circumcision, and Sabbath observance. This form of legalism may seem quite remote and thus irrelevant to us, but it is not. It is not uncommon for contemporary Christians to take specific practices or philosophical systems that Christians from their culture have long observed, but are not biblically mandated, and force them on people of other cultures or subcultures as if they were gospel. Yet just like one need not become a Jew before becoming a Christian, one need not become a Democrat, a modernist, a Republican, or a postmodernist. Since God has rejected ethnic and cultural pre-conversion practices, we must reject all legalistic attempts to reinstate them.

Neo-Platonic Ascetic Legalism

Next we turn to Neo-Platonic Ascetic Legalism. In first century Colossai, Corinth, and Ephesus, certain believers were imposing a specific strand of Greek Philosophy with its accompanying practices on fellow Christians. According to this philosophy, which resembles later Christian Gnosticism, the body was considered evil or, at least, indifferent such that religious people should pay scant attention to the body and focus on the soul. This belief led to two forms of distorted faith. According to one form, since God only cares about the soul, we may commit any kind of immorality we want with the body, including gluttony and all sorts of fornication. According to the other, since the body is evil, we should never indulge in any of its pleasures. They therefore denied themselves sexual intercourse, even in the context of publicly recognized marriage, and they abstained from the pleasure of enjoying rich foods.

First Timothy 4:1-5 describes such legalism as demonic, saying, "in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God's word and by prayer." In Colossians 2:20-23, Paul also forbids such asceticism, saying "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch'? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence." These words are as relevant today as back then. We, too, must avoid all legalistic humanly contrived regulations that are grounded in false philosophy and inconsistent with God's Word.

Hyper Atonement Legalism

We confront a final form of biblically-censured legalism in the book of Hebrews. Many scholars agree that the Christians being addressed in this book doubted that Jesus's death on the cross was sufficient to overcome their post-baptismal sins. They believed that his death may have erased their past record, but they felt the need to adopt certain Jewish practices to deal with any possible future sins. This is why the author argues masterfully that Jesus is superior to the angels, Moses, and Aaronic priests—all of whom were instrumental in mediating the old covenant's way of dealing with sin. These Christians plagued themselves unnecessarily with a guilty conscience and were imposing both their conscience problems and their false solutions on others. According to the author of Hebrews, however, Jesus's death covers all of our sins—past, present, and future—thereby rendering such practices redundant at best and, at worst, a dangerous form of apostasy. Those who impose upon others any sin-atoning practices not required in Scripture are thus committing a final form of legalism that should still be avoided today.

Summary and Implications

Altogether, then, the six kinds of legalism we should avoid include imposing practices upon others that we do not observe ourselves, imposing requirements or restraints upon others that are rooted in a flawed interpretation of Scripture, imposing restrictions or practices upon others that are not required of all believers regardless of how beneficial they may be for us, imposing cultural or ethnic identity markers on others that are not mandated in Scripture, imposing ascetic regulations on others that conflict with Scripture and are steeped in false philosophy, and imposing sin-atoning practices on others that are redundant in light of Christ.

Notably absent from this list, indeed absent from Scripture altogether, is any mention of the most common charge of legalism that Christians level against one another today. Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians reprimanded for seeking to be holy before God and striving to maintain a positive witness before nonbelievers by repenting from practices that are inconsistent with Christ's example and Scripture's teaching. Nowhere in Scripture are followers of Jesus rebuked for seeking to divest themselves of perverse humor, sexual immorality, self-advancing competition, excessive violence, and insatiable consumerism. In the Bible, such divestiture is not called legalism; it's called discipleship. And those who seek purity with godly motives are not likened to Pharisees; they are likened to a merchant who upon finding a pearl of great value, sold everything he had and bought it.