If you had asked me as a teen what “legalism” was, I would have had no idea. I come from a pretty ordinary background of Southern Baptist with a bit of Full Gospel Assemblies of God thrown in the mix. However, looking back now, I got my first taste during my last year of high school. Had I known the terminology, I would have recognized it immediately. Looking around and noticing the glances at my jeans at youth group while the other girls were all in long skirts. The comments made when any discussion of dating came up – “Oh, we don’t date. We only court with the intent to marry.” (Note: I am not criticizing my dresses-only friends, nor am I knocking the idea of courtship, which I am actually on board with.) That one year in that one little GARBC church made me feel inadequate as a Christian. I didn’t fit their mold or standards and I felt like I was not good enough for them. Was this their fault? I don’t know. But I do know that pulling me into the group instead of excluding me would have really helped that year, as I floundered in my faith and made mistakes that would follow me for years to come.
If you had asked me just five years ago what “legalism” was (when I was in the midst of dresses-only, headcovering, KJV-onlyism), I would have had a ready answer. I would have told you that legalism is when you add something to grace to earn salvation. It was when you thought you had to do certain things, dress a certain way, etc. in order to be saved. I would have informed you that standards do not equal legalism because I knew that my salvation was sure and Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for my sin – and that I was just upholding biblical standards for moral conduct. I was “following the rules” laid forth in scripture and if you wanted to live a holy life and make God happy, you would follow them, too. (And I wouldn’t have felt that my answer was the least bit judgemental! HA!)
Today, I have a slightly different interpretation of what “legalism” is. Legalism is when you apply your own personal convictions to another person. Personal convictions. Those things that God has told you specifically for your life, but that are areas where other believers may live differently. Things that do not affect your salvation. Those little gray areas. Areas of LIBERTY.
In the Old Testament, man was given the Law. The purpose of the Law was to show that we are sinful and need redemption. But then Redemption came. He fulfilled the Law. He set us free and gave us the Holy Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 2 Cor. 3:17
What is liberty? The Internets define liberty as:
- the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views; the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.
- the power or scope to act as one pleases.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon gives a slightly different definition: liberty to do or to omit things having no relation to salvation; from the yoke of the Mosaic law.
Think for a second. God could require anything from us. He could set up all sorts of rules and force us to follow them. But He doesn’t want robots and He has gifted each of us with different gifts and callings. He wants us to draw near to Him, seek His specific will for our own life, and walk in the Spirit – daily. He wants to be in communion with us and gives us the opportunity to be involved in advancing His kingdom and accomplishing His will.
I suppose it is not surprising that I found myself deep in legalism. I’m a rule follower. I’ve already discussed in another post how I have believed that God’s approval and love was based upon my being perfect (not possible) and toeing the line when it comes to rules. But you know what? Following rules is taking the easy way out. It doesn’t require any thinking or any real walking with God. It doesn’t require trust or faith. It just requires a bit of self control (or a strong will, in my case…) Honestly, it’s all about the flesh. No Spirit required, just pass me my checklist thankyouverymuch. It’s always easier to follow rules than to yield to the Holy Spirit and allow Him to lead you in freedom. My legalism was taking the easy way out and not truly submitting to God.
The ironic thing that struck me earlier this week is that while we are bound up in the chains of legalism, we *think* we are spiritually mature. We think we are more holy than other people because we do x,y, and z. We look at others and think that they really have a lot to figure out. But according to Romans 14, the person who is all about the rule keeping is actually “weak”. (Take it up with Paul, not me!)
Living in liberty though. Whew. Listening to the promptings of the Spirit. Being willing to obey. It’s scary. It requires risk taking and opening yourself up to pain and rejection. And this is where God wants us to walk. In the Spirit. We have a habit as Christians of holding up our list of do’s and don’ts to unbelievers and saying “Here. This is what you should/shouldn’t do!” But we don’t have to change to come to Christ. We don’t have to check off the list and line our life up before we surrender to Jesus. Because guess what? We come to Christ, deep in our mess and say “save me!” And once we receive salvation, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our heart and HE changes us. If we follow His promptings and read the Word, our lives will be changed. We are a new creation. The old is gone, the new has come. And it’s not about a list of rules that will somehow make us accepted. We are already accepted.
So, what about those personal convictions? I have lots of them. But when I begin to look at my brothers and sisters in Christ and judge their level of spiritual maturity based on whether or not they hold the same convictions… that is dangerous territory. It sets me up as God in their life and it makes me a prideful Pharisee. I don’t know what job God has called them to or why He has convicted me in areas that He hasn’t convicted them in. And it’s not my job or business. Going back to Romans 14, verse 4 – Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. If we see an area of *actual* spiritual immaturity in a fellow believer’s life, we need to pray that God will take care of it. If we have a close relationship, we can pray for an opportunity to encourage them in this area. But we shouldn’t sit in judgement.
So – to summarize;
- We cannot expect unbelievers to act like believers. Change/righteous living comes through the Holy Spirit.
- We are called to walk in the Spirit, not in the flesh.
- Walking in the Spirit does not have a rule book. It takes actual communication with God.
- We should not be judging other believers’ personal convictions. They will know we are Christians by our LOVE, not our righteous judgement.
NOTE: If a brother or sister is involved in sin, we are called to confront them. I’m not addressing sin here. I’m addressing areas of liberty. And I’m preaching to myself, too 🙂 It’s very easy to slip back into this mindset and it is a constant battle!
Do you struggle with legalism? Do you feel judged? Or are you the one doing the judging? Have you discovered the freedom of walking in liberty?