We Are Radical

Bringing radical thoughts worth pondering (A blog of poriruachurch.com)

Legalism in the Church

Although the term “Legalist” does not appear in Scripture, the term fits perfectly with the attitudes of the Pharisees in the time of Christ. They exalted the Law of Moses to the point where it became their God. They sought to use the Law of Moses for a purpose it was not designed for, that is, as a means of justification.

Paul warns that those who seek to be justified by Law have fallen from grace (Gal. 5:4). He also told the Roman church that “By the deeds of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (Rom. 3:20). Because the Pharisees sought justification through Law, they were involved in many disputes with Christ. There was no group of people who were treated more severely by Christ than the legalistic Pharisees.

The sin of the Pharisees was not in the fact that they wanted to exalt the Law of Moses, but rather because they were teaching it as a means of justification. God made it clear to the Jew that the Law He gave them from the mount was not for their justification. He said, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them…” (Deut. 27:26). Paul quoted this Scripture to the Galatians (Gal. 3:10). He then went on to explain that the Law was to act as a school master to lead them to Christ (Gal. 3:24-25). We can see then that the Law was designed by God to reveal to man that he was cursed without the Christ who could only be appropriated through faith (Gal. 3:11).

Despite the Bible’s clear teaching on the subject, it is unfortunate that legalism still exists. The problem is, however, that there is not a clear conception among us as to who is a legalist. Many, for example, feel that a legalist is one who seeks to uphold the New Testament law exactly. This is not so! God has always admonished his people to follow the law exactly (2 Tim. 2:15, Gal. 1:8-9, 2 John 9, etc). One of the few things he praised the Pharisees for was their paying strict attention to even the minutest details of the Law. He said in Matthew 23:23 “…These things ye ought to have done, and not to leave the other undone”. It is a shame then when those of our brethren who love God’s word to the extent that they want to follow it exactly are called legalists.

The true legalist is one who seeks to treat the New Testament as a Legal Code. God designed the Old Testament as a Legal Code to show man that they could not be justified by Law. But He did not design the New Testament as a Legal Code, but called it “The law of the Spirit of life” (Rom. 8:1-2). A Legal Code brings death but the New Testament brings life. Jesus Himself said of the New Testament “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).

The legalist then, like the Pharisee of old, is one who interprets the scriptures in the way a lawyer would examine a legal document. He spends his whole day looking for legal “loop holes”. He is not interested in doing any more than the strictest application of the law demands. In other words, he cannot get the law off the paper. In speaking of the New Testament, Paul said that is was written “not in the tablets of stone, but in fleshy tablets of the heart.” (2 Cor. 3:3). He goes on to say that it is “not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter killeth but the spirit gives life”.

Paul is saying that the Spirit of God enters the heart of a man through his mind. The diligent Christian examines the Scriptures with the intention of developing attitudes. His goal is to think and act in the way that God’s Spirit leads him. He wants to be like God and allow Him to change his nature. The spiritual man looks at the New Testament as one who seeks the mercy and help of God, and not as one who seeks justification by law.

When the subject of Legalism is properly understood it will become apparent that often the ones who accuse faithful Christians of being Legalists are in fact approaching the scriptures in a legalistic way themselves. Let us look at some examples of how a Legalist would look at some aspects of Scripture:

1. Church Attendance – (Heb. 10:25): The legalist would ask, “Where does it say that you have to attend church services twice on Sundays or midweek?” He would then seek to give a legalistic interpretation of Hebrews 10:25 saying that you cannot prove that one has to attend on other occasions. The Spirit-filled person would then ask, “What do you think God would want you to do if the church held other meetings?” The difference between the legalist and the spiritual person is clear. The first is only interested in what the law of Christ demands that he do, the second is interested in going the extra mile and looking at the spirit of the message, thus developing the right type of attitude towards church attendance.
2. Drinking – The Legalist would ask “Where does it say that God will condemn me for having just a glass every now and then? You can only prove that God condemns drunkards.” Here again the legalist is seeking to find legal loopholes. The faithful Christian who interprets according to the spirit and not according to the letter would ask: “What attitude is the Spirit of God wanting to develop in the Christian’s heart towards drinking?” Can you imagine legalistic Christians at a fellowship drinking party, trying to decide who was and who was not drunk “Would he say that each Christian could have just one glass each, or would he allow them to have two? Perhaps, being Like the Pharisees he would consider that he himself could hold the booze better than his brethren, and he could have several before he became drunk. The spiritual man would not attend such a function in the first place.
3. Modesty – (1 Tim. 2:9): The legalist may say that this verse only applies to women in the worship services. Another legalist may ask “How can you prove what is modest and what is not modest?” The spiritual woman however realises that God is directing the message to her spirit, causing her to be concerned about her appearance in public.

In conclusion, let us understand that the faithful Christian pays attention to both the letter and the spirit of the law. The New Testament is made up of words in which dwell the Spirit of God. The work of the Spirit is to mold a person’s belief, his will and his nature, that he may be a perfect man of God, lacking nothing.

Ian McPherson, Enduring Words, Vol. 2, Issue 5, May 1983



This entry was posted on 01/05/1983 by in Bible Study, Church, God, The Bible.
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