What is Legalism? Erwin Lutzer once said:
“Legalism is self-righteousness. It is the belief that God is satisfied with our attempt to obey a moral code. Legalists keep the law for self-glory or to merit some reward. They do not keep it because it expresses the desires of their heart.”
Eugene Peterson also said:
“There are people who do not want us to be free. They don’t want us to be free before God, accepted just as we are by grace. They don’t want us to be free to express our faith originally and creatively in the world. They insist that we all look alike, talk alike and act alike, thus validating one another’s worth. Without being aware of it, we become anxious about what others will say about us and we’ll become obsessively concerned with what others think what we should do. We no longer live the Good News but anxiously try to memorize and recite the script that someone else has assigned to us. We may be secure, but we will NOT BE FREE.”
Here is a series of questions we should ask ourselves that will determine if we’re in fact legalists:
1. You care more about what people think than what God thinks. The bible describes this as “The fear man.”
“The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord shall be safe” (Proverbs 29:25).
When legalism creeps into our life we’re gonna realize quickly we’re more concerned about the thoughts of man than God. This is dangerous.
Another point we ought to ask ourselves to determine if we’re legalists is:
2. Are you overly critical of others that don’t have the same convictions as you do?
We have to remember that different people are at different levels of maturity. It’s easy to meet baby Christians along the way of life and ENFORCE our views upon their life. These new believers are simply learning what it means to follow Christ when all of a sudden the legalist patrol officers point out quickly that they’re bothered by the way that they talk, and they’re bothered by the way that they dress, or they’re even bothered by the way that they look and act.
They so easily forget that they’re getting upset with baby Christians! Baby Christians haven’t learned yet what it means to modest in appearance, or to not allow any corruptible word to proceed from their mouth, or to be above reproach, or to trust in the power of God and NOT the wisdom of men. It would be like getting angry with a newborn baby for not being able to walk yet, or talk, or say, “I love you daddy.” It’s the same with baby believers! It reminds me of what Peter said the maturing Christian would experience:
“Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious”(1 Peter 2:1-3).
A healthy new baby has an instinctive yearning for its mother’s milk. When things are right, you don’t have to tell it to want the milk. They’ll let you know! I remember when my daughter Jaiden transitioned from eating milk as her intake of sustenance to eating bacon! That’s my little girl! She was no longer satisfied with milk and although it had all the vitamins and nutritional awesomeness her little body required, I’m glad to say now that my little girl has become a carnivore. She can handle solids now!
Please, don’t fall under the trap of legalism because your new Christian friend or family member isn’t eating the way you want them to eat. This is why Jesus commissioned us to make DISCIPLES so we can give baby Christians the “101” of Christian living. And we invest time in them so they can learn to chew before we give them a steak dinner.
A third point to evaluate to determine if legalism has crept into your life is this:
3. Are you known to lay heavy burdens on others?
This is what the Pharisee’s did. Listen to this:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden”(Matthew 23:1-4).
The NKJV of Matthew 23:4 says: “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear…”
When we lay heavy burdens on others, our burdens become others burdens. The bible tells us that we are to bear EACH OTHER’S burden Not GIVE each other burdens. (Galatians 6:2)
Enforcing burdens only hardens people’s hearts toward the church and ultimately the Lord.
The 4th and final point to ask ourselves is this:
4. Have you become a master at pointing out other people’s sins?
It’s funny to me that we’ll easily forget the sin in our own life, and yet we’re able to sense sin in others. Pastor Ed Taylor calls them, “SIN SNIFFERS.” Their only job is to sniff around the church to find who’s reeking of sin. Jesus once said:
“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).
I wanted to end this ALREADY LONG BLOG with a story of a legalistic woman I once met at church. Maybe some of you can relate with this story…
I remember walking out of the sanctuary one Sunday morning when a congregant asked me:
“Jon did you get a new tattoo?”
I noticed a negative tone in her voice so I responded, “Yes I did.” I was hoping a joke would ease up the tension, so I said:
“A lot of people ask me why I’m defiling the temple of God and I just tell them, ‘My temple is just filled with stain glass windows.”
No Laugh. This woman was an oak. So she felt compelled to tell me:
“I’m so disappointed in you Jon. I assumed you got your tattoos when you weren’t a believer and that’s why I’m convinced If Jesus was here, He would shun you.”
Right then and there I knew the rest of our conversation wasn’t going to be easy. So I told her:
“Well, first of all, Jesus is here. Second of all, why do you suppose He would he shun me?”
Her tone jumped up a notch at that point:
“I just don’t understand why you would mark your body when the bible explicitly tells us NOT to do it.”
She had a good point. So I raised another question:
“Oh, you’re referring to the Levitical Law that prohibited the children of Israel from marking their bodies found in Leviticus 19?”
With a Sarcastic response she said: “Sure.”
So I said, “Do you know why the children of Israel weren’t allowed to mark their bodies?”
She had no idea, which is fine. “No.” she said.
While giving her a fun history lesson on this subject while trying to dissect in it’s proper context she interrupted me in mid-sentence and said:
“Jon, I just don’t think you’re being a good role model to these children here at the church. Do you even care about that?”
Another great question! “Of course I care about that!” I told her I realized that “all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23).
I told her that I realize that although we are no longer bound by the law, I’m certianly thankful for it. The law is good. It isn’t a means of righteousness nor does it save a person. Think about it, It’s becuase of the law that we realize the wieght of sin and our need for a savior, Jesus Christ! Paul talks about it in Galatians 3, listen to this:
“Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:21-25).
I also told her that the decisions we make can push people away or possibly welcome those who might be labeled the, “Pariahs” of the church.
I reminded her of what Paul told Timothy:
“Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
I told her even though the decisions I made could potentially push people away that I was still called by Christ to be an example in my words, and my purity, and the way I conduct myself with others and my faith so that any preconceived legalistic accusations against me would be shattered by my love for Christ. I certainly don’t want to take advantage of my liberty in Christ to cause another brother or sister to stumble, (1 Corinthians 8:13) but I also realize we’re reaching a generation of people who are feeling un-welcomed by the body of Christ because of the perverse lies of legalism.
I asked her, “Why do you suppose people feel unwelcome in the church?”
I didn’t get an answer and granted, this question has endless answers but in the context of our conversation I was hoping she understood what I was trying to get across. So then I asked,
“Are you telling me that you’ll only minister to people on the basis of their appearance? If someone comes into our church with a suit and tie you would be more susceptible to minister to them, then the ones with tattoos, piercing, or even odd clothes?”
She then tried to convince me what Charles Spurgeon said to support her convictions concerning this subject and although I love Charles Spurgeon as an writer I told her,
“Unfortunately, Charles Spurgeon doesn’t dictate my convictions when it comes to ministering to others, but rather God’s Word does!”
She was quiet again. And then I told her what James said in his little epistle about NOT showing partiality to others because it was sinful! (James 2:9) I told her it is a trap of legalism when we minister to people basis of their appearance. I told her of the wonderful promise that although man looks at the outward appearance, our lord, Jesus Christ looks at the heart. I also told her people would know that we’re Jesus’ disciples NOT by our, “appearance” or “Christian clothing” or “Christian bumper stickers” or even tattoos for that matter but rather, people would know we follow Jesus when we love one another. Listen to this:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
I then told her that Jesus once said to the legalistic Pharisee’s:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).
After I quoted that verse she raised her voice and said:
“Well, what do you mean by that?!”
So I said, “Well, to put it simply, God looks at the heart and not the outward appearance.”
This woman was relentless. She didn’t like any of these answers. And that’s why one of the chief signs of legalism is that people are unwilling to submit to the Holy Spirits leading when it comes to ministering to people and would rather continue in their traditional religious life. So I told her:
“Obviously we’re just dancing in circles here. I certainly don’t want you to feel like I’m enforcing my convictions on you either. This is heart issue that only Jesus can mend.”
I told her that she should never tell people that Jesus would shun them on the basis of their appearance because it’s a form of legalism. I told her that I appreciated what she said to me and thanked her for her boldness to present this issue to me. I told her that I hoped she didn’t feel kicked to the curb but that I would genuinely take to heart everything she shared with me. I gave her an awkward side-hug and she looked at me like she was going to karate chop me, but thankfully didn’t. And we parted ways.
I realize I am reaching a generation of people who are outwardly marked with tattoos but inwardly may be dying. And the same is true for people who DON’T have tattoos! This is why Jesus hasn’t called us to NOT look at the outward appearance! I don’t care how people look, I just want EVERYONE to know that Jesus offers life and liberty to those who will trust in His name. I want people to know that Jesus loved them enough to die for them on the cross and He that He’s alive today! Folks, let’s just keep it simple and point people to Jesus and His word! The purpose of this blog isn’t to promote getting tattoos is okay. The purpose is to warn those who are legalistic that their legalism is form of evil because it only pushes people away from the grace that Jesus offers.
Legalism promotes condemnation to Christians when Paul made it very clear that;
“There is therefore NO CONDEMNATION to those who are in Christ…” (Romans 8:1)
Each one of us will have stand before Jesus one day and give an account for all the decisions we’ve made, weather you have a tattoo or not. And although I may have different convictions than you, I know we have the same goal in mind…and that’s winning the lost to Christ!
There is no greater joy than to see those who were once slaves to sin, become new creations in Christ by the blood and forgiveness of Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:17) Folks, if you don’t have a relationship with God, He can save you today! It doesn’t matter what you look like, what you’ve done in the past, Jesus wants to know you personally!
Our past doesn’t define who we are in Christ today because of the message of the cross! Paul also said:
“That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:9-11).
Praise the Lord that my Jesus is not ashamed of me and doesn’t he shun me! There is so much more to talk about concerning the subject of legalism…but I’ve gotta stop. This blog is becoming a novel!