On Legalism

The term “legalism” is a social stigma in our culture. We use it to brand those who believe, support, or practice “rules” or “moral choices” that differ from what makes us comfortable. The interesting thing to me is that this stigma is not unique to our culture or time. In fact, it has been applied throughout history to those with whom the majority disagrees.

Even now we look back in history at the time of the New Testament, and we apply this title to the Pharisees, who had made it their life mission to follow the letter of the Law. We look at them in light of what NT authors said about them and we scoff. They were self-righteous, they prayed loudly in public, they wore their tassels longer than anyone else, and they looked for sinners to condemn. All of this is true, but this is merely part of the story.

According to www.dictionary.com, legalism can be defined as Strict, literal adherence to the law or to a particular code, as of religion or morality. Now, look again at the Pharisees. If you strip away the things mentioned above, which are distortions of the Law, you are left with a true, textbook example of a legalist. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Look at Christ. He too followed the Law to its letter and in fact, as the only perfect man, is the only one who has ever upheld it perfectly. Does this make him a legalist by our definition above?

In fact, one must only look at Christ’s words too see an implicit command to us that every bit of the Law is good, and hence should be obeyed; For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:18, NRSV). So then, did Christ command us to become legalistic?

Tonight I am reading about various schools of thought in the field of Ethics. I ran across the following quote in The Pastor as Moral Guide, by Rebekah L. Miles.

“[R]ules themselves become moral guides, serving as guideposts in moral crises…the downside of a rule ethic is that it can fall into legalism and rigidity.” (22)

My beef with this is perhaps a simple one, perhaps not. What we see here is the common temptation to equate legalism (literal adherence to the Law) to all the potential negative ends that can occur when one forgets what the purpose of the Law is. I myself have too often criticized others, throwing the firebrand of legalism at them with careless ease. But I am beginning to see things a bit differently now. What if, instead of viewing Scriptural condemnation of man’s attempt to add to the Law as the definition of legalism, and instead begin to view legalistic faithfulness to God’s Law as a joyful expression of our gratitude to Him for His grace. Not as a means to salvation, but out of love born from a salvation by faith alone.

After all, isn’t that what Christ calls us to? If so, I hope that one day I will be seen as legalistic.


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