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What is the Problem with Legalism?

A few weeks ago, I was with a group of people out and about. I got talking with a dear and precious Christian couple who lives in my city of Jacksonville. They were familiar with me and my ministry. And we got talking about the ministry here at First Baptist and about my ministry. At one wonderful point in the conversation, this dear sweet Christian woman said, well, I’m just going to ask you a question because I heard something about you. And you’re standing here, and I’m just going to ask you if it’s true. I heard you’re a legalist. Are you a legalist? I laughed because I thought that was a great question to ask. I loved the directness of the question, and I laughed with her. I said, well, first of all, I have been called a lot of things in my ministry. And if legalist is the worst thing that you heard about me, well, then that’s not so bad. But I said I hope I’m not a legalist. I don’t want to be a legalist. I think legalism is bad. But I don’t think so. And we had a conversation about it. Legalism is one of those things that Christians are always talking about. And I don’t think Christians should be legalistic. I think legalism is wrong. But if we’re going to understand what the problem is with legalism, we’ve got to know what it is because I don’t think anybody wants to be a legalist. I think whoever you are, whatever your situation is, and whatever legalism is, you know what’s bad, and so you don’t want to do it. And so, if we’re going to have a meaningful conversation, we need to know what legalism is.

What is Legalism?

Let me first say what legalism is not. Legalism is not obedience to God’s word. Legalism is not obedience to the commands of God. Legalism is not even steadfast, scrupulous, and careful obedience. The reality is when people look at a person who’s striving to be obedient to the Bible and they call that person a legalist, what they’re really saying is they just love their sin. A person who calls another person who’s obedient a legalist, they actually need to repent and seek God’s grace to obey. So legalism is not obedience to the Word of God. We need to be very careful about that. But legalism does exist. It is bad. And I think legalism is two things. The first manifestation of legalism is when you believe you can please God by your works. You believe that because you pray enough or because you give enough or because you’re faithful enough, because you come to church enough, because you’re sexually pure enough. I mean, you pick whatever the vector is, but you believe that your obedience pleases God. That is ungodly. It is legalism, and it is unbiblical. If you think about Romans 4:5, the apostle Paul says, “To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” That’s a very clear text that says if you want to be righteous in the sight of God, you cannot work to get it. You can’t work to get it because you’re not able to work to get it. You are a sinner. You cannot obey enough of the law to get God’s righteousness. You also can’t work to get it because the Bible makes clear in other places that God wants to ensure that there is no ground for boasting for you and your salvation. God wants you to boast in Him; He wants you to boast in Christ. And so if you are going to be righteous, you can’t work, but you have to trust. You have to look to the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus, and you have to believe that his work is what makes you righteous, not your work that makes you righteous. If you ever doubt that, if you ever deny that, whenever you think that it is up to you to obey to get God’s favor, then you are a legalist at that point, and you are guilty of sin. That’s one manifestation of legalism.

Another manifestation of legalism happens when you make rules that are not in the Bible. When you make laws, where God has left people free. The laws that you’re supposed to obey and the commands that you’re supposed to follow are the ones that are written in the Bible. That’s what Christians are responsible to follow. It’s not our responsibility to follow all the rules and mandates, and traditions of people; we can’t even do that. Sometimes people create extra rules, or what they sometimes call a fence around the law, to be a personal help to them. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Let’s say a person who struggles with laziness says it’s not a good idea for me to watch movies. If I watch movies, it makes me lazy, it gets me off track, it gets me distracted, and movies are just bad for me. It cultivates temptations that I don’t want to deal with, so I just don’t watch movies. That’s a personal preference. That’s an issue of individual conscience. That’s not necessarily legalism. Legalism happens when it becomes a self-imposed rule that you impose on others, and you judge them as wrong when they don’t do what you say. So if you struggle with laziness, and you say, hey, it doesn’t help me to watch movies, so I can’t do it. That’s fine. That’s you watching out for yourself, being careful to avoid temptation. If you say all movies are wrong, and anybody who goes to see a movie is sinning, well, now that is legalism that isn’t legislating where God has left people free, and it is wrong. In Mark 7:9, we have the words of Jesus; he said to them, “You have a fun way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition.” This is what legalism is. Legalism is a rejection of the commandments of God to establish what you say. The problem with this manifestation of legalism is it puts you in the position of God. God is the lawmaker, not you. God’s word is the law code, not what you say. So it puts you (legalism does) in the position of God, and it also creates a really poisonous environment of judgmentalism in churches where this takes over. Everybody’s always making their rules and keeping their rules and arguing about the rules and imposing their rules on everybody else. It turns a church turns a community of believers into something really ugly. And so legalism in either manifestation is bad. It is wrong. It is sinful. And that is the problem with legalism.