Some friends of ours used to attend a different church. One with conservative beliefs and many children—two things close to our friends’ hearts as their own children were young.
But after awhile, our friends became concerned. A parenting book had been shared among the church members, and that was fine. Our friends had no problem with the book. But the other families in the church took what they read differently, and began parenting their children more strictly.
These churchgoing families had taken good intentions and developed them into rules to govern their children’s lives instead of engage their hearts. When our friends tried to share their concerns, they were silenced, and left the church under veiled accusations of disturbing the group’s unity.
What is legalism?
Legalism is the pursuit of good standing with God through our own efforts. This mindset (and heart attitude) ignores the core of the gospel—God’s gift of grace through Jesus’ sacrifice—and turns to a set of rules to define the Christian life.
We are legalists when we trust in right living to earn God’s love, or when we think good works will earn us points with Him. We are legalists when we draw up lists of rules to live by—and when we expect the people around us to live by them, too.
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20-23, emphasis added).
We twist what is good (life choices that please God) into bondage when we try to earn God’s freely-given favor by checking boxes on a behavioral list. And people around us feel our bondage, too. Here are five ways legalism undermines the community we think we are trying to build.
Legalism doesn’t see the heart.
Community involves many different things in many different environments, but every community has people. People with a depth we cannot see through a few interactions or even a deeper relationship.
We watch the people around us and guess—guess!—at their motives, their intentions. There is no way we can know what God is doing in their hearts or why they say this or why they do that, but legalism fills in the gaps of our knowledge with negative assumptions about their life choices and even their salvation itself.
Legalism doesn’t see grace.
Jesus told a story of a man who owed an impossible debt that was forgiven. His first act as a freed man was to find someone who owed him a tiny amount and violently insist he immediately pay it back.
When we point our fingers at the sins of others, we forget the sins of our own. We look over our list of must-dos and note where we or others fall short. We forget about second chances. We forget that we aren’t “out” after three strikes.
Legalism doesn’t see the gospel.
On a similar but deeper note, as Christians, each of us is standing on the solid foundation of unshakeable grace in the gospel. This is more than the grace we give each other when we have a bad day. This is Grace. This is a lifelong assurance that no matter how many times we fail and how far we fall, we are still on that foundation.
When we are legalists, we act like the only hope we have is trying harder to follow the rules. We ignore the ramifications of the gospel. We forget the solid foundation that is bigger than any wrong we will ever do. And we don’t remind each other of that grace.
Legalism doesn’t see gifts.
As sinners created by a holy God, we are owed nothing. Every breath we take, every joy we experience, every day we live is a gift we don’t deserve and aren’t owed tomorrow.
Legalism sees fair payment for services rendered. When a legalist comes on hard times, he shakes his fist at heaven and lists all the good things he has done, forgetting that his very ability to do those things and even to shake his fist in anger are gifts themselves. Instead of recognizing the people around us for the complicated gifts they are, we are angry when they don’t measure up to what we think we deserve.
Legalism doesn’t see need.
Jesus met so many needy people. He met people who were poor, sick, disabled, sad, disappointed, lost, and even dead. He loved them where they were and then set them free—healing them, sharing life and hope with them. Without cost. Without waiting for them to earn it. He entered their pain, listened to their hearts, saw their need and met it as only He can.
Legalism sees failure. It sees a cry for help and condemns it for its weakness. Instead of running toward that need with news of the only One who can heal it, legalism turns away with half-closed eyes and a holier-than-thou smile.
Not Just a List
When we think and live like legalists, we hold tight to our checklists and our pens to check things off, blindly forgetting that the objects we are rating and judging are eternal souls God placed around us. Where we are supposed to love and honor and encourage, legalism scolds and divides.
Instead of assuming the best, we judge what we don’t know for sure. Instead of extending forgiveness or second chances, we write off the offenders around us without much thought. Instead of remembering the glory of the redemptive plan of God, we reduce the gospel to a list of dos and don’ts.
A list, people. We take the incredible richness of the gospel and make it a list of rules.
And we lose so much, trading the glory of Christ’s sacrifice and redemption for a penal code. We don’t see heart issues and motives. We don’t see second chances or the Grace our very salvation is built on. We don’t see the reality of Jesus’ gift of sacrifice.
Friends, that is a dangerous place.
All About That Heart
“For you were called to freedom, brothers,” Paul wrote to first-century believers (Galatians 5:13). Freedom. The to-do lists and check marks don’t rule us anymore. Jesus’ sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection destroyed the need for a cosmic penal code to rule our every moment.
When confronted with a legalistic situation in our surroundings or in our own hearts, our hope is strong: God is bigger than the box legalism tries to put Him in. We can trust that He will guide the people around us just as He guides us, and we aim to love the people He has brought to our lives. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The person who loves their dream of community destroys community. The person who loves the people around them creates community.”
To be sure, love and grace sometimes involve hard conversations and a gentle reminder of our responsibility to obey God and His Word. The qualifications and requirements for those situations are hard to pin down and are definitely beyond the limitations of this post. But in those conversations, the heart of the concerned friend is not the heart of a legalist. And sometimes we will be the ones who need to listen.
Even in those conversations, grace is central. It is deep enough for every situation and every need.
It is deep enough for us legalists, too.