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Legalism: Does It Lead to True Righteousness?

Richard L. Mayhue

Secular people are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the best way to reduce crime in America is to make everything legal. They reason that laws are the problem, not the solution, and that more policemen, stiffer penalties, and no frills prison life only provoke the problem. Fewer laws will work better they say. Spiritually speaking, many have come to the equal but opposite conclusion that in one's walk with God more laws will ensure a greater level of holy living. Both extremes could be called "legalism," but with dramatically differing emphases. Spiritual legalism (see the definitions of legalism, liberty, and license on the side) represents the opposite of license or lawlessness (a form of libertarianism or antinomianism) which overemphasizes one's liberty at the expense of obeying Scripture by reasoning that a Christian is free to act any way under grace without Divine restraint. While legalism and license are opposites, they both are extremely unscriptural in addressing the Christian issue of sanctification. The New Testament teaches that Christians have been liberated (Gal. 5:1)--not to sin but from sin and its practice (John 8:32, 34-36; Rom. 6:18, 22; 8:2). The legalistic Pharisees tried to wrongly impose religious tradition on Jesus (Mark 7:1-23), and the legalistic Judaizers attempted to put Paul back under the law (Gal. 2:4; cf. 1 Cor. 10:29). Yet, the liberty of Jesus and Paul allowed them to reject man's spiritual traditions and embrace God's liberating truth, both for salvation and sanctification. Christians are saved by God's grace alone to be obedient to God's Word alone. The Scriptures clearly teach that a believer's liberty in Christ does not provide a license to sin (Rom. 6:15; Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 2:16). Christians are under "the law of liberty" (James 1:25). True believers have been freed from sin and enslaved to righteousness (Rom. 6:17-18) by redemption so that they no longer should want to practice sin, but rather live in righteousness (Rom. 6:22). The Old Testament law never did (Rom. 4:1-25) nor does it now save (Gal. 2:21; 3:21), but it does serve a useful spiritual purpose by mirroring human sinfulness (1 Tim. 1:8-11). The Bible does call Christians to a lifestyle of holiness (1 Pet. 1:16-17). Sexual purity (1 Thess. 4:3), emotional purity (1 Pet. 2:1-2), mental purity (Phil. 2:5), and volitional purity (Eph. 5:17-18) are demanded of believers by God. But, is this accomplished by legalistically basing one's salvation on human works? No (Eph. 2:8-10)! Is it reached by legalistically basing one's sanctification on man-made traditions? No (Col. 2:16-23)! How then is growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished (Rom. 4:20; 2 Pet. 3:18)? By desiring the pure milk of God's Word (1 Pet. 2:1-2) and speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Where there are clear commands of Scripture, they are to be obeyed impeccably (James 2:12) as people accountable under authority (2 Cor. 5:9-10). But when the Bible does not speak to an issue, there is liberty, even to the extent of "not exercising liberty," if one so chooses for whatever reason. But how far does that liberty extend? What about the so-called "gray" areas where both Christian legalism and license can at times rear their ugly heads? Christian legalism can take an infinite number of detours. But the one common element in all of them is a human standard of righteousness that is imposed on the Christian community as if it had the authority of God's Word. Some common expressions are:

1. Imposing extra rules of conduct. 2. Specifying the only authorized version of the English Bible. 3. Forbidding certain kinds of entertainment. 4. Keeping the Sabbath. 5. Adhering slavishly to the opinions of a certain teacher or sect. 6. Having to give a certain percentage of money at church to be deemed spiritual. 7. Outlawing certain musical instruments. 8. Setting down particular clothing and/or grooming requirements. 9. Embracing certain political views. 10. Demanding one method of schooling over another. "Should I or shouldn't I?" The following principles can be used to determine the answer about a questionable activity. These guidelines are designed to navigate safely the gray waters between the opposing shores of legalism and license. If the answers are "Yes," then liberty not legalism should be the course of action. But, if the answers are "No," then obedience not license should prevail.

1. Will I glorify God? (1 Cor. 10:31) 2. Will my behavior be profitable for other Christians? (1 Cor. 10:23) 3. Will this help provide a credible gospel witness? (1 Cor. 10:33; Col. 4:5) 4. Will it not slow me down spiritually? (Heb. 12:1) 5. Will I be a good example? (Rom. 14:13) 6. Will this behavior allow me to imitate Christ? (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 John 2:6) 7. Will I be free from the appearance of evil? (1 Thess. 5:22) 8. Will I not be conformed to the world's system? (Rom. 12:2) 9. Will I not be enslaved? (1 Cor. 6:12) 10. Will I not spiritually harm others? (1 Cor. 8:13)

In conclusion, Christian liberty does not allow for license to sin, nor should genuine liberty be stifled by legalism. Christian obedience should not be infused with legalism nor diminished by license. Where biblical injunctions to obedience are clear and direct, obedience is always required by God. In certain life situations, where the Scriptures have not outlined a specific response, then Christian liberty should prevail. May God give us the wise discernment to steer a righteous course through life, following the navigational aids of Scripture, and never run aground on the shoal waters of either legalism or license.


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