Legalism is a fake version of righteousness. It affects men, women and children in various forms from the cradle to the grave. Even preachers entertain this without realizing the dangers of it.
First things first, legalism is not the same thing as righteous living, praying methods, living by faith, obedience to God’s will, desire for purity and genuineness in one’s relationship with God. The Bible doesn’t promote legalism. Legalism is not be confused with following the teachings of the Gospel. At this point its imperative to get a clear idea of what is legalism. Let’s start with the dictionary meaning:
Legalism : strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code ( Merriam-Webster online dictionary)
Now in Christianity legalism is the excessive and improper use of the law. By excessive, it means overzealous following of the laws of God while not giving glory to God. It can also promote self-righteousness as it makes a person focus more on self than the Lord.
By improper usage, it means that it stealthily becomes a ‘earn your salvation‘ technique instead of getting your salvation truly and freely from Jesus our Lord. This can make you very unsure of your salvation and thereby keep you dependent on the church authority structure to say whether are you saved or not. It’s good to obey church leaders but you must keep it balanced in the light of the Gospel.
During the course of my life I was unwittingly taught legalism though I didn’t understand it at that time. However, after a few years I realized that is an energy drainer. This affected my relationship with God and I was not sure of my salvation. So decided to re-learn the teachings of the Bible directly by myself and praying to the Holy Spirit to lead me. It’s a big relief to be out of it and be sure of one’s salvation that comes through Jesus Christ.
Legalism can happen in non religious settings such as work or college. Since, I’m speaking of legalism in a spiritual context, I will give you a few examples of how things can go legalistic in the religious world. Here we go:
- Lydia is trying to make ends meet for her little child. Her husband is working but is not getting enough due to the bad economy. So she decides to do part-time work as a nurse to supplement their income due to which she misses on a few church services. She is worried that her actions have jeopardized her salvation and keeps crying out. This continues until a preacher convinces her of true salvation and helps her with the timings of a church that has worship services all through the week.
- James is taught to always wear a tie to any church service as every man in church who doesn’t wear it is seen as not sincere about salvation. He keeps doing this regularly. One day he forgets to wear a tie and enters the church. He is then denounced by everyone in the church and eventually leaves it. He then enters another church where there is no requirement to wear a tie (to his pleasant surprise) and continues to go there regularly. (the first 2 examples are just indicative examples, the next one is a real one)
- I would attend a place of prayer where people got healed by the power of Christ. However, the preachers in the due course of time started acting legalistic and would say the following statements, “If you have AIDS or HIV its God’s Gift to you for sinning and God will NOT heal you” and would also say “I sense God is healing some person of this and this disease but I say to this person, come up and testify on the stage right now or you will LOSE your healing”. I was totally horrified at this legalism and started avoiding them lest I too learn their ways. As time passed by, many people stopped going to this place and started going to other places to get prayed over. However, the preachers over there are still adamant on their ‘God hates people with AIDS’ stance. (I mentioned this example in my earlier post; Learn to understand what comes from God and what comes from man)
A very sure way to realize legalism is at work is when things are added or removed from the actual wisdom and practices mentioned in the Bible. Basically these are rules of men and not of God.
This make me recall the words of a wise preacher, ‘The farther away from God you get, the more rules and regulations you’ll come up with in an effort to maintain what you once had. And what was once living will soon become mechanical and artificial. (Take the machinery out of the church.)’ No wonder, I say that your righteousness must come from Christ. alone. You must have the right attitude of the heart, not just good external actions.
Here are few scriptures on what the Bible speak about Legalism:
Isaiah 1:11 “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
Isaiah 29:13 The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.
Matthew 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 23:1-4 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.
Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
Some videos on the reality of legalism. These make good sense, so are worth a watch as well.