Helen’s lips trembled and her aqua-blue eyes brimmed with tears. “At the Christian college I attended, students were not allowed to ride in other people’s cars. But one day when I was shopping with roommates, a friend passed us in her car and offered us a lift back to campus. We gladly accepted. Feeling guilty about breaking the rules, however, I confessed my fault to the Dean of Women. Hoping to receive encouragement for my honesty, I was instead scolded for my rebellion and stripped of my campus privileges.” As she poured out her story, the pain of Helen’s trauma was not far from the surface. It was hard to believe that she was recounting an event that had happened more than 50 years ago.
Just what is legalism? How do we define it and recognise it in our every day Christian lives? Some like to limit legalism to law-based methods of salvation, but the New Testament extends the borders of legalism to the realm of sanctification also. For the purpose of this discussion, legalism is using external rules to quantifiably measure the quality of a person’s spiritual life. The mindset of legalism attaches a measurable standard to Christian living and then requires that all judge themselves (and others) by that standard. “O foolish Galatians! . . . Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1,3)
1. Legalists focus on external rules. What makes legalism so “useful” is the easily identifiable tabs it places on appearance and behaviour. External rules are applied to actions that all can easily see or hear. Perhaps a rule was initially created from a biblical principle, but the external expression of that principle has now become the hot issue rather than the heart and purpose of the scriptural mandate. For example, the Bible tells us not to love the world and that loving the world means the Father’s love is not in us. If I am sporting a body piercing or wearing dreadlocks, that may be external evidence that I have a problem with “loving the world”. On that basis a legalist will let it be known that those external signs are evidence of worldly thinking and are therefore to be shunned without question. No further investigation is deemed necessary because the outside appearance speaks for itself. While an external standard may be evidence of a heart’s true love, it is no guarantee of what is really going on inside. On the other hand, if I dress like a Mennonite, a legalist may approve of my actions without knowing what is happening in my soul. No matter how holy I appear on the outside, if my heart yearns for the world’s values, I am caught in sin’s trap. That’s why external rules can never “perfect” us.
2. Legalists quantifiably measure the quality of a person’s spiritual life. Here are some examples:
a. You must be at church whenever the doors are open.
b. You must hand out tracts every time you go out.
c. You can’t listen to music that has a rock beat.
d. When you preach, you must wear a tie.
e. You shouldn’t go to a church that’s not “Independent Baptist.”
Obviously we can all add another dozen examples. The point is that each legalistic standard has a quantifiable measure attached to it. The quantifiable aspect makes it easy to load guilt on oneself and easy for one person to judge another. Easy, but dangerous.
3. Legalists seek to censure those who do not adhere to their rules. The Judaisers of Paul’s day persecuted him woefully for his insistence that the gospel brought freedom from the law. He warned the Galatians that the legalists only made much of them in order to shut them out. The Judaisers wanted to place the Galatians in a position where they would crave the legalists’ approval and do anything to be part of their legalistic “club” again. Don’t forget that is was the strictest sect of the lawkeepers who led the lynch mob against Jesus.
The problem is that while we are distracted with rules, we fail to discern what is happening in the heart, the realm of eternal consequence. Perhaps if Helen’s confession had been met with eyes that peeked into her tender heart, she would now be telling a story of God’s grace and mercy. Instead, she still bears the scars of legalism’s whip.