A few years ago I was attending a banquet at a well known Christian university. During dinner conversation a young man who was pursuing his doctorate said that one of the problems in the church today was that there was so much legalism. So I asked him to clarify what he understood legalism to be. He said, “You know, this idea that everything has to be just right.” I replied, “No, that’s not legalism. Legalism is trusting in your own performance that you are right. Insisting on careful obedience to the Scripture is not legalism. Careful obedience to the Scripture is that to which Christians are called.” The Bible says, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-16). “Holy in all your conduct” sounds pretty comprehensive to me. So if a man strives to be holy in all his conduct, does that make him a legalist? If a congregation strives to follow the apostles’ pattern (2 Timothy 1:13) does that make it a legalistic congregation? Obviously not, according to the Bible.
All that being said, the Bible does address the dangers of true legalism. True legalism is best described by our Lord. In Luke 18:9-14, Luke records, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted’”. From this passage we can see these traits of the true legalist:
- He trusts in himself that he is righteous. This is contrasted by the tax collector who implored God for mercy.
- He treats others with contempt. Instead of seeing others as needing the mercy of God he despises them.
- He maximizes his “good” as he minimizes his faults. His self-righteous list of what is most important and Jesus’ list of what is most important (Matthew 23:23-24) are not the same.
- He exalts himself. He prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men”. Of course he is just like other men—he is a sinner (Romans 3:23). The distinction is that the tax collector is painfully aware of his sin while the Pharisee is arrogantly oblivious to his sin.
Don’t let anyone persuade you that if you believe a Christian must practice careful obedience to the Scriptures that such makes you a legalist. It does not. This charge is brought again and again by those who believe and teach the false doctrine of justification by faith only, which is clearly contradictory to the Bible (James 2:24).
But as you make it your aim to “be holy in all your conduct” make sure you avoid true legalism. Do you think you’re not good enough to go to heaven? You’re right. You’re not. Nor am I. Jesus saves. No one else. Make sure you are merciful in your dealings with other people. If we do that, God will be merciful to us (James 2:13). Focus on your own sin and address it. This will keep you gentle as you deal with others in sin. And be humble. It is God who saved you. It is God who saves you. It is God who keeps you saved.