Legalists are all around us. And you may be surprised to find out that you are one of them. I know that is what I discovered as I have spent the last week studying my heart in relation to legalism and shame.
Typically when discussing the topic of legalism people think of rules and laws. However, merely upholding laws as the standard to living in a way that honors God and serves people is not how we identify legalism. That assumption would make Jesus a legalist (Matthew 5:17-20).
It is impossible to live without laws. Everyone lives with some law-code or system. The question is not, “do you carefully adhere to laws and principles?” But rather, “Whose laws are you submitting to?” Now this doesn’t always expose legalism but more often than not it does. Legalism has a tendency of sneaking in the back door; by simply lowering the standards upon which to be legalistic about. That may sound strange, because typically we think of a legalist as being someone who holds to a stricter law-code than we do. But that merely makes us the center of the universe and thus the law-maker and giver. And that is exactly what legalism is.
Ultimately all legalist put themselves on the Throne of God.
The Legalist Categories
These categories listed below of not Biblical titles. I have created these titles myself. Although, I do believe the Bible exposes both these forms of legalism. I have formed these categories to better help myself identify legalism in my own heart. The weakness with these categories is that one person can and most likely is in both these categories. But often times one of the categories will likely be more predominant. However, in the end, in making these categories I do believe it will help us understand legalism better.
The Corporate/Universal Legalist
The Corporate Legalist (CL) are concerned about behavior and conformity to their laws (the laws that they themselves made or the community at large has made). They believe in absolute laws, and believe people are to be measured by their adherence to them. Those who perform well are elevated to higher classes. More often than not, they believe strict obedience to their laws is plausible and mandatory. They may or may NOT use the word repentance often, but what they mean when they use it is penance.
Self-rulers / The Individual Legalist
The self-rulers (SR) are concerned about self-expression and self-esteem. This is their law and they also insist on strict observance of it. The danger with this form of legalism is that it is rarely identified as legalism by any camp. This is because their only law is the insistence on freedom of the individual. In other words, this type of legalist believes he is a law unto himself, and he does what is right in his own eyes. They appeal to all actions being good on the basis of their self-proclaimed good heart and intentions. Pointing out sin or calling anyone (including yourself) to repentance or doing anything that induces shame or guilt is repugnant to SR’s.
How Both are Similar
Both forms of legalism are content with using any means possible to get the results, beliefs, or behavior desired. And therefore, both forms of legalism are concerned with perception of man far more than they are with the individual’s heart before God. All legalist live their life before man and not before God. Because in the legalist’s mind, they are their own god and make their rules (although this is never known to themselves). This also gives them the right to judge because they are now the giver of the law. In forming their own rules, they are left to their own foolishness rather than the wisdom and revelation of God as to what standards we are to uphold and obey.
However, all legalist have some form of law that they hold to very strongly, and when that law is disobeyed there is little if any forgiveness. Penance is always required. And you must earn your way back into their favor. When you over step perceived bounds, according to the SR’s, and call them to God’s standard you will be met with anger, hatred, slander, and judgment. The same goes for when you trespass against the man-made rules of the CL’s.
There is no gospel in the legalist worldview. Performance is it. Wherever the bar is ultimately placed in the legalist worldview, will decide not only how your actions will be judged, but also your standing before God. You either sink or swim. This is what classifies all legalist. The legalist is best identified by their response when the law is disobeyed. In the end legalism in some way ultimately belittles sin. Either by not calling sin what God calls sin, or by not acknowledging the price sin cost God’s Son on the cross by thinking that future good behavior could make up for previous sins.
Gospel people (GP) are concerned about the heart and conformity to God’s laws. They believe if you get the heart right before God, then you will get the right fruit (i.e. results, beliefs, and behavior). Gospel people believe strongly in the obedience to God’s laws. They believe that the Gospel does not change God’s law, it changes our relationship to God’s law. This is fundamental into understanding the defining difference between GP’s and legalist. Because contrary to legalist, GP’s will always extend grace, forgiveness, support, correction, help even when God’s law is offended. They do NOT belittle or lower God’s standard in anyway, but because of the relationship change, there is no judgment for anyone who continually repents and trust in Christ Jesus for their salvation. GP’s may use any means to bring about outward obedience to God’s law but they are not content with the outward obedience until there is repentance of heart and obedience coming from faith working through love. This is because GP’s are most concerned about the individuals fellowship and relationship to God.
Common Misunderstandings and Mistakes of Gospel People
Because everyone including the GP’s has a law to live by, it is often times easy to misidentify GP’s with legalist. Much confusion has resulted in not understanding grace. And when we don’t understand grace, then it is easy to misapply it. The most common way is confusing the difference between judgment and accountability. GP’s are not to condemn or judge fellow brothers and sisters. But we are called to condemn certain practices, as well as, hold ourselves and the family of God accountable to obey God’s law and abstaining from sin. This will include reminding our brother/sister of God’s standard and holding them accountable to striving to keep it. But we never stop with God’s law; we always remind them of the Gospel and how Christ extends forgiveness of sin and no condemnation for those who repent and trust in Him. GP’s will also discipline professed believers when there is refusal to repent. This is because one of the fundamental differences between legalist and GP’s is not how big the sin is, but rather have you repented of that sin. Therefore, it is not legalism to preach, submit, and spur others along to obeying God’s law. Nor is it legalism when doing so results in shame. Nor is it legalism to call someone to repentance, that is, to go and sin no more. Nor is it legalism to discipline those who refuse to repent. It only becomes legalism when the Gospel is not also held out to them and/or those who trespass are treated as 2nd class Christians because of their level of obedience in comparison to others.
We all by necessity must live with rules and laws. It is important for us to distinguish between man-made rules and God’s law. Once that has been discerned, we are call all people everywhere to strict obedience of His (God’s) law. We must also understand that all will trespass and offend God’s law and that is where the Gospel becomes necessary. Having a law or not having a law is not what makes you a legalist. It is whose law are you using, and how do you respond when that law is transgressed? Do you demand penance? Do you only offer partial or no forgiveness of sin? Do you treat them as 2nd class? Do you demand they earn their way back into your favor? Or do you offer full forgiveness and restoration to those who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ? That is the real difference between God’s people and those who continue to rebel against God