"Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." James 1:22 (NKJV)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Danger of Legalism

I wrote a post last week about the danger of doing what comes naturally. Since then, I've been thinking about the other side of the coin---the danger of legalism.

What Legalism is Not.

Legalism is a word that is thrown about carelessly these days. Making a diligent effort to understand and obey God's commands is discipleship, not legalism. The Apostle Paul compared Christian discipleship to athletic training:

I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Cor. 9:25-27.

What Legalism Is.

The word "legalism" does not appear in the Bible, but the Pharisees are the primary example. The Pharisees' root problem was not that they tried too hard to obey God. Their problem was that they did not trust God. They didn't trust that God's law was sufficient to purify God's people, so they added their own rules and regulations. They didn't trust that God's grace was sufficient to purify them, so they sought to become righteous by their own efforts. They didn't trust that God's love would be sufficient to fulfill them, so they pursued the praise of men. Jesus had harsh words for the unbelieving and legalistic Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, white washed tombs, and a brood of vipers. Matt. 23.

Obedience Pleasing to God.

These two dangers that I've discussed---doing what comes naturally and legalism---are not opposites. To the contrary, they are two sides of the same coin sharing the common roots of unbelief and distrust of God.

God-pleasing obedience is rooted in faith and trust. Trusting God will not make obedience come easily or without effort. Remember Jesus's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish over what the Father had called Him to. He prayed that the cup of death might pass from Him, but ultimately prayed: "Not my will, but yours be done." Lk. 23:39-46. We are called to follow Jesus's example. We respond to God's commands, not as if we are ignorant of the challenges ahead and without apprehension, but ultimately surrendering to God's will believing that He is trustworthy and that His ways are better than ours.

Resisting the Danger of Legalism.

Because we are prideful and sinful little creatures, when we get serious about obeying God's commands there is a risk of legalism creeping into our hearts. How can we resist it? We pray that God would give us greater faith. We see examples of spiritual pride in the Pharisees or in the world around us, and we don't say: "Thank God, I'm not like that!" Instead, we pray with holy fear: "God, please don't let that be me!" We are transparent with one another about our sin and shortcomings. We remember that but for Jesus we would be hopelessly lost. Without hiding our faith or concealing what God is doing in us, we nourish our private and personal relationship with God by spending time alone with Him in Bible reading and prayer.