The Lure of Legalism

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Wineskins might not seem like the place to reflect on legalism, but it is.  How so?  Grace-minded people can’t afford to ignore legalism, no matter how foolish it seems to be.  This topic is vital to the health of the church-universal because legalism does more harm to the name of Jesus, it turns people away at the door, it ruins the Great Commission, and it’s more than just bad PR.  Legalism creates more atheists than Darwinism. 

Legalism, as I see it, is an ideology that promotes prohibition, rules, regulations, and rituals to earn God’s favor, mercy, and forgiveness.  It’s a narrow-minded perspective that alienates itself from the mainstream as it embitters its adherents, and opposes those who seek authentic biblical liberation.   Legalism is more concerned about guilt than growth. It perpetuates abuse, it’s suspicious of the people who promote grace.  How could anyone be tempted into swallowing that line?  

It’s truly mysterious to many of us, why would Bible believing people who claim to follow Jesus ever embrace legalism?  Legalism rejects the freedom in Christ that liberates our heart and soul — legalism robs us of the joy of the Lord, it truly is soul-crushing.   It is even more bizarre when you consider that legalism is a system which buys into burden-bearing, believes In Hell more than it does Jesus, it operates mainly out of fear of punishment, and it lacks trust in love. 

So what is its great appeal, why would anyone continue to slave away under the bondage of legalism?  More to the point, is it possible to break free of that bondage, and if so, how? 

It’s a paradox, but people cling to the soul-draining chains of legalism.  Why?  Legalism is appealing because it requires less faith.  It’s harder to trust in a God you can’t see than the real results of your own work.  It’s the same seductive trap the serpent offers in the Garden of Eden, you can be like God if you know enough.   

Legalism offers what seems to be a great solution to the turmoil within our soul, i.e, it’s a way to process the fact that we fall short of our ideal without having to trust in anyone else to save us from ourselves.  Admittedly, we are weak, fallible people who stumble and fail miserably, but how do you reconcile that in your mind without doubting your salvation?  Legalism instills a false sense of victory over our sin, because we feel like as long as we follow the rules, we aren’t as bad as other people who aren’t loyal to the rules, and the harder we try to follow the rules, the more God will love us.  

Legalism feels virtuous, there is a lot of pride we gain — increasing our sense of self-righteousness, because we have a great sense of accomplishment when we follow a rule or practice a ritual as perfectly as possible. You know the sensation.  Think back to any Home Improvement project you’ve done, landscaping in your yard or any craft or art you have finished, you know the intoxicating feeling that accompanies a sense of accomplishment.  Legalism falsely offers the feeling of accomplishment when it comes to righteousness.  

Face it, it simply feels good to be right.  When you are the Champion of Truth, you feel invincible in your superiority and totally justified in any of your practices…. And you enjoy the self-satisfaction of knowing you are correct.  

Legalism is self-deceptive, it tricks you into thinking you can live a mistake-free life.  If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t have guilt, you don’t feel shame, and you ignore the problems that come with our sins.   And, it allows you to focus on the shortcomings of other people instead of your own imperfections.  It’s easier to be a fruit inspector than a laborer in the harvest.  

Another part of the appeal that’s often neglected in this conversation is the fact that many people are born into legalism.  When your faith heritage is guided by generations of legalism, it simply feels right, you can’t really see any other way to practice your faith.

Yes, there are a multitude of problems with legalism and yes people still willingly imprison themselves in the bondage of legalism. So how do we break out of the bondage of legalism or help others do so? 

We must take caution against our own dogmatism and reject the hateful, smug feelings of superiority by having overcome a toxic doctrine that has been around at least since Paul wrote to the church in Galatia.  We must honestly face our own disdain for those still trapped in legalism before we can authentically help them find their own freedom too.

Instead of pointing out all of the flaws of legalism or pointing out the benefits of grace, we start by ask probing questions instead of directly attacking their stance.  Pointing out how badly legalism is broken only makes its adherents defensive.  When walls go up, communication goes down.  

We must strike a balance.  I absolutely love Dallas Willard’s phrase, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”  We can make grace into its own legalism, if we aren’t careful.  And, if we aren’t careful we can be just as dominating in our stances on grace.  In other words, we are just as repulsive as those we seek to correct at times.  If we aren’t careful we end up no better off than our KJV only one-cupper brethren and we are not far from thinking that “once saved always saved” or seeing Baptism as a work. 

We need to trust in people experiencing their own painful consequences and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Carried through to its fruition, legelism fails on its own merits.  Allow people some time and space to feel that, and then trust that the same God who redeemed you can touch their hearts as well.  

I personally came out of a “right-of-center ” mild legalism when I began to read wider, expose myself to alternative viewpoints, and when I sat at the feet of some great Seminary professors at Lincoln Christian Seminary where I was blessed to earn two Master’s degrees. My transformation from being judgmental and legalistic began as I allowed men like James Sennett, John Castelein, Chuck Sackett, Richard Knopp, and others at Lincoln to influence me.  They were loving, gentle, and simply persuaded me through their character and examples.  May God bless us all with the same ability to help others see their prison door is already open, and give them the courage to walk out into the light. 

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