Nothing detracts more from the radiance of true Christian holiness than the judgmental spirit of legalism. Legality, the condition of conforming to law, is desirable. "Legalism," however, is a dependence on keeping law as the means of salvation. It is an excessive bondage to the letter of the law, which overlooks the law's purpose and fails to be motivated by love.
This is a poor substitute for genuine Christian faith.
In the post-exilic period, the Jews fanatically observed the written law and a collection of oral traditions. This resulted in a rigid legalism of slavish obedience to commandments, statutes, regulations, rites, and sacrifices. In the earliest days of the Christian Church, when believers were both Jews and Christians, many continued their legalistic practices. As the Gospel spread to the Gentile world, advocates of legalism, known as Judaizers, tried to impose their convictions on the non-Jewish pagan converts. That caused the first major doctrinal conflict in the young New Testament Church.
The issue was officially settled at the first Christian counsel in Jerusalem where legalism was rejected (cf. Acts 15). However, the struggle and practice continued throughout much of the first century. Paul, who had been dramatically delivered from the bondage of legalism (Gal. 1:13, Rom. 7:7), understood that observing the Jewish law as essential to salvation was a form of works righteousness that contradicts justification by grace through faith. It rejects Christ and his saving cross (Gal. 2:21) and results in a galling bondage (5:1).
The scourge of legalism has plagued the Church from the first century to the present.
"Today the appeal is not to adopt the Jewish law, but to drift into moralism, a 'Christian' version of legalism," says Richard E. Howard in the Beacon Dictionary of Theology. "Religion thus becomes primarily a matter of following a set of rules and regulations. The believer is entangled in the web of works righteousness that very easily becomes a self-righteousness. In turn, such self-righteousness often causes one to live by a 'legalistic letter' that results in a cutting, critical, and condemning spirit toward other people. This expression of legalism is a tragic contradiction of the love that is the heart of the Christian faith."
"The corrective for legalism is not license (Gal. 5:13) but that Spirit-generated love which fulfills the spirit and intent of the law from the heart, in true freedom."
When Christ is the ruler of a person's life, He alone sets the standards for holy living.
When He exercises lordship over mind, body, and spirit, He marks the directions of our lives, and establishes the guidelines by which we live. If Christ is not in charge of our lives, only one alternative exists. We are on our own. We must establish the guidelines and parameters for living.
Unfortunately, humankind without God is not equipped for such responsibility. God alone can set the standards of right and wrong and not we.
Even the thought of our trying to do so is ludicrous. I heard of one lady who had strong "convictions" about doing any physical activity or work on the Lord's Day. She maintained this position not only for herself, but for others as well, judging their spirituality by their adherence to her view. Someone reminded her that even the Lord plucked grain with his disciples on the Sabbath.
Taken aback initially, she recovered momentarily, and then remarked: "Well, it didn't make me think any more of Him." Blinded by her own false sense of adequacy and "spiritual correctness," she failed to see that she was usurping God's place by establishing the standards for holy living and judging others. The height of sinfulness is to put ourselves in God's place, taking upon ourselves His authority, and ignoring His offer of grace, guidance, and mercy.
Almost any cursory view of culture and society in North America, particularly the U.S., reveals that people are evenly divided about the leading moral and social issues confronting citizenship. The Church likewise, reflecting the culture, appears to be equally polarized in its internal agendas. Uncertainty, unrest, and resistance fill many lives as a result of changes in societal norms and cultural and family values, transitions in the workplace, acceptance of moral and spiritual relativism, and the disappearance of national and social boundaries.
What an opportunity for holiness adherents to demonstrate the spirit of love and hope through Christ without compromising their tested convictions.
What a chance to accept, with Christ's love, those who disagree with them.
The diversity of our world has brought diversity into our churches. A myriad of perspectives regarding almost every issue is raised within the church-views on church music, administrative organization, social choices, and more. It has been reported that 60 percent of the total membership of the Church of the Nazarene has entered the church in the last decade. Therefore, we should expect such variety of opinion. Add the fact of the external and extensive changes in our society during the last twenty years, and an absence of consensus is inevitable.
The apostle Paul faced a similar challenge with the Galatian churches. The main purpose of his epistle to them was to correct the double error of legalism: 1) that a person is saved initially partly by faith and partly by good works, and 2) that one is kept saved and finally perfected by a combination of faith and works.
The Judaizers were teaching that one must have Christ and Moses, faith and circumcision, grace and law. Their error was not that they substituted something for Christ's work, but that they tried to add something to it. Modern Judaizers, too, quickly outline a set of rules or administer a litmus test for new believers and old! Paul never said it was wrong for the Christians to be circumcised, or to keep the law, or to observe the festivals. He only insisted that these things had nothing to do with deserving or earning the gift of salvation.
Not only so, but he also recognized differences of sphere appointed by God. Paul was to go to the Gentiles, James and others were to work among the Jews. To all then was given the "right hand of fellowship." Mutual trust, acceptance, and recognition are a good platform on which all must work. And yet Paul fought this error of legalism tooth and nail as being a denial of the Gospel he preached.
Paul insisted that believers in Christ live in spiritual unity. He saw that even those who were apparently sincere could disrupt the Body of Christ.
If men and women are sons and daughters of God through Christ, no classes can exist-Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:26-28), "traditional" nor "contemporary." What matters is not circumcision or any similar requirement, but faith and a new act of creation by the Spirit (Galatians 5:6, 6:15). May this ever be so among all of those who believe!
John A. Knight is a general superintendent emeritus in the Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, May/June 2005
Please note: This article was originally published in 2005. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.