The Porch Light copyright by Revka (2006-2010). All rights reserved.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Legalism - the Chain that Binds

I have been thinking about this topic for a while, and when checking my stat counter recently, I saw that one visit to my blog resulted from the person's search for "legalistic churches." I was curious to see what other sites they found so I pulled up their search results. There were some very good articles and sermons, and I think the time is right to share some of my thoughts.

In today's politically correct society, many people, including professing Christians, are quick to use the term "legalistic" whenever they are told something they do not like. Unfortunately, from my own experience I have seen that many churches have become legalistic and, intentionally or not, have added to the Word of God.

True legalism is a binding and even suffocating chain that wraps itself around your whole being, demanding that you meet every requirement in order to receive the approval of both God and man. It ignores God's grace and mercy toward sinners and instead declares that you MUST keep a man-made list of standards if you wish to escape the wrath of God. The road to legalism is insidious and often begins with high personal convictions and standards. No one can ever truly fulfill the expectations placed upon them by legalism; thus, many rebel against the chain that binds, and some even rebel against faith and God altogether, incorrectly thinking that is the source of their sense of bondage.

On the other hand, while legalism does in fact exist, it seems that many instances where you hear the cry of "legalism!" are nothing more than rebellion against true authority. No one likes to have their sins exposed and condemned; and when confronted by the truth of their sin, people often attempt to ease their conscience by invoking "Christian liberty" or by incorrectly applying the famous verse, "Judge not that ye be not judged." The Ten Commandments declare that sins that are now socially acceptable are still sins and, as such, are subject to condemnation. Like it or not, God set certain absolutes of right and wrong: sodomy, adultery, pre-marital sex, and murder (which includes abortion), are all denounced as sin by God, yet they are some of the hot-button issues to which you are likely to hear the term "legalism" applied.

How can you recognize true legalism? Are there any distinguishing characteristics for which to look? The answer is, yes.

I recommend your reading this 2-part sermon on legalism by Pastor Randy Smith of Grace Tabernacle in Lake Como, NJ. He did an excellent job of expounding on this issue and began by examining what legalism is not.

    1. Legalism is not the pursuit of personal godliness as it is commanded and accomplished in us by the Triune God.
    2. Legalism is not adopting strong personal convictions.
    3. Legalism is not establishing guidelines for church conduct.

    He then divides legalism into two categories: "Big L" and "little l" legalism.

    "Big L" legalism is any attempt to earn your salvation by contributing your own works to the work accomplished by Jesus on the cross. [emphasis mine] In others words, it's a "Christ-plus" message. The true Gospel, by which we are saved, is one totally by grace through faith whereby the individual rests solely in the sufficiency of Christ's work to forgive sins, remove wrath and justify the ungodly in the sight of God. To ignore grace or combine our works to grace is "Big-L" legalism.

    "Little l" legalism, possibly more common in good churches today, may accept salvation by grace alone, but then believes all must follow certain prescribed extra-biblical standards for godly conduct and favor in God's sight.[emphasis mine] "Little l" legalism often begins as a personal conviction (which is fine), but then elevates that conviction to a corporate mandate expecting compliance from others in the church as well (which is wrong). There are often people who would never dream of subtracting from the Word of God, but have no problem adding to the Word of God and judging others who fail to comply with their standards, pressuring them to blindly adopt their burden or making them feel unholy and impure for failing to go along.

    From my point of view, some of the most common areas that fall prey to "little l" legalism are clothing, music, hairstyles, and the use of cosmetics. These areas are not minutely detailed in Scripture. Thus, different people have different convictions. Legalism comes into play when we decide that our standard in these types of areas is the correct standard and demand that everyone else abide by our standard, looking down on them or even considering them unspiritual if they do not.

    In closing, I believe it would be helpful if all Christians would keep in mind the following quotation.

    God doesn't expect us to be perfect, just progressing.


    knowhimwell said...

    The "little l" of legalism used to suffocate me. I frequently heard and was taught things such as: women should not wear pants, women should not wear shorts, women should wear dresses or skirts to church, women should wear coulottes (sp?) that come below the knee, women should not work outside the home, women who wear pants should not wear pants with a zipper up the front, men should wear suits and ties to church, men should not wear shorts . . .
    I could go on and on and on!!!! It's is sickening. Those things I was taught make me feel sick to my stomach and remind me of feeling strangled and under constant condemnation. It seemed as if no one could live up to their rules. I can easily see why so many teenagers I knew rebelled against it. It seemed as though more focus was on following a list of manmade rules than on serving God. You were certainly looked down upon for not following the rules. I can't begin to tell you the judgment my parents received for my mom working outside the home and for my parents sending my brother and me to public school. Don't get me wrong. I think Christian school is great, but it's kind of ironic because my brother and I still serve the Lord, yet many of the Christian school kids we know have walked away. Perhaps they couldn't handle the legalistic rules that were placed upon them. Like you said, perhaps they associated it with the way God is.

    Today I am glad to say that I am free from that. I am free to listen to contemporary music that glorifies my Lord and Savior. And if I want to wear pants to church, that's ok too. I try to focus on living a life pleasing to God, rather than living a life that other people won't find fault in.

    Revka said...

    I think the thing that galls me most is when people look down their noses at you because you don't have the same standards as they have. It truly is a weight off your back when you are released from those unholy bonds.

    knowhimwell said...

    My walk with the Lord is so much happier now that I have been released from man's condemnation.