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Legalism: Old and New Perspectives

Legalism: Old and New Perspectives March 11, 2013

Over the years my own thinking about legalism has become more nuanced but I want to map out what legalism is in the context of the New Testament. After years of teaching Galatians and pondering legalism in Paul’s mind, I’m convinced many get confused about what the word “legalism” means. Thus, folks say “That’s legalism!” So some rubble needs to be cleared out first. Recently I’ve seen the word “legalism” referred to the commands of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as if giving a commandment is tantamount to legalism, and on top of that as if the Torah of Moses is just a big bold case of legalism itself. Far from the truth. Time to think about legalism again.

How do you define legalism? What is a good illustration of legalism for you?

Legalism is not believing in the importance of law or rules or authorities; it is not rules themselves; legalism is not even following kosher laws. More often than not, this sort of definition of legalism — equating it with rules — often comes from someone who has been told to do something they don’t want to do. (As a teenager telling her parents that a 10pm curfew is “legalism.”)

So what is it? It depends on which person you ask — and that’s such an important thing to realize.

For the Old Perspective, legalism is the human effort to justify himself/herself before God on the basis of works; this means Pharisees and Judaism as a whole was marked by legalism, so Paul’s beef with “works of the law” is a beef with Judaism as a whole, and (once we get into some forms of later Protestant thinking) anything in the Torah is legalism.

For the New Perspective, “legalism” – a word not often used by New Perspective folks – would be those Mosaic laws that distinguish Jews from Gentiles, like Sabbath and circumcision and kosher laws, and that are used to demand that a Gentile become a Jew, or adopt the Mosaic Torah, in order to complete one’s salvation.

My big sketch of the meaning of legalism is this:

Legalism is any practice or belief that is added to the gospel that compromises the sufficiency of Christ as Savior and jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance. Secondarily, then, legalism demands that one adopt a group’s special markers in order to be fully acceptable to God.

Legalism then is the charge against you or me, often sensed at the deepest level, that we are not accepted by God in Christ and indwellt by the Holy Spirit.

Let me put this on the table: one can “add” something — say adopting some church’s special markers or church membership or Sunday school attendance or not drinking Belgian beers or a stipulation about what time for a teenager to get home at night — and not at all be compromising Christ or jeopardizing the Spirit. So, it’s not simply about having rules or laws or regulations.

Everything in Paul’s letter to the Galatians aims at Galatians 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.” Or, one could translate it: “Christ liberated us into liberation!” Legalism aborts liberation or side-tracks liberation or blunts the glory of liberation, but it’s not because of the idea of liberation. Legalism does this to liberation because it attacks Christ and the Spirit. Freedom is freedom from “works of the law” in order to be admitted into the good company of God, symbolized in full fellowship in the Body of Christ.

Legalism always ends up adding something to the gospel. What might those things be? Laws, rules, regulations, experiences, education, cultural taboos or political parties. So, yes, legalism is about laws or practices or beliefs that are added to the gospel, and the result of the addition is that it compromises the sufficiency of Christ or jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit. And, again, it requires folks to join some group’s special markers.

Legalism often is noted by an overemphasis on performance that, in some way, calls into question the sufficiency of what Christ has done and what the Spirit can do.

Legalism always erects boundaries between people and puts a boundary between people who are designed by God and called by God to be at one. For Paul, this was seen in the Judaizing believes wanting the Gentiles to become Jews and, if they didn’t, then they were not accepted. Paul’s simple word against all of this is one: We are one in Christ (Gal 3:28).

Legalism creates an atmosphere that is pervaded by judgmentalism. Judgment, yes; discernment, yes. But legalism ramps this up and a judgmental spirit pervades a person — always judging others — or the church — always assigning who is in and who is out. Yes, discernment: the issue here is whether or not a person is accepted because of what Christ has done and how the Spirit can lead.

Legalism’s concerns are nearly always good things. The beliefs or practices are added to the gospel, and they are usually good things: not drinking too much or not putting yourself into a place of temptation or extra rigor in one’s spiritual disciplines — all these things could be, and frequently are, good things. But, legalism takes these things to the next level and calls into question the sufficiency of our acceptance in Christ and the adequacy of the Spirit’s power to guide us.

Legalism often goes beyond the Bible in order to protect the Bible. The additions we so often encounter in legalism are often ideas or behaviors that go beyond what the Bible says, and those extras are designed to keep us from getting near the Bible’s “rules” and “laws.” “Keep the Sabbath,” the Bible says. When does begin? Let’s say it’s 5pm on Friday evening. OK, that’s reasonable. At 5pm, one finds another working: Breaker of the Sabbath? Well, not necessarily. 5pm isn’t what the Bible says. I could go on.

Legalism, finally, often has a reverse logic: if I don’t break the law, then I am righteous. That is, “not breaking” becomes equivalent to “keeping.” But one can “not break” and not keep. I have not, the hypocrite says, had sex with another man’s wife, so I haven’t broken the law. I’ve kept the law. But, no, Jesus says, the law is about loving your wife and it’s about your mind and your heart….


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