Legalism

<<excessive adherence to law>>

This is holding to the strict observance of rules and regulations to try to achieve both salvation and spiritual growth. The motive and focus is on self-effort, taking priority over the grace of God, substituting rules for relationship (Col 2:20-23). Christianity is primarily about intimate connection with the Saviour, focusing on what God has done for us; otherwise, it is merely religion that emphasises rules and obligations, focusing on what we have done for God.

Just obeying the rules, without relating to the Lord behind the rules, is failing to understand the reason why He gave them.  In the OT the Israelites were given some

Is my focus rules or relationship?

basic laws or commandments as to how they were to live, for the benefit of all involved (Ex 20:3-17). Jesus summed these up as loving God with every part of our being, and loving our neighbour as ourselves (Mk 12:30,31). Therefore, if we can consistently keep those two commands we are fulfilling what God requires of us. Legalism binds, causing the question to be asked, “who is my neighbour?” and hoping the answer is not my problem.  Whereas, if we are free in Christ, we are to be willing and able as appropriate to respond to whatever the need (Lk 10:27-37). 

As we consciously endeavour to do that in each situation we will not be controlled by the ‘letter of the law’ which ‘binds’ people but be controlled by the Spirit which gives life and freedom (Rom 7:6; 2 Cor 3:6). Christianity is not following a set of cold, lifeless rigid rules or conditions to be accepted by God, rather it is based on a loving relationship with Him – the life giver! By the grace of God we are saved, not by any works we do (Eph 2:8,9). Over time as we grow through a closer walk with God, we learn what sort of behaviour and lifestyle choices please Him. Although it may appear to be that we are governed by rules, we are motivated by love to do what is acceptable to God. Jesus said, “I always do what pleases Him” (Jn 8:29). It should be our goal also to obey His commands and do what pleases Him – this demonstrates our love for Him (Jn 14:15,21; 1 Jn 5:3). Is my faith centered in Christ or human rules which are ineffective in keeping the fleshly desires under control (Rom 6:1-8:17; Col 2:23)?

Legalism is outward and performance based, with the prominence on guilt as it highlights inadequacies. True Christianity is relationship orientated, coming from a changed heart when sin is confessed, with encouragement gained by the progression in the Christian faith where the focus is on Christ. 

Jesus challenged the rigid unbalanced approach to life held by the religious leaders who were bound up in legalism and figuratively put heavy burdens on people’s shoulders.

Rules bind, Jesus brings freedom

With great diligence they attended to the small areas but actually missed the important matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness (Mt 23:4,23,24; Mk 2:23-3:6). Paul realised this when he said, after his conversion, that although he had done everything perfectly according to the traditions of men it amounted to nothing and now his confidence was in Christ (Phil 3:4-11).

The early church leaders realised that it was unwise to overload the new believers with a multitude of rigid conditions, so they gave instruction in some important areas and inferred they would come to an understanding in other areas over time (Act 15:1-21; 2 Cor 3:6). Christianity is largely an independent walk with God – the Holy Spirit leading us individually to holy living, although it will be on similar pathways to other dedicated believers.

The Word of God is to be paramount with man’s ideals secondary, otherwise things are out of correct order – “You have let go the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men” (Mk 7:1-13). Humans have often  allowed their own rules of tradition and ritualistic moulds to override what God’s Word says in certain issues, preventing or limiting what God can and wants to do, so break with ungodly traditions and follow God in faith. This is not a case of “Everyone doing what seems right in their own eyes” rather seeking divine guidance and walking obediently (Jdg 17:6; Prov 3:5,6, 12:15).

Our personal characteristics and specific, individual, divine callings have a bearing on how and in what order He challenges us about areas in our lives that need addressing with the aim to make us more Christ like (Rom 8:29). The refining process we are subject to is dependent on the raw material available and the intended final product He has in mind. However, there are some principles that govern us on this pathway: we are to love God and walk in purity with others (1 Tim 4:12, 5:2); we are not to do what would cause another to stumble (Mt 18:6; Rom 14:13; 1 Cor 8:9).

A distinguishing mark of sects and cults is the high degree of control exerted over people through rules. While there should be accountability, guidelines and rules in any well run church, home, business or country it should not be at the expense of personal liberty and freedom in areas that do not affect the well-being of others. Rules are a system of bringing people into conformity rather than allowing them to manifest the love of God liberally, in purity and joy, as they maintain integrity at all times. This does not negate rules of sound conduct by which we should live.

See also: control, cults, formality, grace, judging, legal, liberty, ritual, tradition.


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