One of the most manipulative criticisms of the members of the Lord’s church is that they’re ‘legalists.’
Legalism is defined as “strict, literal or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code” (Webster’s Dictionary). Another way of saying it is, “one who follows the rules.”
What is unique about the definition of legalism is that it’s subjective. What does “excessive conformity” mean, who decides what is excessive and by what standard are they determining what constitutes excessive.
If you were to poll the denominations in a local area about what is a legalist, and pit their views on sin against one another, you’ll find that they would each think the other were legalists.
It’s really a made-up sin for people who want to continue in it. Paul addressed this in Romans chapter 6…
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” Romans 6:1-2
Here’s the rub, the workers of the devil have convinced people that NOT COMMITTING SIN IS A SIN! If you were to suggest that a legalist is a person who places their trust in the rule keeping ONLY, then of course that’s wrong. God clearly teaches an obedience through faith. Jesus condemned the Pharisee’s, not for keeping the law, rather for keeping it without their heart. I’ve met no one in the churches of Christ who believes or teaches salvation by works alone.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these OUGHT YE TO HAVE DONE, AND NOT TO LEAVE THE OTHER UNDONE.” [Mat 23:23] emphasis mine.
A careful reading of the New Testament will find commands like…
- Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: Mat 28:18
- By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name: Romans 1:5
- …according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith: Romans 16:26
- For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things. 2Cor 2:9
- If ye love me, keep my commandments. John 14:15
- For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. 1John 5:3
I believe the confusion comes from a misunderstanding of passages that teach the keeping of the Law could not bring life [ie Gal 3:11; 5:1-4]. The context of these passages is speaking about the Law of Moses, not the Law of Christ. Later in Galatians 3:27 Paul wrote, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” In many places, the Inspired Writers and Apostles of Christ warned those, that still clung to the fulfilled Law of Moses, that it would lead to death. And nowhere will you find any similar condemnation of strictly following the commands of our Lord. Instead, they commend it.
Now, based on a poor understanding of Scripture, millions are being led astray believing that strict obedience to God is a sin called legalism. They’re being told that a faithful Christian is one who is not overly concerned with knowing or keeping God’s commandments. They will often cite 2Corinthians 3:6 as a proof text. However, when you examine the context (v7) you’ll find that what is under consideration is once again, the Law of Moses as it refers to “tablets of stone.”
Listen up, those who love God will keep His commandments [John 14:15]. What does it mean then if you refuse to keep His commandments? In his letters, John also wrote…
“And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” [1John 2:3]
To love God, to truly know God, is to keep His commandments THROUGH FAITH for it also says in His divine word…
“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” [Hebrews 11:6]