Legalism and its Antidotes

domsmartHere’s an article by Dominic Smart, minister of Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen, which describes in a remarkably lucid way, a condition which has affected my heart. I suspect it affects the hearts of many of my Christian brothers and sisters.

I confess to being a recovering Pharisee who needs the grace of God to work more deeply in my heart and to change me. Dominic’s article has helped me to see more clearly the damage that this infection can inflict, and thankfully he points me to the antidotes.

Like so many sins, we can see the symptoms more clearly in the hearts and lives of others, but be totally blind to it in our own lives. Hence Jesus’ words about the speck and the plank. My knowledge of my own heart, and my experience of pastoral work and church life, makes me think that Dominic hits a few nails on the head here.

Deliverance is a wonderful thing.

When a Christian is delivered from an oppressive burden that has weighed him or her down for years, then it’s especially wonderful. For such deliverance brings release into the joy of the Lord. There’s a sin which takes a peculiarly Christian form in churches. It is burdensome, lethally plausible and, tragically, it’s rife. It would be one of my greatest delights if through my years of ministry believers and fellowships are delivered from it to the glory of God.

It’s legalism.

It’s a sin. It always has been and always will be. Like all sins it causes others to suffer. So some of you reading this might be more sinned against than sinning: only you will know that. The indicators, sadly, will be guilt, pain and an inferiority complex that you somehow can’t quite believe.

Legalism isn’t a matter of having rules, structures, limits or instructions in our congregations or individual lives. While they can be overdone, and often are by people of a certain temperament, they are necessary for godly order in any fellowship: God has given many to us in the Scriptures. The opposite of legalism isn’t lawlessness (antinomianism, as some like to call it), which is nothing more than anarchic pride. Nobody is delivered into that. Christian freedom isn’t freedom to do whatever you want: down here none of us is safe to be let loose with such a freedom; up there – well, we’ll be different then!

Legalism is primarily a God-ward thing. It’s a way of making and keeping yourself acceptable to God. From this flows the legalism that is directed towards one another It’s a way of scoring sanctity points in our fellowships, and exerting what one postmodernist called a “truth regime” – it’s about pride, power and control. It simultaneously glorifies man and “unsecures” man. Thus its true opposites are grace and faith.

Yet it is so plausible. The need for order, structures and boundaries feeds our quest for control. Our very ability to keep some rules feeds our pride and gives us the impression that our relationship with God is somehow founded upon this ability. But in the same day, our inability to keep others feeds our despair, which in turn generates more rules and a more strenuous effort to keep them. Since laws and rules can be helpful, legalism seems to be on to a winner.

It often arises out of a good motive: to be holy. We don’t want sin to rule over us, we don’t want to grieve God or to stray from his path. And it is a narrow path compared to the one that leads to destruction. So in order to avoid big sins we add rules to God’s word – hedging sinful territory around with codes that are intended to keep us from it. It is the well-intentioned, keen and committed who are most prone to it. The half-hearted Christian couldn’t really care enough to veer towards legalism (though he or she makes up for it with many other errors). It was the scribes, following good Ezra, who developed “the traditions of men” which people preferred to the word of God: a preference that Jesus blasted in Mark 7.

But all this focuses the mind on self. It takes the mind and heart away from Christ, the Proper Man. It takes our faith away from His sufficiency and misplaces it upon ours. We live to achieve his approval; we forget that we are already alive and accepted in Christ. Ever so plausibly, we are sold a different gospel: one that isn’t really a gospel at all. And the desire not to sin in some big way can be little more than a mask to hide our lack of faith in Jesus, “who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption”. (1Cor 1:30). Holiness is not a matter of living on eggshells with a God who is reserving judgement on us and might turn us away at any moment.

It really is a deadly false thing, this warped alternative, this lie, this all-pervasive and hideous distortion of Christian living – for at least eight reasons that I can think of. The biblical antidotes will follow.

If you want to read the rest of the article, go here. It’s worth reading.

10 Replies to “Legalism and its Antidotes”

  1. Thanks for this link, Stafford.
    “Under the guise of being holy legalism makes the narrow path narrower than God has made it.” This expresses very well what I was thinking about the other night when I told an Alpha group that God’s will for us is not a tightrope – one wrong step and we’re doomed…

    Another recovering lexaholic.

  2. The great tragedy is that sadly we normally recognise legalism in those around us. Rarely do we actually, genuinely, see it in ourselves and equally we are not consistent legalists – the road narrows at points and widens at points all to suit our own agendas.

    “Distortion of Christian living” a modern day issue for the church – but more importantly a modern day issue for me – the plank in my own eye rather than the speck!

  3. It’s worth reading all right! Thank you so much for this, Stafford. For me this stood out, “What hope has legalism’s whine before the booming glory of the grace of God?”, although there is so much of benefit (and glad rebuke!) in the article.

    And it got me wondering… how far is Aberdeen from Auchterarder!

  4. If anyone is interested Dominic wrote a book called’When we get it wriong.’ It’s a great read + would be an encouragement to many

  5. Legalism has a place in Christian living but not at the expense of christian love in action. It is not the rules of the church that are important it’s the rules of the bible and how we live out our christian lives in God’s service. To live at the foot of the cross for our neighbour should be our legalism.

  6. Ferm Rant,

    Interesting comments, “To live at the foot of the cross for our neighbour should be our legalism.” But I’m not sure I know what you mean, would it be OK to ask you to develop the thought?


  7. Stafford would i be right in saying you removed my comments and even those of peter morrow? Was it because I stood on the Word of God rather than sucked up to the pope in rome? Or would you prefer it if all of us presbyterians just didn’t ask questions? Why did you remove luthers quotes? do you not respect the reformers anymore? Do i have to write all the church’s differences with scripture on a bot of paper and nail them to the door of church house like luther did in wittenburg? Or do I and the other disillusioned presbyterians who want to remain true to protestantism and the gospel have to leave the church in order to hear the Word of God preached with no fear of the consequences?

  8. Thank you Stafford for this article with the timely and apt warning about the subtle dangers of being a legalist.

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