The correct definition of legalism is, “Trying to earn favor or salvation through good works.” Of course this is biblically impossible (Titus 3:5, Ephesians 3:8-9) because God’s love for us is always the same, and salvation is only by grace through faith and “not of works.” I think we would all agree on this point, that the first definition of legalism is the wrong way to go.
However, the definition of legalism most commonly used today is, “Too many rules, too many lists, too strict, or doing things by constraint that I do not really want to do.”
This is where many people have a problem. The neo-evangelicals or neo-Baptists: (Neo just means new – a new breed – not the way it used to be), they always refer to legalism with this basic definition, and then they say legalism is bad, it’s wrong! They say, “We have freedom in Christ!” This is true, but freedom still has it’s boundaries. Adam and Eve were free, but they still were not allowed to eat of one tree. They disobeyed and lost that freedom, just as every time WE disobey we lose more and more of our freedoms.
The problem with the neo-evangelical or neo-Baptist is that they use this fight against legalism as a cop-out in order to use this “freedom” as a license to sin. We (the saved) are definitely “free in Christ.” Freed from Satan, sin, death and Hell just to name a few, but we were also freed from these things so that we could be freed to some things! Freed to live for Him. Freed to serve Him. Freed to please HIM and freed to serve others. Christ did NOT free us to do whatever we want in violation of the guidelines of what the Bible teaches and then call it freedom. We should call that disobedience and rebellion!
I actually agree with the “Neo’s” when they say, “The rules should not take over the relationship,” and “the external should not supersede the internal.” Another classic is, “When we are governed by lists, then the lists keep getting longer and longer, and it never stops.” I agree with these statements – to a point. Let me explain:
The first statement – “Rules should not take over relationship.” I agree wholeheartedly. Anything we do for the Lord SHOULD be because we love the Lord and not because we feel we have to, and many times we get that wrong because of our old-nature. If we only do for the Lord when we feel like it, and only when our hearts are overflowing with love for Him (as it should always be), then let’s be consistent. I mean let’s not make our children go to school on the days when they don’t absolutely love school. I mean, their relationship in their heart is not right on that day, so why are we legalists, and make them go anyway? Let’s do the same with work. I do not think I should have to go to work on Mondays, because I am not in love with my job or my boss and my relationship and motivation is not right. What about when we make our children clean their room, or take out the garbage even when they don’t feel like it? They are not in love with their room, the garbage, or even sometimes with the parent who told them, but they are made to do it anyway.
Should our kids love the Lord enough to realize they should love school, and love to obey their parents? YES! Hopefully they do. Should we as adults love the Lord enough to be thankful to Him for His provision in providing for us a J-O-B, and out of relationship and love for Him, go to work and work hard (“as to the Lord”), motivated by our love for Him? YES! – and hopefully we do have days like that! But how many times have we gone to work (with the old nature attitude) – I hafta’ go, and I don’t wanna’,..but I will. Probably 80% of the time that’s how we go to work and our children go to school. Now I wish the love and the heart and the right motivation was in it for all of us, BUT EVEN WHEN IT’S NOT, and we still obey – it causes good results. God, in His mercy still blesses that kind of obedience. I can promise you, He does not bless ANY kind of disobedience. What would our lives be like if we only went to school as children on the days we were in love with school? Or, what if we only went to work on those days? Or, only obeyed our boss when we were in love with him (or her)? Not too hard to imagine what our lives would be like – right?
The second statement:
I have even heard some neo-evangelical pastors say, “Legalism is bad, but we should also not use our newfound freedom in Christ as a license to sin.” Of course, I agree with the last part of that statement. But, by saying that legalism (or too many rules) is bad, he is in effect saying, “Do not use this license to sin, but here,…let me give you a license to sin. Go now, and enjoy life and when anyone gives you a Bible-based doctrine or guideline plainly laid out in Scripture that you do not want to adhere to, just cry – LEGALISM!, LEGALISM!” Then you can go ahead with your violation of Scripture without any fear of your conscience (or the Bible) getting in your way.
Let me try to wrap this up. When we were saved, we should have not only received Jesus, but we should have surrendered our will to His will. Because of His great love for us demonstrated on the cross of Calvary, we should be so thankful that He set us free from the bondage of sin that we “should no longer serve sin” but we would search the Scriptures to see what pleases Him, and gladly do whatever it is. It is because we are so thankful, so dedicated, so surrendered to Him that we search the Bible to find out what displeases Him and stay away from those things. Not by constraint, or because we have to!
If you feel you have to serve Jesus, or have to have standards, or have to go soul winning, or have to get the sinful worldly styles, TV shows, videos or other ungodly influences out of your life, then you must have a heart problem. I am not saying you are definitely not saved (although that could very well be the problem), but I am saying you are definitely harboring, protecting and preserving unconfessed sin, and are not fully surrendered to the Lord!
One of my friends recently told me if we were honest in church, sometimes we would have to sing:
“I surrender some,” or “I surrender sometimes,” or “I refuse to surrender at all, and you can’t make me!”
A little boy, was told to go sit in the corner because of his bad behavior in school. He stood in the corner and the teacher said, “I told you to sit in the corner!” With that, the boy sat down. Then he raised his hand and the teacher said, “What is it boy?” He said, “Teacher, I may be sitting on the outside,…but I’m still standing on the inside!”
That’s the rebellion that’s inside all of us at times. Should we serve the Lord with gladness at all times? YES! YES! YES! But, even when we obey when we don’t want to, or our heart is not in it, we’re much better off, than when we don’t.
What if the little boy just kept refusing to sit? I’m sure the punishment would have gotten worse right? Our Father does the same with us, because He loves us enough!
Again, works cannot save us in any way shape or form, nor do they give us more love from God. He loves us unconditionally, this is absolutely true. But, when we clearly defy and disobey Scripture, we cannot file that under “freedom in Christ;” instead, file that under willful disobedience to Almighty God.
While God’s love for us never changes (as shown in the story of the prodigal son), his favor (or blessing) upon our life does, in direct proportion to our obedience or disobedience to his Word. How was the prodigal son’s life, as long as he lived in rebellion? Not too blessed, was it? Notice how the son, before he left said,…“Give me.” But, when he got right he said to the father, “Make me as one of thy hired servants.” Why? Because now he was fully broken and surrendered to do (not talk about doing) his father’s will with a heart full of love and respect.
I surrender all, but admittedly, not always. Even during those times, I should obey. That’s not legalism, that’s just smart. That’s obedience. Someone said obedience is doing what you’re told to even when you don’t want to.
If I commanded you to take a $5 bill from me and go down to Dairy Queen and buy yourself something once every day, that would not be a really good test of most people’s obedience. Especially the younger people. But, if everyday I commanded you take take some money and go to the health-food store, buy vitamins, vegetable juice and a salad, that would probably be a much better test. You may not want to, but if you did, you’d still be blessed with the healthy results over time, while the other person (whom God loves just as much), over time would be suffering with high blood pressure, diabetes, sluggishness and who knows what else.
Everyone wants the blessings,…while disobeying the Blesser! We cannot have the blessings of God, without obedience to Him.
Biblical Baptist Church
Beach Park, IL