I don’t remember when or where I first stumbled across the word legalism in my reading, but immediately recognized its presence and its power. Actually, it provided a word to something I had been struggling with for quite a while.
It started when I was still in the Work while reading in II Corinthians 3:5-6
“5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;6 Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”
I realized that I could have the New Testament words in my head but not have the New Testament spirit in my heart. I could be following all the rules of my church but not necessarily have the Holy Spirit giving me life. I could be a Pharisee and be professing. It stopped me in my tracks and was the beginning of a search for the abundant life that Jesus talked about.
Another turning point was hearing an overseer make the statement at a special meeting that had nothing to do with his topic for the day. He announced, “We do not believe in the Gospel of Grace.” That was it. I had just begun to discover the wonder and awesomeness of the Gospel of Grace and for him to declare that was jaw dropping! I was stunned! Looking back, I wish I had picked up my purse and Bible bag and walked out of that meeting because what he had said was so terribly wrong.
That began my study of legalism and grace. I would copy quotes into my journal and later go back and reflect on and pray about. There were many such quotes, but I am going to try to limit them to a few for the purpose of the blog.
The books of Galatians and Romans were starting to make sense for the first time in my life. (I had often wondered why we seldom heard sermons from those books but was beginning to understand. If you don’t believe in the Gospel of Grace that Paul writes so much about, those books are closed subjects.)
Here is what Wikipedia says about legalism: Legalism, in Christian theology, is a usually pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption. Legalism refers to any doctrine which states salvation comes strictly from adherence to the law. It can be thought of as a works-based religion. Groups in the New Testament said to be falling into this category include the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Judaizers, and Nicolaitans. They are legalists because they emphasized obeying the Law of Moses, in the case of the Pharisees and Scribes, to the letter without understanding the concept of grace. Jesus condemned their legalism in Matthew 23. The Pharisees love of the praises of men for their strict adherence is said to be a prime example of legalism. (Emphasis mine)
One of my last years in the Work, I remember speaking from Matthew 23 at convention. I wondered why the Pharisee’s would spend so much time counting seeds to tithe (they were supposed to do this because the Jews were still under the Old Testament Law) BUT they failed to embrace the weightier matters like judgment, mercy and faith. I realized it was easier to count seeds and be organized and have everything black and white than it was to get involved in the weightier matters. Counting seeds just required your head; the weightier matters always required your heart.
It was at a convention meeting listening to an older brother exclaim that Pharisee’s were only religious people “in the world” but a glance at those verses in Matthew 23, realization dawned that I was a Pharisee! And such a good Pharisee for I had seen it modeled my entire life.
One of the best books I have ever read is “12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee” by John Fischer. The first time reading it I pointed fingers at many people in the fellowship. The second time all those fingers pointed back at me.
Ok… here are some quotes from a 3/22/04 journal entry:
From “The Grace Awakening” by Charles Swindoll: “Let enough legalists come aboard and we will virtually give them command of the ship. We will fear their frowns, we will adapt our lives to their lists, will allow ourselves to be intimidated, and for the sake of peace at any price (even though it may lead to nothing short of slavery), we will succumb to their agenda.”
“One of the most serious problems facing the church in Paul’s day was the problem of legalism. Legalism wrenches the joy of the Lord from the Christian believer, and with the joy of the Lord goes his power for vital worship and vibrant service. Nothing is left but a cramped, somber, dull and listless profession.”
“Legalism kills congregations when a pastor is a legalist. It kills pastors when congregations are legalists.”
“Nothing disturbs the legalist like the liberating truth of grace.”
“There are people who do not want you to be free; to be free before God, accepted just as we are by His grace. They don’t want us to express our faith originally and creatively in the world. They want to control us. They themselves refuse to live arduously and openly in the faith, but huddle together with a few others to try to get a sense of approval by insisting that all look alike, talk alike, and act alike, thus validating one another’s worth. They try to enlarge their numbers only on the condition that new members act and talk and behave the way they do. Without being aware of it, we become anxious about what others will say about us. We no longer live the good news but anxiously try to memorize and recite the script that someone else has assigned to us. We may be secure, but we are not free. We may survive as a religious community, but we will not experience what it means to be human, alive in love and faith, expansive in hope.”
Need I say more? I didn’t think so. Reading these things and seeing them in my own life and in the lives of those I loved broke my heart. It still does. What I don’t understand to this day was why those early workers would choose legalism over grace, bondage over freedom. The only conclusion I can come to was they wanted control instead of letting God control. They didn’t understand amazing grace.