Just What is Legalism???
There are charges of “Legalism” being shouted, proclaimed, printed in meetings, in comments, and by email and other means. It seems to me, at least in some cases, that these charges are brought by those who are defending their own actions and/or the actions of others. The charge often cried against those who propose Biblical support for abstaining from alcoholic beverage, or gambling, and other things is, “That is legalism”. The charge says, if you espouse abstinence, then you are binding.
Is this charge accurate? There is a verse of Scripture in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus tells us, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” Mark 2:27 (NKJV). Jesus Himself had been accused of breaking the law of the Sabbath. He and His disciples had walked through grain fields and as they walked they plucked hands full of grain, rubbing it in their hands, thus, threshing it, then eating it; and being charged with laboring on the Sabbath day, breaking the law.
These accusers had taken the “Commandment of God” and added their “commandments of men”, making it a law that binds rather than protecting. They would charge Jesus many more times as well with breaking the Sabbath, because He healed on the Sabbath day. The Law was given for protection and good, not for keeping us from doing the good and right.
If we were looking at the Ten Commandments we could see that each of them are for the purpose of pointing us toward loving God and loving one another. Not one is binding. They protect and give respect to God and others, thus back to ourselves.
The first four are for the protection of the worth of God to be worshipped, and in keeping them, keep us from eternal death. The final six are for the protection of respect for one another, our relationships, our word, and our property. (Let me make it quite clear right here, We have not, nor cannot keep these laws in our flesh. Jesus died and fulfilled these laws, thus we obey them through Him.) These laws were meant to keep us from wronging God, and wronging our fellowman. When we are not at peace with God, we will not be at peace with our fellow man. When we are not at peace with our fellow man, we are probably not at peace with God. We must first have peace with God and the peace of God.
For the accusers of Jesus to accuse Him and His disciples was an act of self-righteousness, and could be called “Legalism”. If legalism is adding to the law of God, then, this was a case of legalism. There is, however, one thing for sure, and that is; adding to the Word of God is a death sentence (See Revelation 22:18-19).
Jesus’s words to His accusers puts a new focus on the whole law. His principles for living in His kingdom (Matthew 5-7) are much more eye opening than are the Ten Commandments. Will you accuse Jesus of “Legalism” because He says, “…whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28 NKJV)? I would dare to think not. I do not think that anyone would be foolish enough to even accuse Him of adding to the Word. That would be a foolish accusation anyway, because the Word was not yet complete, and He is the Word.
One of the arguments in charging legalism is, “If it is not named in Scripture, then we cannot call it sin; when we call it sin, that is legalism”. I think most who read this will agree that there are actions committed not named in Scripture which are clearly sinful. For example, the matter of pornography. Is that not a sinful behavior? Is it not sinful whether you produce it, practice it or view it? You answer. I have not seen this behavior mentioned anywhere in the Bible, yet I have no problem calling it immoral, sinful, behavior. The Bible does tell us, “Abstain from every form of evil” 1 Thessalonians 5:22. That includes a multitude of sins which are not named in Scripture – “Every form of evil”.
Just what is legalism? Legalism is the taking of grace and adding works to it for the basis of our salvation and/or the keeping of our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Grace and faith are the gift of God, not of works, lest we should be boastful, and steal the glory of God for ourselves.
When a group makes requirement for salvation to be grace, faith, and sacraments – that is legalism. When denomination requires grace, faith, and baptism for salvation – that is legalism. When someone requires grace, faith and abstaining from certain practices; such as gambling, drinking alcoholic beverage, or pornography, etc. for salvation – that is legalism. It is the adding to of grace in salvation that determines legalism.
To present these things of abstinence for sanctification, and holiness in Christian living has only to do with one’s growth in Christ Jesus, and protection from harm; not condemnation.
-by Tim A. Blankenship