Being holy is not legalism. Being an obedient and disciplined Christian does not have to be legalistic either. If something is wrong, an overreaction to that bad thing is also an inadequate response.
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This problem happens with some individuals who have come from legalistic cultures. You’re usually tipped off to this “attitude” by how they talk about their experiences with legalism. For example, when someone appeals to them to do a spiritual or behavioral discipline, they might say, “That’s legalism!”
Another sure sign of a “recovering legalist” is an angry or mocking attitude toward the churches or institutions where they lived out their legalistic lifestyles. Along with this attitude, after they have come out of the lifestyle, there is a temptation to let go of many–if not all–of their spiritual or behavioral disciplines.
One of the more common patterns that I have seen in counseling situations is the person who goes from legalism to various iterations of licentiousness. It’s an over-correction. I do understand, as I did this after I graduated from my fundamentalist Bible college. It’s similar to the angry teenager who overreacts to his abusive father. I did that, too.
Lucia and I had similar college experiences. It had a lot to do with keeping rules and rigid disciplines. When we met, we did not perceive the deception working in our hearts. We were only thankful to be free from all the rules of religion and to live a life where we felt as though we could breathe while acclimating ourselves into the world in which everyone else lived.
The deception we experienced was a slow process of slackening our spiritual and lifestyle disciplines. Part of the problem is when you live in a rule-centered universe, you only have one interpretive grid when someone appeals to you to a particular practice.
This actuality is why you’ll hear the term “that’s legalism” when someone suggests doing something like reading your Bible every day. If you hear this statement, you will know the person is still in recovery, not fully understanding the doctrines of grace.
Matters of the Heart
The discernment that is lacking in these struggling Christians is the nature of legalism. The legalist and the recovering legalist does not understand the genesis and home of legalism.
Typically, they see legalism as behaviors, disciplines, and things we do externally, which places legalism on the outside, in the world. The Bible would not support this worldview. Reading the Bible every day or every other day should not be a problem for any Christian; it’s a cool thing to do.
But if you see legalism as something you do rather than the person that you are, you have misinterpreted the problem. Legalism is in the heart, not the behavior. It is biblically incoherent to say reading the Bible on a set pattern is legalistic if you base your entire assessment on the action.
There have been millions of people throughout history who have read their Bibles regularly, and it’s unfathomable to say all of them were legalists. Personal disciplines are beautiful things that every Christian should pursue.
This perspective was John’s argument in 1 John 2:15-16 when he was discussing the idea of worldliness. The question he raised was, “Where is worldliness?” The answer to his question is in the heart.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. – 1 John 2:15-16
The Fruit Reveals the Heart
John located worldliness as “desires” and “pride.” John did not see worldliness “in the world” but inside our hearts. To view the world as worldly is to take a Gnostic position, which incrementally separates you from the world.
The same is true for the legalist, who separates from personal disciplines if he sees them as bad. The Bible is not harmful to read. Neither is it wrong to watch a movie. The bigger issue for the Christian to address is what is going on in our hearts when we read our Bibles or watch a video.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. – James 1:14-15
- How is your heart driving your choice to participate in the things?
- Is your heart lured to offensive things?
- Do you read your Bible to impress people?
- Do you drink alcohol because you’re caving to fear of man?
It’s the Motive
Legalism and worldliness are matters of the heart, and the central issue of the heart is your motive. The Pharisees in the four Gospels were the high-octane legalists of the Savior’s day.
They read their Bibles, which was not a bad thing necessarily. The real problem was their motive for their disciplines. They were doing it for a show as well as their penchant for elevating their brand.
They were an arrogant and self-righteous group who craved religious control over the people within their sphere of influence. The problem was not reading their Bibles as much as their twisted motives for doing so.
I realize the Pharisees of the Savior’s day do not compare with any legalist that I have ever met. It would be rare for a legalist of our day to have the attitude of the Pharisees–they were unregenerate, as well as hostile to Christ.
Most legalists are not hostile toward Christ, though they have twisted their motives for reading their Bibles into something other than being authentically motivated by grace. The most common wrong motivation that I have seen when helping a legalist to come out of the lifestyle is fear of the opinions of other people.
“Fear of man,” as described in Proverbs 29:25, is what our culture calls insecurity or peer pressure. We’ve all experienced this and still experience it to varying degrees. It is a crippling sin, but even more so in a fear-based, rule-oriented culture like religious legalism.
It is impossible to live in a rule-based culture and not be motivated by fear of man. The main reason is that this kind of lifestyle is “a comparative culture.” Everybody knows what the rules are and it’s easy to spot someone who is not toeing the line.
And when they do not toe the line, there is a penalty. The rule-based culture is black and white, right and wrong, and do and don’t. If you’re not sure what the rules are, you observe all the others in your rule-oriented universe and do as they do.
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. – 2 Corinthians 10:12
Secret Society of Sinners
A legalistic culture is a vicious cycle with no way of escape. You do what everyone else is doing, and if you successfully pull this off, you won’t be embarrassed. This tension is where fear of man haunts the soul in devastating ways.
Some people like living in a rule-based culture. It requires little thinking, and there is an “illusion of security” within the system. Of course, the big problem is when you have an issue, as in a pattern of sin or secret sin. Because it’s a fear-based culture, you dare not let anyone know about your problem. There are penalties for your wrongdoing, unlike the gospel that provides redemption, restoration, and grace.
In worst case situations, you will observe some of the more ardent rule-keepers living a dualistic life. On the outside their platters are clean, but on the inside, there will be a growing assortment of dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:25-28).
This descriptor is as close as they come to the New Testament Pharisees. The Lord has saved them, but there are old patterns that are similar to the enemies of the Savior (Ephesians 4:22-24). What you end up with are people who are going through the motions of religion, albeit saved authentically.
While their hearts can be sincere, legalism has put them in a system from which they cannot receive help. This predicament has an incredibly negative impact on their souls. Some of them stay in the legalistic system, spiritually meandering their way through life.
Others bolt for another lifestyle, which brings us back to where I began. In many of these situations when they bolt, they do so with a bad attitude. You’ll see this by how they talk or think about their former institutions or churches where they lived in legalism.
They will accuse or mock these places as though the geographic location was the cause of their legalistic condition. As long as they hold to this way of thinking, they will never recover from legalism, whether or not they leave the physical context.
Individuals like this are in a trap, and the institutions and churches were no doubt shaping influences as well as sinful feeders of the legalist’s heart, but the point-of-focus cannot be the contexts that allowed the legalism to flourish, but the person’s heart that gave legalism life.
The Baby and Her Bath Water
It is a complicated process to switch a person’s mind from where he came from and how it was a horrible experience to who he is as a fallen person and how he thinks in his heart.
So when someone suggests reading your Bible every day, the recovering legalist will recoil and say, “That’s legalism.” Of course, it is to him. He has only one perspective–a rule-oriented, penalizing, comparative culture.
He does not understand grace, though he will tell you that he does. The real truth is he may somewhat understand these grace-empowered doctrines in his mind, it is not his practical reality. His words betray his actual existence.
In the world of legalism, it is more about reading your Bible because you have to do it. In the world of grace, you read your Bible because you want to do it. There is a vast difference here.
The grace-centered person is operating out of a heart of gratitude for God’s benevolent mercy to him. His focus is more vertical rather than horizontal. He is thinking less about what others are doing and giving more thought about his relationship with his Father.
His old rule-based culture is more concerned about what others are doing and whether or not he is doing it the right way or doing the right things. People are prominent in his world, where the grace-centered person has an amazingly large God.
The grace-centered person doesn’t compare himself with others (2 Corinthians 10:12). He may read his Bible one hour a day, while his friend will read his Bible for ten minutes. He may have another friend who has struggled for years reading his Bible and has no real plan.
Rather than judging either one of his friends, he offers gratitude to God for the one reading his Bible ten minutes per day, while coming alongside his friend who is struggling (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The grace-centered person is also free to share where he is struggling with sin. He knows it’s not about what his friends think about him, but what God thinks of him. He sees his friends as assets for the glory of God, not as a community to keep secrets from each other.
He knows he does not live in “a comparative culture” and he’s free to be what God is making him be. He does not have to pretend he is something that he is not and he is comfortable with his “sanctification pace” and doesn’t fall into the legalistic trap of comparing himself to others.
If he lives among others who still have legalistic tendencies and uncharitably judges him for his actions, he can quickly reorient his mind to the only opinion in the room that matters–Lord God Almighty.
In such cases, he can appropriate grace as our Lord Jesus did when His friends judged His motives. This kind of shalom is true freedom. Grace people do not throw the baby out with the bathwater because they see the benefits of personal disciplines.
They don’t interpret their consistent devotion to Christ as legalism. Legalism is not in their thoughts at all. They see their spiritual and behavioral disciplines as opportunities to grow in Christ while sharing the goodness of Christ to others.
Call to Action
Here are a few questions that I would like for you to think about to see how well you have recovered from the chains of legalism.
- When someone asks you to consider doing a spiritual or behavioral discipline, is your first thought about legalism or about how God could use this in your life?
- Are you tempted to compare yourself to someone else, who you perceive to be living their Christianity a better way?
- Are you tempted to judge someone because they are not living their Christianity according to your preferences?
- Do you have a negative or mocking attitude toward those places in which you lived a legalistic lifestyle?
- Are you tempted to cave to fear of man when someone asks you to do some spiritual or behavioral discipline?
- Have you done specific disciplines because of fear of man, rather than being motivated by God? Explain.
- Are you tempted to cheat on your disciplines or breeze through them to save face?
- Are you tempted to not disclose the true nature of your soul because of fear of what others may think?
If you are struggling with legalism, I appeal to you to get some help. This condition is bondage. God has called you to freedom. Enjoy your behavioral and spiritual disciplines in the context of grace. God has called you to do this.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. – Galatians 5:1
Also published on Medium.