Legalism: What it is. What it is not.
A couple years ago, we had a couple who came to our meetings. They were saved Christians, but they took a strong stand not to celebrate Christmas, which is one of my families
favourite holidays. These were not Jehovah's witnesses, they were Bible believing Christians. When I mentioned this situation to another believer, he immediately accused them of being legalists. "Legalism?!?" I thought. I was surprised to hear the word, because this is not one I normally use. Knowing the definition, I personally would not have applied it to this situation. Words and definitions are very important. So I wanted to take a moment to address this word which is so often misused. What is legalism?
What Legalism is…
First, legalism means to mix works with grace for salvation. A legalist is someone who believes, or teaches, that one must keep the law in order to be saved. This goes contrary to the Bible and contradicts the definition of grace.
A second definition for legalism is to add human tradition to the Word of God, teaching the tradition as if it was what God said to do. The Bible is clear about placing traditions over the Bible. Consider the following verses…
Jesus said the following about holding traditions over the Word of God…
Mark 7:9: And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.
Mark 7:13: Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
The Apostle Paul also said concerning tradition…
Colossians 2:8: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
Jesus and the Apostle Paul were both very clear that we are not to place traditions above the clear teaching of the Bible. The Jewish leaders were doing this at the time of Christ. (ie They added traveling restrictions to the Sabbath day.) A modern example of a tradition that is not in the Bible would be Christmas. Nothing in the Bible says we must celebrate Christmas. This also goes for Lent, Easter, and every other "Christian" holiday, because according to the Bible itself, there are no holidays, or holy days, that are required to be kept (See Colossians 2:16 below). This does not mean I am personally against someone celebrating the birth of Christ, but I have no problem with someone who does not. This definition for "legalism" also could not be applied to the situation I mentioned at the beginning, unless the people were adding it to salvation.
Colossians 2:14: Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;
Colossians 2:15: And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
Colossians 2:16: Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
Colossians 2:17: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
In context, these verses above are specifically referring to the Jewish ordinances. The Jewish holy days and dietary restrictions of the Old Testament were done away with in at the crucifixion. They were "a shadow of things to come", a picture of the coming messiah, and when He came and fulfilled His purpose, the ordinances were no longer needed. In other words, since Christ died on the cross I am not to judge whether someone keeps the Old Testament holy days, or not.
“What Legalism Is Not”
Legalism is not New Testament, separated, holy living. Consider the following verses…
Ephesians 2:8: For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
Ephesians 2:9: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Ephesians 2:10: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus UNTO GOOD WORKS, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
The New Testament is clear that a born-again Christian is saved by grace without works, but he is also supposed to live a life of good works. These good works do not save a man, nor do they maintain his salvation, but they reveal to the world that they are saved. It reveals that they have power over sin and the flesh. A believer is to follow the Word of God, not to be saved but because he is saved.
Consider some other verses…
Ephesians 5:11: And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.
Titus 2:11: For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,
Titus 2:12: Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;
Titus 2:13: Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ;
Titus 2:14: Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
Titus 2:15: These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee.
I John 5:3: For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
There are some who accuse others of being "legalists", simply because they live holy, separated lives. Taking New Testament commands seriously and applying them to one's life IS NOT "Legalism", it is the responsibility of every born again believer. Also, for a Bible preacher to exhort God’s people to obey the details of God’s Word through the Holy Spirit's power is also not legalism. Rather, it is the responsibility, and what God requires, of every gospel preacher. Although this is not popular in modern contemporary churches, a pastor is supposed to preach the whole counsel of God. If he does not, he is misleading his people.
Ezekiel 3:20: Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand.
Ezekiel 3:21: Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he is warned; also thou hast delivered thy soul.
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