In response to another post, Jared said:
Regarding legalism- What some Evangelicals don’t seem to get is that, Legalism, per se, is not bad for spirituality, it absolutely can foster it and keep people in a life that will allow for it. A pre-occupation with legalism may damage it, but so will a pre-occupation against legalism.
There is plenty in the New Testament supporting a lifestyle guided by strict rules. Denying this seems like over-reading Paul and under-reading Matthew and James. Wilder rejoices in the freedom from the “chains” of legalism while others rejoice in the structure and freedom they get from having “standards” that press them into being better people. It strikes me as naive and self-serving to attack either position because you didn’t like the way it worked in your life.
These comments immediately caused a reaction in me. I knew I wanted to respond but I also knew that I wanted to give a quality response and not shoot from the hip. The reason: I think Jared is wrong about the usefulness of legalism in Christianity.
Christianity certainly holds its disciples to a set of lifestyle standards. There is no doubt about that. One such list of practices Christians are to have nothing to do with is found in Romans 1:29-31. Christians are contrasted against people who are “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless“. Paul (who Jared thinks may not say enough about Christian behavior) tells the Christians in Corinth to expel an immoral brother and not even eat with him (I Corinthians 5).
While disciples of Christ have the character of Jesus to emulate and live up to, and this requires discipline. It doesn’t happen automatically. The question is how to make it happen.
I think Jared is right that legalism is pragmatically useful in getting people to conform to a strict social order. It works wherever it is tried as long as the participants are willing and/or motivated by the right level of fear. But I don’t believe it is what Jesus calls his followers to practice. It delivers a similarly styled product but fails to produce the authentic version which offers freedom and a “light-yoke” which Jesus promises for his followers. Legalism works in religion, but it fails in cleaning the inside of th cup and getting to know the true heart of God. For this reason I think it is the absolute worst thing for spirituality.
Jesus’ harshest words were for the Pharisees, religious and righteous men. Jesus said in Matthew 5: 20 “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” In speaking these words, he was not saying the Pharisees were not righteously following the law. Instead he was piggy-backing off of their well-known righteousness to explain that legalism had taken them as far as it could and it still left them short. If that’s all Jesus had said on the matter, it’s quite a hopeless message. It says “despite the Pharisees notoriety for following the law, you have no hope unless you can do better”. No one could do better than the Pharisees and his audience knew it.
But Jesus didn’t just stop at legalisms inadequacies. He took it further and showed that it produced something quite ugly. Check out Matthew 23. Jesus calls the legalists blind, vipers, whitewashed tombs full of bones, hypocrites, greedy, self-indulgent and accuses them of tying up heavy loads and placing them on other men’s shoulders. (Someone really needs to get a hold of Jesus and tell him not to be so critical, it’s really not the way a Christian should behave). I have a history as a Christian legalist and they’re exactly as Jesus describes. If anything, from reading the life of Jesus, I get the idea that he was against religious legalism, so it makes no sense to me to hear his adherents proposing a new form of legalism.
Galatians 6:1 says this: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. I highlighted the words “restore” and “gently” because I don’t think legalism can accomplish either of them. So how do we go about generating the kind of character in Christians that they are called to?
I recently finished reading Dallas Willard’s latest, Knowing Christ Today. In it he posits that Judaism uniquely offered the world justice and Christianity uniquely offered the world agape, love that unselfishly seeks the best for others. Only through agape and grace can we gently restore other people.
I think the books of Galatians has so much more to say about this. I can’t recommend reading the whole thing in one sitting highly enough. Try reading it in a different translation to give yourself fresh eyes. Here’s a small sampling:
You foolish Galatians! . . . Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? . . . are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? . . . Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.
How we take on the character of Christ individually is to give up our list of rules and instead focus on our heart. Through discipline and prayer, we develop a heart for others that genuninely seeks their good. Without a list for ourselves, we can’t impose one on other people. Instead all we have left to give is a heart full of agape.