Thursday, March 15, 2012

Legalism Gives Birth to Resentment and Rejection

Yesterday I received an email from my father. A friend had forwarded to him an article on "Legalism." His friend wrote that his daughter had sent him the article and said, "This piece reminds me of the saying 'Expectation is always premeditated resentment.'" My dad's friend wanted him to forward me the article and his daughter's quote. I began to read the piece on legalism and about half-way through I thought, "Wow! This is really good." I glanced down to the last paragraph to see who wrote it and was embarrassed to discover that I was the author of the article. Laughing. I had written it nearly eighteen months ago.  I might offer the excuse that I've turned fifty since then and my memory is not what it used to be. Regardless, I am reprinting the article below because I think it summarizes well the dangers I see when legalism is prevalent in marriages, families and other relationships.
"Legalism can be descriptively defined as 'the expectation you have for others to meet a specific standard of behavior, that when unmet, leads you to denigrate those people who fail to adequately perform.'

To meet the definition of legalism there must be both an expectation (standard) and an attitude (superiority or pride). The denigration of other people for their failure to perform to your expected standard of behavior is the sore that surfaces from the cancer of legalism. What's odd about legalism is that it can infect both the liberal and the conservative, the evangelical and the liturgical, the radical and the traditional, the young and the old. Legalism is no respector of persons.

Legalism is not discipline.To set a standard of behavior for yourself and meet it is discipline. Legalism is not accountablity. To set a standard of behavior for others who fall under your responsibility (children or employees), to love and encourage them when they don't meet the standard while enforcing stated consequences for their failure, is accountablity. Legalism is neither discipline nor accountablity. Legalism is cancer.

Legalism kills life. It destroys the marrow of Christianity. Rather than leading others to rest in the Person and work of Christ for their righteousness, legalism leads others to work to obtain their favored status with God. Oddly, the worst kind of legalism is that which finds its standard from the Bible. Whether it be the words of Christ, or the law of God, or an interpretation of a verse that leads to a demand for others to live a certain way, legalism that sounds like radical Christianity destroys.

The truth of grace is revolutionary. God's grace is given without measure to those who trust His Son. To the person who fails, the grace of God is sufficient. To the person who is weak, the grace of God is sufficient. To the person who lives life differently than I, the grace of God is sufficient.

Some might ask, "But is there not any standard to which God calls His people to live?"

Sure. He calls us to love others. To love those who are different. To love those who don't see eye to eye with me. To love those who fail to perform. "By this (love) all people will know that you are my disciples." Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Legalism pushes out love in Christian relationships, including an understanding of God's love for us. With all our might, we ought to fight legalism. We should see it as THE enemy. We should recognize it as the stealthy, deadly spiritual ninja who sneaks up on us when we think we are safe. The legalists were the only people upon whom Christ used His whip and drove them from His Father's house. There is no room for legalism among the people of God.

The best defense against deadly legalism is to contemplate the incarnation of God in Christ and His work for us at the cross. In those moments you begin to think that you must do something to prove the radical nature of your love for God, it would do you well to remember what Charles Spurgeon said of God's love for us:

"We could almost think that God loved us more than He loves his Son.”

Until Spurgeon's statement becomes part of the imbedded fabric of your mind you may be losing your battle with legalism."


Bryan Riley said...

Wow. Life-giving.

Anonymous said...


But did I really see Pastor Wade writting about ninjas. (-; lol.


Anonymous said...

I remember being Independent Fundamental KJV only Baptist looking out the glass doors of our church and seeing a sign of an SBC church that simply said, "God is Love". I thought, "How can they know God's love when they don't live holy lives, wear modest apparel, they watch TV, their wives are not in submission and all they talk about is love, love, love?"

I left that church about 3 years later because I became hungry for the word. One thing about legalism, it only has a small portion of scripture to preach from. There is much more life in God's word than meeting a standard we cannot maintain. It becomes work and I was tired. Grace is such a wonderful work God uses in the heart of man. I have walked in His grace for quite some time now and am glad He saw fit to bring me out of the slavery of legalism.

Great post.

Off The Cuff said...

Thank you for this insightful repost. During my quiet time recently I was thinking how legalism makes no provision for failure. The most loving thing we can do for someone else is to give them permission to fail. In so doing we have the privilege of affording them the same grace that is so freely afforded to us by our loving Savior.

Rex Ray said...

Legalists make high walls of rules to keep sin out, but make prisoners within.

Rex Ray said...

Off The Cuff,

Now the time of our comments is what I call a REAL tie!

I’ve been wondering where you were since February 6 when you asked:

“How many times must something be stated in the Bible in order to make it true?”

No one replied, and they sure didn’t reply to you’re saying:

“My approach to understanding scripture was clearly stated in the 1963 BF&M: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”

Cuff, my paraphrase of that is:

The Bible is to be interpreted through the eyes of Jesus.

You see, that gives INDIVIDUAL priesthood that’s stated in the 1963 BF&M as:

“Baptists emphasize the soul’s competency before God, freedom in religion, and the PRIESTHOOD OF THE BELIEVER.”

Whereas the 2000 BF&M states:

“We honor the principles of soul competency and the PRIESTHOOD OF BELIEVERS.”

My, my, look at the difference one little “S” can make! The priesthood of the individual MUST submit to the priesthood of the group.

(Wade, isn’t that what got you in trouble when you joined the IMB?)

Cuff, is “quite time” some kind of a rule? :)

Off The Cuff said...

Thanks for your response.
Amen to everything you said.

Quiet time for me is neither a rule nor ritual. It stems from a desire to have a relationship with God. It is a conscious tuning out of the mundane and focusing on God's presence.

Rex Ray said...

Off The Cuff,

It seems “legalism” is not the favorite subject of very many…makes one wonder if they’re in favor of it.

I thought the best description of legalism and one I’d never heard was Wade saying, “Legalism is cancer.”

To give ‘construction criticism’ I thought he should have used quotes when he said, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy,” etc. or have referenced (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) otherwise it’s known as plagiarism.

And again, in saying Christians should love others (I assume he was also referring to the lost) he quoted (John 13:35) which is NOT about loving OTHERS but loving each other.

“So now I am giving you a new commandment. Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35 NLT)

OK, so much for being the ‘armchair quarterback’. :)

Cuff, back to ‘quiet time’. I agree with all you said about the subject.

My gripe is SOME Christians seem to love announcing they have one. It’s as if they’re boasting.

Many years ago, a lady after a 5 minute talk to the church about the subject, made a pass at me as we were leaving and I thought, ‘Huh?...a lot of good quiet time is doing you’.

Another time, a person asked me to make a motion he be kicked out of church, and if it failed, he would ask for me to be kicked out. (What a can of worms that would have been…and not much of an example of the “New Commandment”.)

Anonymous said...

I've been in different types of churches for the last 20 years and I can honestly say that I've never felt loved from most "professing Christians." Legalism,self-righteousness, narcissism and authoritarism is what I have experienced for the most part.