What Is Legalism?

A well-known Christian leader who is starting a Christian college recently accused some other Christian colleges of legalistically focusing on dress codes and rules rather than the Spirit. Such disdain for separated Christians is common among more worldly Christians. But is it fair? I have noticed that a typical detractor of Christians with high standards does not even know any of the people he is maligning. Or if he does know any, the acquaintance is superficial. He is not on such intimate terms with them that he can judge their hearts.

Can a Christian who knows me only at a distance infer from my adherence to some old-fashioned rules of personal separation that I am not Spirit-filled or Spirit-directed? To belittle me because of my standards is nothing but bigotry, belying my critic's implied claim to be more spiritual than I. Moreover, such treatment is judgmental. Perhaps my critic feels that my disapproval of his looser standards is judgmental also. Yet I judge his conduct, not his heart or his closeness to God. He should grant me the same charity.

Strictly speaking, the term "legalistic" describes the belief that salvation is earned by good works. It is proper to call Catholics legalistic, for they say that salvation depends on rituals and moral living as well as on faith. It is proper to label the Judaizers in the early church as legalistic, for they taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation. But I have yet to meet a Christian fundamentalist who denies that salvation depends solely on the work of Christ. Therefore, a fundamentalist like me is not legalistic, in this sense, even though I may advocate certain rules.

The term "legalistic" also has a broader meaning, referring to misuse of the law in any of various ways.

  1. The multiplication of laws and rules beyond what is necessary would be legalistic. But the traditional rules against worldly amusement are few in number, and they simplify Christian duty. The man who simply rejects all movies saves himself many mistakes, as well as the time and anguish that another man wastes in trying to decide which are acceptable and which are not.
  2. A legalist might think of rules as a cure-all for every problem in the church. Although they shore up a winning strategy against worldliness, they will do little to combat other problems, such as materialism, complacency, and unbelief. The broadest solution, reinforcing the church at every point of current weakness, would be revival.
  3. It would be legalistic to suppose that observing a handful of negative rules fulfills the Christian life. To spare the flock from this delusion, preachers should hammer away at all sin, not just worldliness, and they should keep denunciation of sin in balance with recommendation of worship and charity. Also, they should impress upon the flock the understanding that our highest duty is to love both God and man (Matt. 22:36-40).
  4. Any moral code without foundation in the law of God would be legalistic. The many rules of the Pharisees were legalistic in this sense. Jesus dismissed some of their ceremonial washings, for instance, as merely "the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9). But, as these lessons will show, the rules against worldly amusement have a solid Biblical basis.

Texts Used to Oppose Standards

From Romans

Some who criticize separated Christians imagine that the Bible itself supports their dislike of rules. The texts they often quote include the following grand declarations in the Book of Romans:

Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

Romans 3:20

. . . For ye are not under the law, but under grace.

Romans 6:14

Although he tries diligently to keep the law, a man will fail. He will not eradicate sin from his life. Therefore, a man by his own efforts cannot attain perfect righteousness, and without it he lacks the one requirement for eternal life. Moved by love for man, God has overcome the difficulty. He has provided the death of Christ as a full payment for man's sins, and He bestows the righteousness of Christ upon all who receive Christ as Savior and Lord.

It is therefore true that knowledge and practice of the law cannot save a man. The law can do no more than show him his need of a savior. Yet it does not follow that the law has no place in the Christian life. Once a man is saved through Christ, God expects him to seek holiness. To please a Holy Father he must gain victory over sin. But if he could not attain his own righteousness before salvation, how can he attain it afterward? He cannot. Yet, at the moment of salvation he receives the Holy Spirit, who aids him in everything he must do as a Christian. The help of the Holy Spirit is one form of what Christians call "grace."

The Spirit of grace does not operate by discarding the law. Rather, by instructing the believer in the Word of God, which is filled with rules and commands expounding the law, He shows the believer how to live. The law reveals exactly what behavior conforms to the will of God and what does not. Moreover, the Holy Spirit gives the believer a new ability to practice the law in his daily walk.

1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.

3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:

4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4

From 1 Corinthians

Another favorite with objectors to rules is the following text:

All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

1 Corinthians 6:12

Christians seeking permission for doubtful pleasures seize what they like in this verse and ignore the rest. The defense, "All things are lawful unto me," springs readily to their lips, but they fail to see that Paul adds some emphatic qualifications.

Yes, the Christian life is not a fruitless attempt to justify self through the keeping of laws. Whether a Christian obeys the law does not determine his eternal standing before God. Nor does it determine his provisional standing, as it did in Old Testament times. Rather, his standing depends solely on His relationship to Christ, the perfect law-keeper. So, a Christian is not under law. Indeed, as Paul says, all things for a Christian are lawful. But Paul most certainly does not mean that all things are morally right. Murder is not right. Adultery is not right. Rather, what he means is that the law no longer judges a Christian. In Christ he is above judgment. Moreover, he need not depend on the law for guidance, because he has the indwelling Spirit, who will infallibly lead him to do right, in entire accordance with the law.

The conduct of a Spirit-directed believer will save him both from inexpedient things and from things that might enslave him. The inexpedient things include any misdirection of zeal away from Christian priorities. The things that may overpower him include any sinful indulgence. Such an indulgence could deplete his stores of time, wealth, reputation, and bodily strength and, at last, destroy his capacity for service. Notice that almost every amusement that a worldly Christian might seek to excuse by an appeal to 1 Corinthians 6:12 belongs to the things which this very verse condemns. What is TV, for instance, if not a time-waster and potential addiction?

The purpose of rules against worldly amusement is to steer the believer into a profitable manner of life. For example, if a believer takes up smoking, the world sees in him not the likeness of Christ, but the likeness of the devil-may-care crowd. Moreover, he encourages others in the church to smoke also. And he limits his usefulness to God by enveloping himself in a stench that is repulsive to others, by siphoning off huge amounts of his time and money into a worthless pastime, and by setting out on a course that will ruin his health and shorten his life.

From 1 Timothy

The following is still another text often brought into the debate over rules:

9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,

10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.

1 Timothy 1:9-10

It is true that moral laws and rules are meant for the unrighteous and not for the righteous. But Christians today cannot claim to be too morally advanced for governance by rules. Within the church, both the young in age and the young in faith are filthy from wallowing in the cesspools of modern cynicism and hedonism. They desperately need not only positional cleansing through Christ but also practical cleansing through the Holy Spirit. Rules are a tool that the Spirit can use to instruct the ignorant in the everyday meaning of righteousness. In past generations, He could appeal to someone's knowledge of conventional morality, which in large outline agreed with the Bible. Today, however, as ethical values in Western culture are being swept away by storms of lawlessness, morality must be defined by good rules.

An ordinary woman in Victorian times would never have thought of wearing a bikini. Even if the law had not strictly limited her choice of clothing, her own modesty and good sense would have kept her from considering swim wear in a modern style. Thus, in her day, there was no need for a rule against mixed bathing. As Paul says, "The law is not made for a righteous man" (1 Tim. 1:9). But women today, participating in a culture from which they acquire a deficient sense of propriety, need prohibitions against immodest clothing. Like all sinners, they need the law.

But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully [that is, properly].

1 Timothy 1:8

The need for law, the need for rules generally, is in proportion to lawlessness in the world and in the church.

Biblical vs. Man-Made Rules

The suggestion that we should submit to rules recalls our experience with government bureaucracy. We see a jumble of red tape forcing us to waste time and energy on foolish exercises or putting arbitrary clamps on our necessary pursuits. But rules derived from the Word of God are not comparable to the rules devised by the minions of Caesar.

  1. Biblical rules do not suffocate us with positive demands. Unlike every religion outside the light of truth, genuine Christianity denies that works are a ladder to heaven. The believer is exempt from any rosary or confessional, any pose of meditation or bed of nails. Salvation is free. The only works recommended to the believer are good in their essence, not merely pious in their appearance. No meaningless ritual clutters his life and cramps his freedom.
  2. Biblical rules do not surround us with restrictions constantly interfering with our liberty of movement. A particular rule—the rule against drinking alcoholic beverages, for example—may require the new believer to give up an old habit. But once the habit is gone, he enters a new lifestyle and moves freely within its generous limits without ever approaching the barrier to drinking. Drinking, for him, is no longer a possibility. As he accepts the other standards against worldliness, he moves ever farther into the Christian life until finally his former life, closed off by Biblical rules, is distant and almost forgotten.

Rules in the Early Church

Modern fundamentalism is not the only Christian movement that has attached importance to rules. The early church had its rules also. One list, compiled by the first council in Jerusalem, declared that all Christians everywhere should refrain from eating blood, from eating meat offered to idols, and from fornication (Acts 15:20). The first rule alerted Gentile believers that, although they were free from circumcision and from the ceremonial law of Moses, they were still bound by the divine commandments given to Noah and his descendants.

3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.

4 But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.

Genesis 9:3-4

The last two rules attempted to curb the worldly practices that were most threatening to the witness of the church.

Some think that the Jerusalem council did not necessarily act in accordance with God's will. In fact, their rulings against fornication and against eating meat offered to idols were given authoritative backing by Christ Himself, when, in John's vision on the Isle of Patmos, He rebuked two churches in Asia for tolerating these practices.

14 But I have a few things against thee [Pergamos], because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. . . .

20 Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee [Thyatira], because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.

Revelation 2:14,20

Some may object that the Jerusalem council dealt with more flagrant sins than the ones identified by the negative rules of modern fundamentalism. A rule against fornication, for example, is hardly one step away from the commandment against adultery. Some of the old-fashioned fundamentalist rules, such as, "Do not attend movies," seem arbitrary by comparison. Yet, in Paul's letters we see that the first-century Christian did not readily understand that fornication and adultery were in the same class of sins. Fornication was commonplace because of the prostitution officially sponsored by pagan temples. A new convert to Christ may not have understood that relations with a temple prostitute were the same as stealing another man's wife. Moreover, he may not have realized that such relations were greatly damaging to his own family. So, he was in need of Paul's instruction that fornication of this kind was equivalent to marriage (1 Cor. 6:15-20). It was a particularly objectionable marriage because, involving a pagan votary, it adulterated not only the man's relationship to his lawful wife, but also his relationship to Christ.

Fornication and eating meat were not the only worldly practices condemned by rules in wide use throughout the early church. Paul wrote to Timothy that women should not adorn themselves "with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array" (1 Tim. 2:9). It is sometimes said that Paul is merely picking out a few examples of improper costume to illustrate the general principle that dress should be sober and seemly. But, interestingly, a virtually identical exhortation appears in the writings of Peter. This apostle says, speaking of women,

Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel;

1 Peter 3:3

Notice that the two writers list the same three practices in the same order.

How should the coincidence be explained? We may surmise that the Holy Spirit caused Paul and Peter to publish an identical list of prohibitions against ostentatious dress because He wanted these prohibitions to be literally obeyed. We may surmise further that these prohibitions were adopted as rules by many first-century churches.

In all subsequent periods of church history, vital witness has been combined with rules. Rules were prominent in the Calvinist and Puritan movements. Methodists were derisively so named because of their insistence on methodical rule-keeping. The missionary church of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries unapologetically upheld rules. Today, also, the church needs rules if it is to survive as an effective instrument of God's purposes.

Contempt for Rules in the Last Days

The Bible clearly predicts that a contempt for rules will reign in the Last Days, the days in which we live.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;

2 Timothy 4:3

1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. . . .

19 While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage.

20 For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning.

21 For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.

22 But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.

2 Peter 2:1, 19-22

Although the church has been plagued with false teachers from the start, never have there been so many who plausibly and insistently peddle liberty as there are today. A host of pseudospiritual objections to rules circulate all about us. Scripture warns us that if we let these objections lure us away from holy living, we will be like a dog returning to his vomit, or a sow returning to the mire.

However uncomfortable the reader may feel with the term "rule," he should remember that it is merely a synonym for the Biblical terms "law," "commandment," "testimony," "statute," and "precept." In our innate self-will, we hate all rules imposed upon us by the will of another. But if a rule is based on the Word of God, we should not hate it. According to the psalmist, we should love it.

O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.

Psalm 119:97

Therefore I love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold.

Psalm 119:127

Thy testimonies are wonderful: therefore doth my soul keep them.

Psalm 119:129

I have inclined mine heart to perform thy statutes alway, even unto the end.

Psalm 119:112

Consider how I love thy precepts: quicken me, O Lord, according to thy lovingkindness.

Psalm 119:159

Some reader may object that these passages show a proper mentality during the age of law, but not during the age of grace. Yet even Paul, the apostle of grace, firmly rejected any contempt for law. He said of himself,

Being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ.

1 Corinthians 9:21