Legalism – and the legalists that preach it – are like cancer in the church. Until we remove the infection, it will continue to drain our strength and corrupt our good works.
There are legalists in all strands of the church. They serve only to weaken us and leave the body ineffective. We decry the decline of church numbers and the apparent disintegration of morality in the world around us. It is not some outside force that is to blame but the legalists that we have allowed into the body.
Legalists that trade the purity of Christ’s teachings of love and grace for a return to a doctrine of impossible laws. Laws like, “agree with me or you will go to hell”. Laws that place the teachings of the legalists beyond reproach and above question. Laws that condemn anything that differs from the culture the legalists wants to create.
Legalism can never be a form of true Christianity
However, they dress it up, however righteous the legalists claim to be – and they so frequently do – and however cleverly they defend their teachings with Bible quotes, what they preach should never be called Christianity. It has the trappings of the faith but has sold its soul for power and pride (2 Timothy 3:1-7).
Christianity means being like Christ. Christianity means following all of His teachings. Teachings like, “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27-36). Teachings that say truly loving God and a complete love of your neighbour fulfil all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37-40). Teachings that show that true Christians and fake Christians are separated only by the good they do for those most in need (Matthew 25:31-46).
The legalists pay lip service to the doctrine of grace (Ephesians 2:8-10) but see no disunity with placing ever greater burdens for salvation on the individual. The legalists boast in their self-appointed status as “God’s elect” due to their keeping of laws they have made for themselves. As the prophet, Isaiah says – they honour God with their lips but their hearts are far off (Isaiah 29:13).
Legalism neglects mercy
Puffed up with pride, the legalists neglect mercy because they look with disdain upon any that fail to achieve their impossible standards. There is no grace for the humble sinner, no love to cover a multitude of sins – there is only condemnation and with it hate dressed up as righteousness.
Jesus warned of such people, calling them false prophets. Outwardly they look like sheep but inwardly they are hungry wolves (Matthew 7:15-20). Often they will dazzle you with their fierce passion for “the truth” and rise to leadership roles. Rather than protect the sheep, these shepherds will savage and abuse them. In place of pastoral care, there will be only guilt, condemnation, and a heavy burden.
The legalists do not strengthen the weak. They do not heal the sick. They never bring back the strays but condemn them for straying. They rule over the church with cruelty and verbal violence. Jeremiah spoke out against such shepherds in the harshest of terms (Jeremiah 23:1-2). So too did Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34:1-4).
It was perhaps these legalists – the false prophets we were warned about – that, from the third century until the present day, have led the church into institutionalised racism in the name of the faith. A lingering Christian anti-semitism that has tarnished the church and has yet to be rooted out and purged from our ranks.
Legalism is the enemy of grace
It is tempting to see the legalists and their law-heavy teachings as simply a misapplied passion for the Gospel. This is not the case. Legalism is a poison that corrupts and defiles the church. Even a little spoils the whole body (Galatians 5:7-9).
The fruits of legalism are heaviness, divisions, elitism, pride, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, heresies, envy, and many other things that stand in opposition to the nature of Christ and the work of grace (Galatians 5:16-26). In place of love comes harsh rebuke. In place of peace comes conflict. In place of humility comes boasting dressed as righteousness.
It is not true that legalists are simply overly enthusiastic Christians. The Bible calls them servants of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). There can be no place for legalism in our churches.
A call to repentance
Repentance worked in Holiness and humble compassion are what we need. It is in that spirit we must root out all forms of legalism. First within ourselves and then within the church. We must recognise that legalism is a grave sin that brings certain death both to the credibility of our witness and to the body of Christ – the church.
If we desire to see a change in this world. If we are to see the day when righteousness is the rule and not the exception. If we desire what some are happy to call revival then we must humble ourselves in repentance (2 Chronicles 7:14). This must not be a lip-service repentance, for a faith without resultant works is dead (James 2:14-26), there must be true change.
This may mean taking a winnowing fork to long cherish doctrines. Your church may shrink as the legalists depart for easier prey elsewhere. It might be painful to give up the righteousness that is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). It may also mean selling or giving up the signs of wealth within your church (Luke 12:32-34) in order to care for those in need. But when the legalism is gone, and only then, will the Holy Spirit be free to usher in true Christianity.
It is time for our churches to call on the Name of the Lord and be saved.