The Legalist Distortion

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Rom. 14:3).

- Romans 14

John Murray, the eminent twentieth-century Reformed theologian, once said that the difference between right and wrong is often as thin as a razor’s edge. The complexity of many issues and situations, and the difficulty in applying Scripture in areas that seem gray to us, means that it can be hard at times to determine the actions that would be the most God-pleasing. The Christian life is a narrow path indeed, and it is all too easy to veer off the demanding course of discipleship that our Savior has set for us (Matt. 7:13–14).

When it comes to practical, everyday decisions, Christians have always been tempted to go to one of two extremes. Today we will examine the extreme of legalism. The issue of legalism can be a difficult one, for people often throw around charges of legalism falsely. For instance, it is not legalism to insist that people follow the moral law of God, but too many people accuse others of legalism when those persons want to discipline professing Christians for acts that are clearly against God’s will in all times and places. It is not legalism to insist on obeying our Creator’s moral law, however, sometimes we are more sure of what makes up the moral law than we should be. The false teachers in Galatia were insistent that circumcision is a part of the Lord’s unchanging moral statutes, even though it clearly is not. This led them to legalistically impose the practice on Gentile believers (Gal. 3).

Legalism can rear its ugly head in a variety of forms. One type of legalism abstracts God’s laws from their redemptive context, requiring obedience to them with no real thought to the relationship that establishes them. The Lord always delivers statutes to His people after redeeming them (Ex. 20:1–17), so gratitude for His salvation must always be our motivation for obeying His will. Serving God is not simply a matter of keeping a checklist, for life in Christ is more than a cold, affectionless following of dos and don’ts.

A more prevalent and dangerous form of legalism occurs when we elevate our opinions to the status of divine revelation and impose them on others. Jesus often castigated the Pharisees for adding rules to the Bible and then acting as if those rules were from God (Mark 7:1–13). May we never be guilty of this great sin.

Coram Deo

As a modern example of legalism, some Christians have said that it is wrong for believers to consume alcohol. However, while such rules may be motivated by a noble concern that people avoid the sin of drunkenness, Scripture nowhere condemns sensible drinking of alcohol, and, in fact, it commends such consumption (Ps. 104:14–15). We are free to decide ourselves not to drink, but to impose a rule like this on others is legalism.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 4:2
Mark 2:23–28
Acts 15:1–35
Galatians 2:1–10

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