Is it legalistic for Christians to seek earnestly to keep the moral law of God? Today, R.C. Sproul clears up common misunderstandings about legalism and helps us understand the place of obedience in the Christian life.
There’s a word that I hear misused and abused to a very serious degree, and that is the word legalism. I hear legalism constantly being defined as if it meant obedience to the law, that if I obey the law of God, that makes me a legalist. Is that what legalism is? God forbid.
Legalism has many different manifestations. One is the legalism of the Pharisees who obeyed the outward demands of the law, the letter of the law, while violating and compromising the spirit all over the place. And they were legalists in the sense that they were Philadelphia lawyers studying the fine points of the law in order to secure a knowledge of loopholes by which they could escape the mandates of the law.
For example, the rabbinic law forbade them to travel more than a certain amount of time on the Sabbath day, which was called a Sabbath day’s journey. And the Sabbath day’s journey was measured by so many furlongs from your house. So, how did they get around that? On business trips during the week, they would have some of the men on caravan teams take along a toothpaste, or a toothbrush, or other articles that a man possessed, and every so many furlongs, put these toothbrushes under a rock, thereby legally establishing residence every so many furlongs. So, if the Pharisee wanted to travel more than a Sabbath day’s journey on the Sabbath, he could just conveniently go from rock to rock, from residence to residence, so he could get as far as he wanted to go on the Sabbath day. That’s legalism, saying, “I’m obeying the law, technically,” but finding loopholes to break it.
See, the legalist may obey the outward demands of the law and ignore the Lawgiver—have no love in his heart, no genuine desire to please God with his life. And God hates that kind of outward conformity where the heart is removed from Him. However, the opposite of that is not to say, “Oh, I’ll obey the spirit of the law and violate what the law clearly teaches me to do or not to do.”
It is never legalism to obey the commandments of God. But I’m afraid that even in the Christian community today, that if Mary and Joseph took their infant Son scrupulously and meticulously to submit Him to the demands of the law of circumcision and purification, that there would be Christians who would stand in judgment of Mary, the mother of God, and of Joseph for their legalism. Let’s put that myth to rest forever.
God was pleased that the human parents who were entrusted with the life of this child obeyed the letter of the law because in that beginning, it characterized the entire life of Jesus, who loved the law because He saw it not as a malevolent, destructive, tyrannical, negative code given by a judgmental God, but He saw it as an expression of what pleased and delighted His Father.
And Jesus said: “Think not that I come to loose or destroy the law, but to fulfill it. Truly, I say to you, not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away until all of it is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17–18). And what Jesus did from His birth was take upon Himself the task of obeying every jot and tittle. That’s like dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. If that’s what a legalist is, then the supreme legalist of all time was Jesus of Nazareth. And if He was not, then we have no redeemer.