A legalist. No charge hits harder, no label sticks faster than to be judged a legalist. In our current Christian church culture, adulterers are embraced and elevated to worship leaders, but those deemed legalists? Whatever else they may be doesn’t matter. They are brushed aside like a bunch of children sent outside to play when the adults need to talk. But just as they have with baptism, most folks who like to use the term have it all wrong.
In a rush to prove that they believe that works cannot save, lots of folks have scampered as far out on the opposite end of that limb as possible, declaring that any attempt to govern human behavior is legalism. Seeing no need to study for themselves and desiring to be politically correct, many others have climbed out there with them where, together, they shake their heads in superior sideways motions as they watch all the legalists try to adapt ancient scripture to our twenty-first century society.
But what does the Bible really say about legalism?
Without question, it condemns it.
But what is it?
As you read through the epistles, the Bible defines the term. Romans chapter nine says that Israel did not find righteousness in the Law because they sought it by works and not by faith. Chapter four of Hebrews says that Israel could not enter God’s rest because they did not mix His Word (the Law) with faith. It was this faithless approach to obedience that Paul tried to rebuff. You could say that legalism is trusting in works to save, but a more accurate statement would be that legalism is trying to achieve righteousness without faith.
Neither Paul nor the writer of Hebrews condemned the Jews for obeying the Law. That was not their problem. The issue was that their obedience was not motivated by faith. While they talked about God’s Word and they did what He said, they did not put their trust and hope in Him.
James reminded the early believers that works (obedience) is the natural result of faith. You can’t have faith without works, but you can work without faith. This work without faith, Hebrews chapter four brands as unbelief.
So if legalism is the absence of faith, what is faith?
Hebrews chapter eleven defines faith as the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But, what does that mean?
The same chapter that tells us that Israel could not find righteousness because they sought it without faith, instructs us to labor to gain it. The labor that Hebrews chapter four encourages is a quick response to God’s instructions. True faith in God will motivate us to obey God’s Word – which obedience becomes the substance and evidence of the invisible things we hope for. Faith in God and obedience to the Bible become synonymous terms.
If we fit all of this together and toss in a few examples like Job who said though God slay me yet will I trust Him, a definition of faith rises to the surface: faith is complete trust in God evidenced by an appropriate response to His Word.
So those whose trust in and love for God motivates them to apply His eternal Word to their daily lives are not so far off after all.
If you are one of those out there on that limb with all your buddies, before you slap another legalist tag on yet another Christian, you may want to perform a quick self-check and see if there is any evidence of faith-motivated works (obedience) in your own life. Remember, legalism is the absence of faith and, with no works, faith is dead.
You might need that label you are holding for yourself.
Hebrews 4:1-11 1Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.
2 For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
3 For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.
4 For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works.
5 And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest.
6 Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief:
7 Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
8 For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.
9 There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.
10 For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.
11 Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.
31 But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness.
32 Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone;
33 As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.
Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.