Legalism and the Insecurity of Our Times

Legalism and the Insecurity of Our Times

Legalism is an ugly thing to those outside it, but often a beautiful thing to those within it. Legalism is any system whereby the merits of man contribute in any way to his standing with God. For those who have been delivered from the works-righteousness mentality, legalism is bondage, an oppressive system that distorts the grace of God and often turns out neurotic believers who wear themselves out trying to keep up. But to those within legalistic systems, legalism is a refuge from the insecurities of life and the uncertainties of our world.

This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to talk someone out of a legalistic church. There is so much “certainty” and comfort in knowing exactly what one must do to remain in “right with God.” Legalism requires so little faith, because every aspect of life is defined and mandated. In contrast, the concept of grace and Christian liberty is a scary wilderness of uncertainty. Better to stay in the fortress (or prison).

This is not a new phenomenon. At the end of the Middle Ages, the predominant concern of Europeans was the fear of death. After years of bad weather and widespread famine in the 14th century culminating in the Black Death, life in the 15th century was bleak. As Carter Lindberg notes, “The shortness of life was never far from people’s minds” (The European Reformations, Blackwell, 1996). This situation fueled an obsession with concern for the afterlife. Enter the Catholic Church.

Since hell was not the preferred option, the church and its theologians developed a whole set of practices and exercises to assist people to avoid it. The irony was that in attempting to provide security in an insecure world, the church largely mirrored the new urban and economic developments that exacerbated human insecurity. Suspended between hope and fear, the individual had to achieve his or her goal through a whole system of quid pro quo services that reflected the new ledger mentality of the urban burgher absorbed in the developing profit economy. Taken as a whole, Christendom at the end of the Middle Ages appeared as performance-oriented as the new business enterprises of the day. (p. 60)

Pastoral care, while intending to provide security, succeeded only in adding to the insecurity of the individual before God. The reigning paradigm of the Christian life was the phrase facere quod in se est: do what lies within you; do your very best.

In religion as in early capitalism, contracted work merited reward. Individuals were responsible for their own life, society, and world on the basis of and within the limits stipulated by God…This theology, however, enhanced the crisis because it threw people back upon their own resources. That is, no matter how grace-assisted their good works, the burden of proof for those works fell back upon the performers, the more sensitive of whom began asking how they could know if they had done their best. (p. 60)

For anyone who has ever lived in a legalistic system, this sounds all too familiar. The Fundamentalist variety of today would never deny that salvation is all by grace, but the not so subtle message is that to be “right with God” requires the keeping of the rules. This division between “salvation by grace” and “standing by works” is a theological aberration that has at least two results. The first is that people live in a perpetual state of insecurity regarding their standing with God. This reflects a complete misunderstanding of the nature of justification, whereby we are declared to be in a righteous standing with God, based on the perfect righteousness of Christ. Legalism, in effect, makes the believer’s standing with God dependent on his own works. This creates either self-righteous pride in those who give themselves good marks, or abject despair in those sensitive souls who see their failures more clearly.

The other result of legalism is the emergence of strategies for dealing with the psychoses that arise from this impossible situation.

The second half of this essay will recount the emergence of relics and indulgences in the Middle Ages, and the concomitant strategies of legalists today to cope with such a system.

Relics, indulgences and modern legalism

What happens to people who feel that they must earn their standing with God? They seek help in a number of ways. One common strategy is to erect new standards of righteousness that are at least theoretically attainable. By setting up external markers, those who believe they must perform certain works or maintain certain standards not required by Scripture find a measure of security in this “attainable righteousness.” Keeping a list of rules becomes familiar quickly, even though the rules are difficult to maintain.

Another strategy to which people resort is more extreme, but it follows naturally from the first. At the beginning of the Reformation, the strategy of veneration of relics became the preferred method of improving one’s standing with God. Luther’s protector, Prince Frederick the Wise had assembled one of the most impressive relic collections in Europe—over 19,000 pieces. Frederick’s collection included a (supposed) piece of the burning bush, soot from the fiery furnace, milk from Mary, and a piece of Jesus’ crib. Touching or viewing the relics allegedly brought one closer to God, conveyed grace, and shortened one’s time in purgatory. In addition, saints were made patrons for every human demand. How could people sink to such depths of superstition and error? Historian Carter Lindberg offers one explanation:

Insecure about salvation, people attempted to guarantee it by capturing mediators between themselves and God. Why did people throw themselves into such a piety of achievement? Why was the treadmill of religious performance thought to be the path to security and certainty of salvation? Perhaps because in times of crisis people tend to yearn for the “good old days,” and try harder to emulate what they think they were. Hidden behind the late medieval surge in piety there was an oppressive uncertainty about salvation together with the longing for it. (The European Reformations, Blackwell, 1996, 61)

Now, I am not suggesting that all legalists have gone to the same lengths that people did in the late medieval period. But some certainly have. Relics of a sort appear when a particular college is the only school that a church will recommend. When this happens, a subtle message is sent that a good standing with God can only be obtained by graduating from that college. Another relic of modern fundamentalism is the veneration of certain men for the position they hold, whether it be a college president, the pastor of a big church or ministry, or the author of a book. Somehow these highly visible personalities are viewed as existing on a higher plane.

I have watched the fawning over some of these men, and I wonder how this is any different from the medieval veneration of saints. A rather extreme example is the overt promotion of relics at the pastors conferences at First Baptist in Hammond, IN under Jack Hyles in the 1990’s. Prizes were awarded to those who brought the most attendees, including John R. Rice’s car, Jack Hyles’ ring, and other strange items attached to Fundamentalist saints (for the record, I think Rice would have turned over in his grave at the post-mortem veneration accorded him by many Fundamentalists).

So, from where does all this legalism spring? My contention is that it is partially fueled by the insecurity of the times. As people feel more anxious about the uncertainty of life, they naturally turn to anything that might provide security. For religious people of all kinds, acts of self-righteousness and veneration of relics of some sort seem to be common responses. Christians can fall into these practices too, if they do not have a strong grasp of sound doctrine, especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Without a settled assurance based on the imputed righteousness of Christ, even true Christians will begin to seek other means of security. This, in turn, fuels greater insecurity as the very extra-biblical standards they set up become unattainable to the average Christian.

Legalism is a vicious cycle, a constant treadmill that always increases in speed. The only solution is to jump off the treadmill onto the firm ground of grace. With the increasing uncertainty of our world, we should expect to see more similarities between our day and the spectacle of the late medieval times. May God give us a new reformation of love for sound doctrine that will ground us in the truth and guard our hearts and minds!


Mark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two daughters and a son, all teenagers. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) after seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an MDiv from Calvary and a ThM in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He has also studied ancient manuscripts at Harvard Divinity School and philosophy at Villanova University. He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics. These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or its faculty and administration.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks, Mark. Found this thought provoking.
I do think there is some insecurity behind much of the legalistic thinking out there. And the abuses pointed out here are real problems. But like alot of writing on legalism, I'm not sure we're clear on the definition and, consequently, not sure "legalism" is the right word for these problems. I appreciate that Mark provided a short definition at the beginning, but what does "standing with God" mean there, exactly?
Here's why I ask. For many in evangelicalism (and increasingly Fundamentalism as well), the alternative to "legalism" is a view of grace in which obedience simply does not matter. My "standing" (poorly defined) is in Christ's righteousness alone, therefore, it makes no difference what I actually do.
This is no better than the "legalism" at the other end of the spectrum, and clearly not compatible with the NT.

I think the solution to both the legalistic (I do think "legalistic" as an adjective is accurate in the sense of "resembling legalism") and the anti-nomian attitudes is to understand what we mean by "standing." If we mean our position in Christ, our identity as justified, adopted, glory-destined children of God, then, yes, what we choose to do has no impact on that.
And to the degree the legalistic types are unclear on that point, getting the positional truths sorted out will liberate them from their insecurities. So a major part of their error is confusing standing with God's day-to-day good pleasure.

But the legalistic types are right to the degree they are thinking "It matters very much what I do because God is either pleased or displeased by my choices and my relationship with Him is 'right' or 'not right' in that sense."
At the other end of the spectrum, the anti-nomian types also confuse standing with good pleasure. They are in error to believe that their relationship with God is in no way affected by disobedience. We can and do grieve the Holy Spirit of promise, and we're spiritually diseased if we don't care deeply about that (close cousin to feeling insecure).

Many passages bear this out. A couple of especially clear ones:

  • 2 Co 5:9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.
  • Php 2:12–13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.

So, in our zeal to reject legalism, we need to be careful to avoid falling into an error that is just as bad or worse.

Jon Bell's picture

I have often struggled with this topic. I appreciate Mark's remarks here because I think they correctly diagnose the problem: insecurity. I am learning that I must be secure in my justification: my standing with Christ. But while it is helpful to separate justification and sanctification to consider them we cannot in reality ever separate them. While I know that I stand justified I also have to remind myself that God has saved me from sin to good works and I must exert myself, in the power of the Spirit, to live a life pleasing to Him. I really like the idea of the Law (10 Commandments) as a guide to Christian living (a.k.a. the third use of the law). I strive to live in line with the commandments not get saved (justified) but to be saved (sanctified). I never understood the argument over Lordship Salvation because I always heard it making this point! If the Lord bought me from sin then He has the right to expect me to live pleasing to Him. The bigger problem is when I try to get others to conform to my standards for pleasing God. When I decide that I should not do A and therefore you should not do A either. This is certainly true with biblical issues of morality but is dangerous once we step beyond the clear teachings of scripture and start codifying our inferences. The "if it's doubtful; it's dirty" is a great personal guideline in extrabiblical issues but is a dangerous yardstick by which to measure others.

Jon Bell
Bucksport, ME
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

Right on Mark Farnham! For too many years we fundamentalists have been trumpeting our "goodness" in the fleshly environment of legalism. It is destructive to our lives and to the Lord's churches. It undermines biblical evangelism. Living in light of the Gospel that saved us is the right alternative. In the Gospel, we learn to live in grace and practice the spiritual disciplines in a spirit of humble dependency on God.

I love Mark's comments on relics. I really feel sorry for Christians in a church that are led to feel that there is only one college that the young people can attend.

My laptop battery is almost dead.

Have a great day.

Charlie's picture

Preliminary note: Whoever chose that picture for this article is a genius.

I appreciate the historical perspective in this article. I would like to add another dimension to what was already discussed above. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor calls attention to a noticeable divergence between the Church's official explanations of certain activities - pilgrimages, venerating saints and relics, etc. - and the common man's perception of them. Whereas the Church explained these things as sacramental and directed toward forgiveness of sins and right standing with God, in folk religion there was a good deal of magical and syncretic elements attached. So, in the myth of one town, praying to a certain saint at a certain time might save a harvest. According to the folklore of a shrine, a visit would cure leprosy. The participation of the whole village in a particular yearly festival may be necessary to stave off blight.

So, I agree that the fear of death was a paramount concern in the Late Middle Ages, but I think it's fair to say that the average peasant was at least as concerned with delaying that end as with preparing for his afterlife. In the popular imagination, the complex systems of relics, pilgrimages, etc. worked as much to ensure this-worldly safety and (maybe) prosperity as it did to prepare for a blissful afterlife. Both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations attempted to snuff out the syncretic elements, but they persisted stubbornly until modernism disenchanted Europe.

Is the religious-economic syncretism really gone? We all know it isn't; it's just taken on different forms. Wicca and much of Charismatic Christianity are devoted to this, but I think that this can sometimes persist in Fundamentalism as well. Have you ever heard the "You can't outgive {sic} God, but if you don't tithe your car will break down" sermon? There is also the standard youth pastor speech, "If you don't go to the college God wills for you, you won't meet the spouse God made for you" (implication: your life will be ruined). So, to complement what Farnham said, sometimes appeals are crafted in an even more obviously quid pro quo way - do what God wants and he won't wreck your life.

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Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Quote:
Have you ever heard the "You can't outgive {sic} God, but if you don't tithe your car will break down" sermon? There is also the standard youth pastor speech, "If you don't go to the college God wills for you, you won't meet the spouse God made for you" (implication: your life will be ruined). So, to complement what Farnham said, sometimes appeals are crafted in an even more obviously quid pro quo way - do what God wants and he won't wreck your life.

I had a bang-your-head-into-a-brick-wall conversation with some folks awhile back about the idea that while God has set certain natural consequences in place, He does not extort our obedience, and we should be careful about how we discipline/chastise our children, lest we cross that line from chastisement for rebellion against God's clear lines of morality/ethics over to blackmailing them into "Amen-ing" our every whim. It went over like a titanium balloon. They saw no difference between extorting obedience and chastisement or natural consequences. I see a very clear distinction, and 95% of it is motive.

I also think this attitude leaks into the church, and the truly legalistic church is IMO not a church where people happen to share common standards or lifestyle, but where, if certain standards of conduct/appearance are not being applied, a sort of subtle 'excommunication' takes place... which requires an awful lot of gossip and backbiting in order for everyone to get the memo that so-and-so isn't up to snuff... and then it progresses downhill until those who have all these 'standards' in place have seared their conscience and begin to accept things that at one time would be unacceptable to them... it ain't pretty.

jimcarwest's picture

Am I correct in noting that the first meaning of "legalism" is outlined in Galatians where it refers to the subject of salvation? Those who mix law and grace, making one's standing before God dependent upon keeping the law as having equal value as grace to be saved? This truly is a violation of the doctrine of salvation by grace.

It seems to me a confusion of terminology to use the term "legalistic" to describe believers who practice separation from the world and from worldly lifestyle. This term is usually applied by those who find it objectionable for believers to "abstain from all appearance of evil," as the Scripture enjoins . Believers who practice abnegation from social drinking, from R-rated movies that use nudity, extreme violence, and offensive language are oft-times called "legalistic." What does Paul mean when he commands believers not "to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind?"

The term "put off"" as used in Eph. 4 refers to more than mental attitudes; lifestyle and conduct are also mentioned. "Putting on" involves
righteous deeds and holiness. Paul seemed to have in mind certain kinds of behavior that were not characteristic of a believer.

Titus 2:11-13 say that grace teaches us "to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in the present world." The rub comes when this command must be applied to life. How might Paul have responded if someone insisted on knowing how the terms of this passage applied to the lifestyle of a believer in the first century? Might he not be in danger of having the term "legalistic" applied to some of the anwers he might give, as occurs today?

My experience has been that those who cry "legalism" are the ones who tend toward anti-nomianism and a view of the Christian life that fails to apply godliness to the age in which we are living. Let's face it: we all have our lists of "do's" and "don't's. What we must be careful of is forcing our list on others who may not have attained to our level of understanding or denying the salvation experience of others because they do not measure up to our understanding of Scripture.

Perhaps we should reserve the term "legalism" to use with a mixture of law and grace as a prerequisite to salvation, as in Galatians. Maybe we should define an over zealous application of pur own interpretation of personal sanctification as a violation of the "individual priesthood of believers."

Instructing believers to practice a godly lifestyle is biblical. Where this may go awry is when believers are commanded to follow a "list" of "don'ts:" in order to be considered a good Christian.

Paul's admonition in Phil. 3:16-19 is worthy of note: "Nevertheless, to the degree tht we have already attained, let us walk by t he same rule, let us be of the same mind. Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame -- who set their mind on earthly things."

Ron Bean's picture

Quote:
Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. A legalist is someone who behaves as if they can earn God's approval through personal performance.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

jimcarwest wrote:
My experience has been that those who cry "legalism" are the ones who tend toward anti-nomianism and a view of the Christian life that fails to apply godliness to the age in which we are living. Let's face it: we all have our lists of "do's" and "don't's. What we must be careful of is forcing our list on others who may not have attained to our level of understanding or denying the salvation experience of others because they do not measure up to our understanding of Scripture.

The first part about those who cry legalism... this has often been my experience as well. But avoiding legalistic thinking goes beyond merely not questioning someone's salvation. There's a combination of things that cause legalistic error and so a combination of things that prevent it.

Jon in post #2 hit on a key one: understanding that a vast number of these "standards" decisions belong in the matters of conscience category Romans 14 is aimed at managing. It is possible to have umpteen gazillion personal standards and be passionately opposed to parting your hair on the left side on odd numbered Teusdays and not be legalistic. But one requirement is understanding that these rules are our own applications and others have to be fully persuaded in their own minds without our judging them to be either unsaved or even immature or in any other sense second class. (Provided we're talking about the right category of issues, the one in view in Rom14)

A second major factor is the one Mark's article focuses more on: what determines my standing with God? We should not be driven by some fear that we are going to be kicked out of God's family or be rejected by Him if we fail to live up to the rules. But we have to simultaneously be very concerned about pleasing Him. I think there's a another form of confusion on this point that fuels legalism though... some of the believers I've known who were in the grip of legalistic error were driven not by fear of losing their standing but by fear of missing out on blessings. Charlie made that connection a couple posts up and it's a really good one. I've known quite a few legalistic types who were embracing a bunch of rules mostly as a mechanism for manipulating God into making life happier and more prosperous for them personally. Yes, I'm judging motives a bit there, but they were pretty frank on that point--just used slightly different terms.

But really, I think even the fear of displeasing God can become an unhealthy thing (though "legalistic" does not seem to be the right term for this)... while we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling and pass the time of our sojourning here in fear (Php 2.12 I believe and the second one is in 1 Peter somewhere), God has not given us a "spirit of fear"--as Paul told Timothy.
So our affections can get out of whack in an endless variety of ways, several of which lead to a kind of externals-obsessed, pride & anxiety driven parody of Christian living (sometimes accurately termed "legalistic" and sometimes not). I'm looking for a common denominator in all these but so far can only see one... we're sinners who are only--so far--partly transformed.

Dick Dayton's picture

Before the Lord drew me to Himself, I was planning to convert from secular unbelief to Conservative Judaism. I faithfully attended synagogue every sabbath (service went from 9 to noon). As time went on, people in the synagogue assumed that, because of my external behavior, I must be a "good Jewish young man." I believe this is one aspect of legalism - assuming that external behavior is a trustworthy indication of internal heart condition. We are creatures of habit, and it is easier to slip into "good habits" than to let the Lord bring our hearts into total submission to Him. This is the first danger of legalism - external conformity without internal transformation and dedication.
The first church I attended in the middle 1960's was big on honoring certain prominent leaders, and for having many rules to help "guide" our Christian life. This is a second aspect of legalism that is dangerous - assuming that all aspects of sanctification can be externally quantified. I can think, "I have met all the items on my checklist, so I must be really right with God."
Having noted these two dangers, as the other writers giving comments have, we must not throw out all standards. John 13:17 does say, "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them." James challenges us to show our faith by its impact upon our daily lives. John challenges us to confess our sins for daily cleansing, which implies we have a sense of some things that are right and others that are wrong. As was mentioned above, we do not want to slip into antinomianism. It is not wrong to ask questions about our rules and guidelines, because we want our conduct and attitude to honor the Lord. When I was in a questioning mode, my unsaved father would say, "Question your questions. Are you seeking to understand things better, so you can make a better decision, or are you seeking to justify your actions ?" As we rebel against rules and regulations, is it because we believe those rules are artificial, and are interfering with a growing intimacy with and obedience to God, or is it because we want to do what we want to do with no twinge of conscience ?
God said, "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." If I am to serve God with a clear conscience and a dedicated spirit, it is helpful to me to have some guidelines. Keeping these guidelines does not guarantee spirituality, but can help me monitor the pulse of my spirit.
In the Saturday morning synagogue litergy, Psalm 19:14 is quoted each week. "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, by Strength and my Redeemer."
As we seek to guide our lives, may that prayer of David guide our thoughts, attitudes, and actions.

Dick Dayton

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Quote:
A legalist is someone who behaves as if they can earn God's approval through personal performance.

The problem with that definition, again, is that it almost erases any concern to make choices that please Him.
Does He "approve" when I lose my temper and kick the dog? The truth is that His approval in one sense is immovable--it is based solely on the righteousness of Christ--but in another sense His approval is very dynamic and depends on my obedience. What distinguishes these senses? Partly that the first is forensic/legal: it is my status in the books and it determines how my story ends, regardless of what happens between now and the "end." Ends in glorification (Rom. 8:29-30). But my day to day unrighteousness is still real and matters a great deal, hence passages like 1 John 1:9. So every sin I'll ever commit is already forgiven, yet I need to seek forgiveness and cleansing. Because my official standing is not yet fully realized in my present experience.

Don't want to overgeneralize, but "performance-based" is often a buzzword of antinomianism.

Dick... appreciate your post. Strikes a great balance, IMO.

KevinM's picture

Mark Farnham wrote:
Legalism is any system whereby the merits of man contribute in any way to his standing with God.

or
jimcarwest wrote:
Perhaps we should reserve the term "legalism" to use with a mixture of law and grace as a prerequisite to salvation, as in Galatians. Maybe we should define an over zealous application of own interpretation of personal sanctification as a violation of the "individual priesthood of believers."

Great article by Mark. Thought provoking. And I think his brief definition of legalism is pretty close. While I think I understand Jim's concern about limiting the definition of legalism to the act of salvation, I think Galatians addresses both legalism related to salvation and legalism related to progressive sanctification.
Galatians 3:3 wrote:
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Seems like Paul is addressing people in Galatians 3 who are already saved, and who are attempting to tie their spirituality to continued (legalistic) rule-keeping. For this reason, I think Mark's definition is good [though it makes us squirm! ]

Steve Newman's picture

It seems to me that the "legalism" related to salvation is separate from that of the "legalism" related to the Christian life. While Paul is addressing those who have trusted Christ, he is speaking to them about their perversion of the Gospel and their belief in a "perverted" gospel.
Christians are called on to maintain good works. Are those works supposed to be seen? However, does that mean that there is a standard for measuring them? The scriptures do have a ton of commands for the believer. Which of these is not important?
However, the "legalism" of a believer has to do more with someone who is judged to be "spiritual". Many of these discussions involve false standards such as "success" or some sort of Christian "prominence" as mentioned.
Honestly, the people I've thought were the most spiritual believers would certainly not be the ones drawing attention to themselves, not the sort of shameless self-promotion which is seen today in so many cases. They are people who are not content where they are at with God, and do not seek to speak more because they know that there is more opportunity for something stupid to come out.
Wish we had some more of that.

Dick Dayton's picture

Aaron,

Susan mentioned "natural consequences." My guess is that topic is broad enough that it could become another thread of thought on its own.

Dick Dayton

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Dick... yes, I'm sure it could.
Kevin: on Galatians. It is a fascinating illustration of the tensions involved. What does he mean by "by the flesh" in that case? One thing's for sure, whatever interpretation we give to Gal.3:3, it must harmonize with passages like...

Quote:
1 Co 9:26–27 ~26 Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. 27 But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.

1 Ti 4:7 ~7 But reject profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness.

2 Pe 1:5–7 ~5 But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 6 to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, 7 to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.

Heb 12:3–4 ~3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. 4 You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.

And many more. So what ever "by the flesh" means in Gal. 2:2, it cannot mean "by trying hard." It certainly may include trying hard, but it must at least have to do with trying hard w/a particular set of wrong beliefs/affections informing or motivating that effort.
(I haven't preached through Galatians yet, so I haven't been forced yet to nail down what I believe the precise nature of the problem in Galatia was.)

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

Let's suppose a christian family has a conviction that the men of their home should never part their hair on the left side on certain Tuesdays of the month. They move to a new community and start to look for a church. They attend one church where the pastor meets the qualifications of an elder who rightly teaches the text of Scripture. They visit another church where the teaching is story-telling after leaping off of a verse that has nothing to do with the subject. But the latter church does believe that men should never part their hair on the left side on certain Tuesdays of the month. When the family chooses the church for that reason, I believe they are legalistic in their thinking..

It happens all of the time.

Matthew Richards's picture

Pastor Joe Roof wrote:
Let's suppose a christian family has a conviction that the men of their home should never part their hair on the left side on certain Tuesdays of the month. They move to a new community and start to look for a church. They attend one church where the pastor meets the qualifications of an elder who rightly teaches the text of Scripture. They visit another church where the teaching is story-telling after leaping off of a verse that has nothing to do with the subject. But the latter church does believe that men should never part their hair on the left side on certain Tuesdays of the month. When the family chooses the church for that reason, I believe they are legalistic in their thinking..

It happens all of the time.

Pastor Joe, I just spewed Lemon Lime La Croix all over my keyboard! I believe that would be legalism in full bloom!

Good stuff...

Matthew

rogercarlson's picture

Joe,
That was funny and sad at the same time. You should right a novel with that being in the plot!

Roger Carlson, Pastor
Berean Baptist Church

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Pastor Joe Roof wrote:
Let's suppose a christian family has a conviction that the men of their home should never part their hair on the left side on certain Tuesdays of the month. They move to a new community and start to look for a church. They attend one church where the pastor meets the qualifications of an elder who rightly teaches the text of Scripture. They visit another church where the teaching is story-telling after leaping off of a verse that has nothing to do with the subject. But the latter church does believe that men should never part their hair on the left side on certain Tuesdays of the month. When the family chooses the church for that reason, I believe they are legalistic in their thinking..

It happens all of the time.


I agree that this happens all the time, and extremes are easy to spot. But what happens to the family that doesn't trust the spiritual discernment of a teacher/preacher who believes that the amount of nudity, number of obscenities and profanities, and graphic portrayals of fornication and adultery on television and in movies are basically harmless because "It's just a story" and "There is fornication and adultery in the Bible"? When that family leaves a church or removes their child from the influence of such a teacher and seeks a church with leadership in tune with a desire for purity, they are labeled as 'weaker brethren' or 'Pharisees/legalists' all the time as well.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Joe, a good typical example. To relate it to the article, is this family doing this out of insecurity? Do they believe their standing with God depends on these rules? I tend to think that this particular flavor of legalistic thinking (I'm still not going to call it legalism) is driven more by laziness and immaturity than anything else. It's just easier to reduce Christian living/spiritual maturity to a few externals. The immaturity part is that these folks have a completely convoluted sense of values: what matters most, what matters a bit less, what matters even less, etc. So again, "legalism" doesn't seem adequate. It lumps too many things together.

The insecure "legalists" who are desperate to be accepted by God via more and more rules (I think these are actually a small minority) need clarity on their position in Christ and on how sanctification really works. The lazy "legalists" need to just get serious. The immature "legalists" need to humble themselves enough to discover God's priorities in Scripture and accept them. If we're looking at three different problems, should we call them all "legalism"?

But I think we're agreed that all three of these are real problems, whatever we call them. I'm just interested in using terms that are more helpful and don't obscure the real nature of the problems involved.

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Joe, a good typical example. To relate it to the article, is this family doing this out of insecurity? Do they believe their standing with God depends on these rules? I tend to think that this particular flavor of legalistic thinking (I'm still not going to call it legalism) is driven more by laziness and immaturity than anything else. It's just easier to reduce Christian living/spiritual maturity to a few externals. The immaturity part is that these folks have a completely convoluted sense of values: what matters most, what matters a bit less, what matters even less, etc. So again, "legalism" doesn't seem adequate. It lumps too many things together.

The insecure "legalists" who are desperate to be accepted by God via more and more rules (I think these are actually a small minority) need clarity on their position in Christ and on how sanctification really works. The lazy "legalists" need to just get serious. The immature "legalists" need to humble themselves enough to discover God's priorities in Scripture and accept them. If we're looking at three different problems, should we call them all "legalism"?

But I think we're agreed that all three of these are real problems, whatever we call them. I'm just interested in using terms that are more helpful and don't obscure the real nature of the problems involved.


Does the rule become more important to that person/family than the Word of God? Unfortunately, I know too many people who have made rules for themselves and have given those rules the same authority and often times even more authority than the Scripture. Jesus corrected this kind of thinkning in the gospels.

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