As soon as we start talking about obedience, some will think of legalism. It’s kind of a buzz word. It’s something I’ve been accused of several times though I make continued attempts at clarity.
First, let’s define legalism. Since the word does not occur in the Bible, let’s looks at some other definitions.
Legalism, in Christian theology, is a pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on law or codes of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.
According to dictionary.reference.com:
- strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit.
- a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
- b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
These definitions make three points: 1) the doctrine of salvation/redemption is at stake; 2) legalism refers to an over-emphasis or pre-eminence; 3) legalism is used for strict obedience to the law.
The Doctrine of Salvation/Redemtion is at Stake
So why does one definition of legalism put the doctrine of salvation/redemption at stake? Christianity teaches that being saved is a work that only God can do and only He does it (Ephesians 2:8-9). God the Father supplied Jesus Christ, His Son, to pay fully for sinners to be saved. If we begin to add any stipulation beyond faith for people to be saved, then we convey a gospel that is no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-9).
Over-emphasis or Pre-eminence
Although obedience is important, it is not the primary focus. Faith in Jesus Christ is the primary focus of obedience. As Romans 14:23 says, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”. We need to have faith in Jesus’ full life and death of obedience. If we elevate our own obedience above His, which was given to us by God’s grace, then we tread on the ground of legalism.
Our own obedience should be strict, so long as we keep the above two points in mind: salvation is by faith alone and our obedience to God is only obedience if it is grounded in faith. Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel is the power of God for all of salvation, each part. It is the power to change our hearts as well as the power by which we obey. And basing our obedience by faith on God’s word we guarantee growth (1 Thessalonians 2:13). When we read Philippians 3 we see how convicted Paul was that He needed to press on and strain forward.
So, the word legalism has at least three uses. In the first it describes a distorted gospel into what is no gospel at all, a salvation based on how good you are. The second use describes confused priorities: God should always be primary in our lives and His gifts of grace should be central, just as God and His grace is central in our salvation. The third use just means strict obedience. Every Christian should be strictly obedient but always consious that only by faith do we please God. But we must continue to deal with new applications of the Bible, such as sky-diving (are we taking our lives into our hands unnessasarily?), eating fast-food (can we eat it and remain/become more healthy by doing so?), video games (what are the implications of imaginary paticapatory violence?), television (it what ways does watching TV impact our conscience?). The Bible applies to these areas, as it does to every area of life. But are we legalistic in our application?