The Lie of Legalism

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Wednesday, November 18, 2015 3 comments

by Logan Ames

Whether you are a believer and follower of the Lord Jesus Christ or label yourself an atheist or follower of any other religion, I want you to think about the impact that legalism has had on your life. In my life growing up, the word “should” was very common. I was surrounded by people who clearly enjoyed being in the position of the one making the rules and loved to “should” on others. As I grew into adolescence and then adulthood, I repeated what I had learned, becoming somebody who not only “shoulded” on others, but I got extremely angry when someone dared question my “wisdom." Even today, legalism is something I have to intentionally avoid. What about you? Have you been shunned from a particular church or other body of believers because of a difference in beliefs, musical preference, or physical appearance? Have you judged ALL believers because of the actions of a few? Maybe you’ve been on the other side, recognizing now the damage you have done to others as you tried to force them to fit into your box of expectations. Whichever side you fall on, allow Romans 14 to be the Biblical truth that guides you going forward.

In his book “Approved Unto God: The Spiritual Life of the Christian Worker,” Oswald Chambers states, “Conceit makes the way God deals with me personally the binding standard for others." What a powerful quote! And it perfectly reflects the Apostle Paul’s teaching through Romans 14:1-12. Take a few minutes to read it on your own. Paul is urging believers to accept their brothers and sisters who are “weak” without continuing to argue matters that don’t have a clear right answer. In verse 2, Paul actually asserts that a “weak faith” is the one that is more strict. According to Paul, faith that allows a person to eat any food is stronger than the faith that requires a person to eat only vegetables. I find that very interesting because in my experiences, it’s been the believers who adhere to stricter standards that have seen themselves as strong. It makes sense, however, when I think about the fact that faith in God Almighty and faith in one’s own will are practically polar opposites. My will puffs ME up and lets everyone know how righteous I am, but my faith in God shows how great HE is no matter what people think of me. Thus, the stronger faith is the faith that relies even more on God’s grace.

This does not mean that we have the God-given right to make rebellious choices against God’s Word. We cannot simply sin in all the ways that our flesh desires and then say, “It’s okay because my faith is strong and God’s grace will cover me." Paul explains that we will all stand before God’s judgment seat (v. 10) and will be responsible to give an account of ourselves to God as individuals (v. 12). He stated that we have no right to judge each other regarding those “disputable matters,”\ but God certainly does have a right to judge us all because he is the Master and we are the servants.

In verse 4, he asks, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand." This is a critical part of Paul’s instructions for the Roman believers and it’s just as critical for us today. We love to get in the business of determining whether or not someone is a Christian based on a belief or practice that goes against our own. Apparently, the early church did that as well. Paul says that’s not our decision in the first place, and if a believer is one we would consider as “weak,” the Lord has enough strength to make them stand. This means that rather than trying to force our opinions on “disputable matters” down someone’s throat, we must leave room for God to deal with them in the way he knows is best for that person. God may reveal something to me personally but I cannot make that a binding standard for all other Christians.

Paul uses the examples of dietary restrictions and considering certain days more sacred than others because they were significant issues in that culture. For us, it could be any disputable matter that is not made clear in Scripture. Some believers are against tattoos, while others believe it is not sinful. I have some friends who believe only drunkenness is a sin, while others think God bans all alcohol for believers. There could be disputes over music, clothing, and even which translation of the Bible should be used. It might be the position you take on women in ministry or what will happen at the end times. If you demand that other followers of Christ believe and observe what you do regarding these disputable matters, you’ve bought into the lie of legalism. You believe you have the position of strength, but you are actually weak. On the other hand, Paul urges that those whose faith has allowed them to relax their standards must still accept those who adhere to stricter standards. That means that yes, those of you who like contemporary worship music must still accept those who prefer hymns!

Legalism goes beyond personal preferences and beliefs. I’m going to tell you something that isn’t typically mentioned in our blog posts. Our goal is to have our posts written at least a full week before they are posted on the website, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen. For me, sometimes God is just not giving me clarity on what to write. That happened this week, and as I sit here now finishing this post I have been paying attention to the news of the terrorist attacks in Paris all evening. I want to share with you what God has shown me tonight. In a word, it’s PRAY! But more than that, God revealed to me how quickly so many immediately turn to figuring what went wrong and what WE can do to get ourselves out of tragedies or make sure they don’t happen again. The blame game is played pretty quickly.

I even have to admit that I was guilty of it myself tonight. When I first heard about the attacks, I told my roommate I wasn’t surprised and we both immediately talked about the political view that differs from ours, the fact that we are frustrated more is not being done about terrorism, and who is to blame. But then I walked back to my room and turned on the TV and saw that police in Paris were getting ready to raid the concert venue where terrorists were holding people hostage and executing them. I immediately turned it off and wept as I prayed for those officers, for their protection, for their families, and for their courage. I wept more as I prayed more for all those affected by these events, including the perpetrators. I was convicted of how quickly I judged others and tried to feel a position of control and strength rather than a position of total dependence on God. That conviction is what made me weep more than anything because my need to be strong has affected so many areas of my life. And I know it’s time to pray and trust the Lord.

The lie of legalism is what makes us want to be “right,” and to tell others what they should and shouldn’t do. Geraldo Rivera said within two hours of the attacks that it was a “massive failure of counterintelligence” that allowed the attacks to be planned and carried out. Whether or not he is correct is not the issue. It’s that our need to find an answer, control, or strength within ourselves lessens our faith in the Lord. Sadly, so many will continue to believe that tragedies are within our control, and will refuse to put it totally in the hands of the only One who is sovereign over all things, including evil. It reminds me of when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana back in 2005 and the state’s governor at that time encouraged all people to pray for their state. An ESPN radio host whom I respected at the time said that, as a leader, she had to have a better plan than that! I agree that prayer is not often a substitute for action, but I have to wonder which response requires a stronger faith. I believe God has revealed to me that letting go and trusting him IS the stronger response. Our strength has limits, but God’s does not.

I recognize that I’m talking about minor “disputable matters” in the church and then international tragedies that result in major loss of life. They are seemingly unconnected. But I submit to you that the need to puff ourselves up, tell others what they SHOULD do, and be the ones making the rules are ever-present in both cases. Whether you face tragedy or are just plain annoyed by other believers, turn it over to the Lord. Trust God that he will make those who will stand able to do so and will take care of the rest as he sees fit. If you do this, your faith will be strong and God will take your relationship with him to closeness you’ve never before experienced.

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Bob Sorensen said...

Very good article. Interesting timing, I was working on one when I came across this, and linked to it.

There was a period that I rudely put God on the shelf for about 15 years. There were many factors, but a good part of it was religious legalism. Also, I took my eyes off Jesus. It gets very difficult to keep the proper focus, but if we stay in the Word and grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, we can get things back into focus sooner.

Logan said...


Thank you for your comment and for taking the time to read the post. You are absolutely right! I have also failed to recognize God's sovereignty at certain times in my life. I won't say I put him on the shelf because that would imply that I somehow can do what I want with God. I know that isn't what you meant, and yet that is what we often do. And that makes God's grace, which you mentioned, all the more amazing to us! He could wipe us out with the snap of a finger, yet he shows grace when we act as if we can do what we want with him. Like you, I have taken my eyes off Jesus and put it on the things of this world, which mostly just fills me up with evil. Praise God that he gives us the chance to surrender to him after we have failed to do so for so long. And praise God that legalism is not required because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ!

Bob Sorensen said...

Hi Logan,
I linked to this article in a previous one of mine about legalism. But I wasn't done, and had more to say, so another is in process. Dr. James White said some things that got me to get the bit in my teeth and run off again. I'm emphasizing his video (or audio, if you have a mind to do audio only) on these and similar topics. You can find that here. —Cowboy Bob