Legalism

As we were moving pews and tearing up carpet at Gateway – well mostly after as we were standing around writing our names on the bare sub floor – some of us got into a little discussion on legalism.  So I did some looking up.  I think this pretty much sums it up:

As we were moving pews and tearing up carpet at Gateway – well mostly after as we were standing around writing our names on the bare sub floor – some of us got into a little discussion on legalism.  So I did some looking up.  I think this pretty much sums it up:

What Is Legalism?

 

John W. Robbins

 


 

Legalism is the notion that a sinner can, by his own efforts, or by the power of the Holy Spirit in his life, do some work to obtain or retain his salvation. Some legalists think man has free will and can perform good works if he just sets his mind to it, thereby obtaining the favor of God. This type of legalist thinks that a sinner can believe the Gospel on his own steam. Other legalists think that a sinner does not have free will, that any good he does is done by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him, and it is these good deeds done by the power of the Holy Spirit that obtain or help obtain, retain or help retain, his salvation. Both types of legalists, but especially the latter, may acknowledge that Christ’s work of obedience is necessary for salvation, but both deny that Christ’s work is sufficient for salvation. Both types of legalists assert that to Christ’s work must be added the works of the sinner, done either under his own steam, or by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is what makes them legalists: their shared belief in the incompleteness or insufficiency of the work of Christ outside of them. They may differ on what constitutes good works; they may differ on whether only God’s law or church law as well is to be obeyed; but they agree that the work of Christ alone is insufficient for their final salvation.


Against The World. The Trinity Review, 1978-1988. [What Is Faith, John W. Robbins, pg. 121-122] John W. Robbins, Editor. The Trinity Foundation, P.O. Box 68, Unicoi, Tennessee 37692. (423) 743-0199 – FAX (423) 743-2005

 

One of those involved in the discussion postulated that somehow the word had become corrupted so that its meaning had changed from a more agreeable one to the one we use now which means the blind following of rules.  This can happen to words but I don’t think that this is the case for the word “legalism”.    I think that the word means what it means – a strict adherence to the literal interpretation of the rules.  I don’t think it ever meant anything else than that.

To say that somehow the word has been corrupted from some other meaning to mean the above I think is to try and mask it, blaming “the culture” or some “other” for a shift in meaning – an attempt to soften a term that sometimes we would like to sound more positive.  Because we all know that rules can be a good thing, we would like our obedience to them to be a good thing too.  

I think we have to pay attention to how Jesus responded to legalism and how he dealt with individuals who broke the prescribed set of religious rules.  He was hardest on those religious leaders that behaved in a legalistic manner.  Jesus was more interested in the hearts of people.  He desired good deeds and good behavior to be a reflection of what was in a person’s heart.  He, himself broke the letter of the pharisaical laws by doing good on the Sabbath.

The really good news is that Jesus’ love can transform us in a way that no obedience to laws can.  I guess that is why he came to be human in the first place – to demonstrate how the love of God works and through his sacrificial love to provide a way of transformation.  Out of love for God, in response, we let him move our hearts to do the good works he has for us.  

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  1. I’ve had a post brewing about this since Sunday. Not sure if I’ll get to it, but you’ve done a good job here anyway.

    Probably the most profound thing I learned from Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines was that Jesus’ actions and choices were natural. Willard suggests that the What Would Jesus Do? question is a bit unfair and misguided, because Jesus didn’t go moment to moment thinking “Well, what would be the right choice here?” Rather, Jesus’ relationship with the Father—which was cultivated through the disciplines of prayer, fasting, silence, etc.—was such that to do otherwise than he did would have been counterintuitive.

    That was quite an eye-opener for me.

    In short, as you say, our actions are a reflection of the heart. Our actions are telling but they aren’t necessary in a salvific sense.