Legalism is Public Enemy #1 in many evangelical circles today. The “Legalism!” flag is vigorously waved any time someone says or writes anything confronting sin or urging holiness. If you asked evangelicals to define legalism, they would typically equate it with imposing “law” or “rules” on Christians. Some argue that “God doesn’t care about your good works“, or assert that “rules and regulations . . . bring about a kind of religious moralism that is very far from genuine Chistianity“.
On the other hand, I’ve heard some fundamentalists (not all of them) suggest that the term “legalism” only applies to those who preach salvation by works. In other words, salvation is by grace alone through faith, but sanctification is primarily the result of following rules. So how do we find a balance between obedience and legalism? How should we apply the plethora of rules that appear in Scripture without becoming legalistic? Is it ever right to say that an action not specifically condemned in the Bible is wrong? These are some tough questions that each of us needs to wrestle with.
Sanctification by Grace Alone
Rules or laws are fundamental to the design of the universe, the operation of society, and the existence of human relationships. Every well-ordered household has a set of expectations that it operates upon, and there are expectations for those who have been adopted into the family of God as well. Rules are necessary, not evil in themselves. Legalists just use law-keeping as an excuse for self-righteousness.
Self-righteousness is something believers must battle every day. It is sourced in pride and exalts self, not God. It assumes that I am inherently a good person or that I am righteous (or better than someone else) through my own rule-keeping. Scripture is clear that salvation and sanctification are entirely accomplished by and through grace alone. Those who have not received full justification by grace “cannot please God”, according to Romans 8:8. Although God is pleased by the obedience of believers (1 Samuel 15:22), that obedience does not accomplish anything positionally for the believer. Lack of obedience, however, is a clear sign of an unregenerate heart (James 2:17, Matthew 7:16). In other words, a heart that has been changed by the gospel of grace alone should naturally desire to obey the Lord.
Of course, no Christian will ever obey perfectly, because sanctification is a gradual process of change toward greater holiness (2 Corinthians 3:18). Yet it is crucial for the believer to pursue sanctification, according to Hebrews 12:14 and Philippians 2:12. That has been the impetus behind this series on “Intentional Spiritual Growth“. If we are going to pursue sanctification, we need to do so intentionally. The heart behind the pursuit of sanctification is our relationship with Christ, but we need to have a plan in order to make progress toward that goal. One of the ways we progress toward that goal is by obedience. We should ask ourselves “Am I continually seeking to become more obedient to Christ?”
Personal Application of Biblical Principles
As you read God’s word, you should be constantly making application to your personal life. Sometimes God gives us direct commands that are easy to apply: “Do not lie to one another . . . ” (Colossians 3:9). Other times, we have to work a bit harder to distill the biblical principle from a passage and apply it to our lives. For example, when Deuteronomy 22:11 commands, “You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together,” we have to think through several things. (1) This command was given to Israel as part of God’s special covenant with them (so it does not apply directly to Gentile believers). However (2) the point of that command was an object lesson to the Israelites that they should keep themselves distinct from the surrounding tribes as God’s chosen people (Leviticus 20:26). Therefore (3) we can make application to ourselves, since we are a called to be a “kingdom of priests” (Revelation 1:6, quoting Exodus 19:6) as well. We must keep ourselves distinct from the world, holding different values and pursuing different goals.
As we think through that kind of application, the Holy Spirit will inevitably point out areas in our lives that need to change. For example, I might realize that a specific TV show is impacting my thinking and causing my values to become mixed by turning my heart away from pursuing God toward pursuing my flesh. At that point, I need to make a decision, and take action toward intentional spiritual growth. Further, I might need to set personal standards in that area in order to protect myself spiritually.
Standards Are For Safety
Do you see how setting personal standards is not a legalistic, negative activity, but a positive, purposeful pursuit of holiness? They can be viewed as similar to a guardrail around a tight turn. You could navigate a mountain road without guardrails, but it is comforting to know that you won’t fly over the cliff if you misjudge the road. In the same way, personal standards are not a means of gaining self-righteousness, but they can protect you from letting Satan get a foothold in your life, “for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11). They are helpful for developing strong Christian convictions that you can live by.
The Danger of Self-Righteousness
We must be cautious however, that our standards do not become something more. First, we must never allow our personal standards to become a yardstick for holiness. It is easy to become prideful and self-righteous if we think we’re doing a good job keeping our standards. Second, we must never compare our standards with others. As soon as we start measuring other people by our own standards we have become like the Judaizers (2 Corinthians 10:12). Different people have different strengths and weaknesses and must choose their standards according to the dictates of their conscience and personal application of Scriptural principles. It is right to lovingly confront someone in open sin (clear commands of Scripture are not the same as personal standards). You may be able to encourage an immature believer toward pursuing holiness and set a good example for them, but you must never look down on them or think you are spiritually superior.
What is most important is not necessarily where you set your standards, but that you are pursuing holiness. Unless you choose to intentionally pursue spiritual growth from a heart of obedience, you may find yourself floundering spiritually, as many evangelicals do. Setting personal standards is one way to take intentional steps in that direction.