Baptists > Issues > The Error of Legalism
At first glance, Christian legalism appears to provide
     believers with well defined peramiters to avoid sin.

However, when scrutinized under the light of Scripture,
     it becomes a matter of simply replacing one kind of
     bondage for another.

   The tendency of Baptists to invite legalistic thinking into their churches is a historical fact.  Its influence has caused some congregations to thrive numerically while choking others slowly out of existence.  Those churches where it is universally accepted exert a kind of control on their memberships that is obvious and pronounced.  Yet, other churches (including Baptist fellowships and associations) face its presence in their midst and attempt to deal with it while even others fold as a result.  Regardless of how it impacts the size of the church membership roll, it is still an issue that elicits serious consideration.
   What is it?
   Should Bible believing Baptists embrace or purge it from their midsts?
   The opposite of legalism is lawlessness.  However, born-again believers are not delivered into that.  Therefore, Christian freedom does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want.  The Bible does state that "...where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2nd Corinthians 3:17)," but there is no place in Scripture where spiritual freedom provides us with a license to sin.  Furthermore, a Baptist can be conservative without being legalistic--a contradiction to a legalist but a reality to those who refuse to be beguiled.
   In Christian theology, legalism is a pejorative term referring either to the imposition of excessive religious rules of behavior (also known as letterism).  It masquerades as spiritual truth in our time just as it did when Jesus so greviously rebuked the Pharisees (Matthew 23:13-29) for their extra-Biblical rules of righteousness which they used to measure "spirituality," while scorning those who did not meet their standards.
   Christian legalism is much the same.  It appears in the form of a long list of all those things that "true" believers are not to do.  While correctly determining that the three sources of temptation are the world, the flesh, and the Devil, it goes on to define, in no uncertain terms, the many supposed external forms of sin that come as a result.  Sins of the world might include going to a movie theater or listening to an unacceptable form of music.  Sins of the flesh might also include eating pork or wearing jewelry.  Sins of the Devil?  There is not enough room to list all of the supposed sins accredited to his influence that go beyond those clearly delinated in the Scriptures.  In fact, when placed under the light of Biblical truth, those whose convictions fall under this category struggle to discern the difference between what is truly sin and what are simply preferences that they have misconceived as sin while expecty others to comply. 
   Christian legalism has four very desctructive outcomes.
   1. Self-Beguilement: We tend to ignore the more subtle "Christian sins" (e.g. having a critical spirit, gossip, arrogance, etc.) while any spirit of love for other believers disipates when they do not measure up to our standards.  Thus, the charge of hypocricy becomes a valid one.  No, you don't go to movie theaters but your obvious need to criticize those who do is definitely hypocritical.
   2. Pride: By living up to all of the "standards" that are either self-imposed or enforced by those with whom we fellowship, we begin to exhibit a superior attitude while being falsely convinced that we are truly humble--the result of self-beguilement.
   3. Judgementalism:  We constantly assess other believers according to the rules and are quick to look down on others on the basis of any negative assessment.
   4. Control:  Our desire to have people tow the line and conform to these standards is never recognized for what it really is--a way to exert power over others.  Admitting that legalism fosters spiritual abuse is impossible for those who embrace and promote it.
   Legalism never produces gracious and expansive souls, growing richer in compassion and wisdom as the years go by.   Those who experience moral failure, mental breakdown, various ongoing temptations, emotional depression, etc., find little help should they seek it from a legalist.   Being told to diagnose all such miseries of the soul as one's failure to check off one of the sins on the "legalistic list" actually trivializes the many principles taught in Scripture, which God included in His Word to enable believers to overcome the deepest distresses of the soul.
   Finally, legalism sends out a message to the lost world that the Gospel is false.
   How so?
   How can it be that those who embrace legalism had once bowed the knee to God in shame with the realization that their sins had sent the Son of God to the old rugged cross?  That deep sense of the need for a Saviour resulted in the salvation of their souls.  However, having become infatuated with externalism, being self-beguiled, filled with spiritual pride, being judgemental, and exerting control over others is virtually ignored.  Where are the internal changes that truly identify us with Christ?  How effective is legalism when seeking to assist others with their spiritual growth?  How soon we forget that it was the Pharisees who continually got in Jesus' way when he presented those Biblical truths that went beyond the externals and addressed the need of all men to recognize the decietfulness of their own hearts.  Legalism tells the lost world that the Gospel only changes men on the outside; that salvation does not truly change the heart.  If it did, then why such critical spirits?  Why such arrogance?  Why such intollerence?
   Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be so careful that we do not misrepresent the message of the Gospel nor the real truth of our own sin natures.
   God is still working on all of us.
   "...for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart."  ~ 1Samuel 16:7b
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