We are all recovering legalists unless we are totally blind to it. It is the sin almost no one admits to committing. We are often unaware of how deep it goes. We are so addicted to a law centered way of relating to God, ourselves and others and are deceived about it. We are far better at law giving and law enforcing than we are at law keeping, i.e. loving through faith. Legalism is not merely a theological problem, it also infects and diminishes all our relationships. It “shows up” as it were, in our church, our homes and in our workplace. Legalism is using the law (a good thing) for wrong purposes. In a nutshell we make laws based on our own idolatry and try to enforce them on others to bring about blessings and to give us life. The purpose of this article is to show how we do this in our most significant relationships. We pastors harp on legalism and proclaim the Gospel of grace because we see in ourselves and others the relational disaster caused by this paradigm. We also know that the only thing that can deliver us from this addiction is the Gospel of grace. So what does relational legalism look like? What is the source of it? How do we know we are doing it and how can we change?
Since legalism is first a theological problem perhaps a definition will help us. Dominic Smart defines legalism this way: “Legalism isn’t a matter of having rules, structures, limits or instructions in our congregations or individual lives. While they can be overdone, and indeed often are, they are necessary for godly order in any fellowship: God has given many to us in the Scriptures. The opposite of legalism isn’t lawlessness, which is nothing more than anarchic pride. Nobody is delivered into that. Christian freedom isn’t the freedom to do whatever you want. We would destroy ourselves with such a freedom. Legalism is primarily a God-ward thing. It’s a way of making and keeping yourself acceptable to God. From this flows the legalism that is directed toward one another. It’s a way of scoring sanctity points in our fellowships, and exerting what one postmodernist called a “truth regime”—it’s about pride, power and control. It simultaneously glorifies man and “unsecures” man. Thus its true opposites are grace and faith. Yet it is so plausible. The need for order, structures and boundaries feeds our quest for control. Our very ability to keep some rules feeds our pride and gives us the impression that our relationship with God is somehow founded upon this ability. But in the same day, our inability to keep others feeds our despair, which in turn generates more rules and a more strenuous effort to keep them. Since laws and rules can be helpful, legalism seems to be a winner. It often arises out of a good motive to be holy. We don’t want sin to rule over us, we don’t want to grieve God or to stray from His path.
So in order to avoid big sins we add rules to God’s word—hedging sinful territory around with codes that are intended to keep us from it. It is the well-intentioned, keen and committed who are the most prone to it. The half-hearted Christian couldn’t really care enough to veer towards legalism (through he or she makes up for it with many other errors). It was the religious scribes who developed the “traditions of men” which people preferred to the word of God, which Jesus blasted in Mark 7. But all this focuses the mind on self. It takes the mind and heart away from Christ, the Proper Man. It takes our faith away from His sufficiency and misplaces it upon ours. We live to achieve His approval; we forget that we are already alive and accepted in Christ. Ever so plausibly, we are sold a different gospel, one that isn’t really a gospel at all. And the desire not to sin in some big way can be little more than a mask to hide our lack of faith in Jesus, “who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Holiness is not a matter of living on eggshells with a God who is reserving judgment on us and might turn away from us at any moment.”
Our way of relating to God fleshes its way out in how we relate to people. Take the Pharisees for an example. They attempted to draw life from conforming to a set of laws. They relied on their laws and their ability to keep them in order to be blessed. They got life by keeping a set of laws so they could feel good about themselves and condemn others. This paradigm led to a life of watching others and looking for ways to accuse them. This lifestyle only works if you can demonstrate that you are better than others. When we use the law wrongly, we say: “Life to me, death to you”. A correct use of the law says the opposite: “Death to me, life to you”. It is wrong to use the law for selfish reasons, for self righteousness and self gratification. We use it correctly when we use it for the good of others, i.e. we say, “The law calls me to lay down my life in order to love this person”.
In Luke 7:36-50 we have Simon, the law-driven person relating to Jesus and the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, more than likely a former prostitute. Simon’s law is “do not associate with sinful people or you will become unclean”. He uses his law to excuse himself from loving this woman. He also uses it to condemn Jesus. Like all Pharisees, Simon is trying to get life and righteousness from the law. His lawkeeping causes him to disrespect Jesus and to socially abuse the woman. Simon, with his wrong use of the law is actually the lawbreaker. Jesus tells him he has little love (vv. 44-46), in contrast to the woman’s lavish demonstration of love for Jesus. Simon shows himself to be condemning and distant, while Jesus and the woman are portrayed as loving.
In John 12:1-7 Judas uses the law in an evil way. Judas uses a law about money to condemn Mary who anoints Jesus with perfume. He makes her appear unloving and wasteful, while making himself look good. By using the law in this way, Judas makes himself appear to be frugal, wise and concerned about the poor. With one law, Judas has made someone else look bad and himself look good. This way of living is so deceptive because it seems so right. It sounds so good and correct that we should not “waste” a year’s salary in one moment. Judas appears on the surface to be correct. But Judas is deceived as to what he is doing. He is using what is good (the law) for selfish reasons. The very law Judas uses incorrectly, he himself fails to keep. In verse 6 Judas is shown to be a lover of money. The laws we wrongly use to condemn and accuse are most often the ones we ourselves cannot keep. We often condemn in others the things we struggle with the most.
So as recovering legalists how do we use the law in evil ways? Consider these relational commandments we give to others:
Commandments for our children
- “What is wrong with you?”
- “Why are you so selfish?”
- “Because I say so!”
- “I don’t care what you think.”
- “Stop whining!”
- “What on earth were you thinking?”
- “Because I’m your mother.”
- “Why can’t you just be normal?”
- “Didn’t I just tell you that?”
- “I won’t stand for that.”
- 12. “You live in my house, you’ll do as I say.”
Commandments for our marriages
- “You’re late!” 7. “What’s your problem?”
- “It would be nice if you helped sometimes.” 8. “Well then, let’s just get a divorce.”
- “I wish you wouldn’t do that.” 9. “Oh boy, here we go again.”
- “Next time, I wish you’d…” 10. “What in the world is the matter with you?”
- “Why are you looking at me like that?” 11. “Why can’t you do just this one thing?”
- “I don’t remember you telling me that.”
- “What’s your problem?”
- “Well then, let’s just get a divorce.”
- “Oh boy, here we go again.”
- “What in the world is the matter with you?”
- “Why can’t you do just this one thing?”
- “Oh, I give up!”
Commandments for the workplace
- “You are holding up my work.”
- “Why wasn’t I consulted?”
- “Why are you always late?”
- “Don’t talk outside my office!”
- “You don’t recognize my efforts.”
- “What’s the big deal if I’m late—I work late!”
- “You don’t work as hard as I do.”
- “Why do you come in when you’re sick?”
- “His phone is so loud I can’t hear myself.”
- “Why don’t you put things back?”
- “There’s never paper in the copier.”
- “Why am I always cleaning up your messes?”
What is the problem with comments such as these and what do they illustrate? Usually these statements are demanding and illustrate wrong uses of the law. They demonstrate the following principle: idol~ wrong use of the law~ demand. Behind every demand is a wrong use of law, and behind every wrong use of the law is a ruling idol. So, for example, the question, “Why are you selfish?” is a demanding and meaningless question. Here, the law, “Do not be selfish” is being used for evil purposes, to condemn others in order to feed a ruling idol. Asking this question is a way of relying on the law to bring life. “Why are you so selfish?” acquires meaning and relevance only when you ask that question of yourself.
So how can we sum up relational legalism which is a wrong use of the law? We use the law wrongly when we use it to gain control, power, comfort, order, status or reputation (by defending, blaming, credit-mongering, comparing or accumulating karma). I use the law incorrectly when I use it to get life. The law is not a list of rights I can claim for myself and others. Rather, I am called to bestow on others what the law requires, love.
A wife once wrote to “Dear Abby” with the following complaint: “I have a husband who keeps a record. And he keeps a record of everything. He keeps a chart and is very detailed. He keeps a record of how I cook, how I clean the house and how I perform in every way. It’s all on the chart. And every day I have to give an account.”
So what occurs from wrong uses of the law according to the above illustration? Death occurs for others. A form of godliness without the power, pretense occurs. The husband has brought death to the marriage. He lives, she dies. Yet he lives in pretense, for it is clear that he is lawbreaker of the worst kind. He is a whitewashed tomb.
Why do we so often use the law in wrong ways? If we live this way, then we do not need the Gospel. We use the law to stay out of relationships and feel justified in doing so. With this way of life others are the lawbreakers, so we don’t have to repent or die. If we can bring about obedience through nagging, then we can get along without faith and the Holy Spirit. Why pray when we can force and compel others?
Why is it so hard to see that this way of life is wrong? Why is it so hard to give up? Because the law is good, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all uses of the law are right and spiritual. We end up justifying ourselves; meanwhile, we leave a trail of death behind us. Wrong uses of the law come from powerful idols rooted in the heart; thus change is difficult. Only by smashing these idols through faith in the Gospel can relational legalism be overcome. In what areas are you a lawgiver rather than a lawkeeper? How are you using the law in wrong ways and how can you apply the Gospel to these situations? May God by the enablement of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ deliver us from the distortion of relational legalism.