Legalism – The Great Thief!

The Bower is a bird which loves to steal shiny objects and take them back to their nest.  Not without some honor, however, this bird sometimes leaves something dull in place of whatever it takes.  Legalism, like the Bower, is a thief which will steal the attractive, identifying characteristics of the Christian, replacing them with dull and repulsive substitutes.

All Christians struggle with legalism, or should; legalistic tendencies are a natural by-product of developing convictions.  Legalism can be defined as the tendency to impose the letter of the law while neglecting the spirit of it.  Left unchecked, legalism will first steal the Christian’s compassion, then their joy, and finally their witness.

Compassion is love mixed with mercy, and was Christ’s response to the masses (Matthew 9:36).  Jesus said the entire Law and all the Prophets hang on loving God, and on loving others (Matthew 22:40).  He said that judgment would be based on how Christians loved “the least of these”  (Matthew 26:31-46), and that this love would separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:34-46).

Legalism steals compassion and leaves condemnation in its place. It will cause Christians to become like the generation in Matthew 11:17 who would neither dance nor mourn.  They will not “dance” with the saints because few “dancing partners” measure up to their standards.  They will not “mourn” with the sinners because they don’t want to contaminate themselves.

Admittedly, showing compassion does present the Christian with a dilemma, because compassion can be misinterpreted.  For example, if the church sponsors a ministry to divorced people, some may think it condones divorce.  If one socializes with people drinking alcohol, some may misinterpret their convictions.  If a person befriends someone who is Gay, some might judge them to be soft on sin.  People may assume things that are not true!  Even Jesus himself, in spite of His many miracles, was labeled a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners (Matthew 11:18-19).

Jesus lived out the answer to this dilemma by showing the correct balance of compassion and condemnation.  His basic formula was this:
a) Sinners received compassion
b) Self-righteous received condemnation
c) Let people think what they want

For example, the religious leaders tested Jesus’ stand on sin by asking Him to judge a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11).  Risking misinterpretation, He instead asked the accusers to judge themselves.  To the woman just snatched from death He showed compassion, not condemnation.  He acknowledged her sin and told her not to do it again, reserving condemnation for those who needed it most: the self-righteous.

Christians must not let the pain of misinterpretation paralyze them into pacivity.  If the demonstration of
compassion begins to wane, so will its feelings.  The world may recognize Christians by their cause, their jewelry, or their music, but they won’t recognize Christians by their love.  Compassion will be replaced by condemnation, and soon the thief will steal a second treasure.

Joy lives at the intersection of two viewpoints: that of seeing oneself as a sinner while at the same time realizing that God sees you as a saint.  Joy is surprise mixed with relief, and is perpetuated throughout one’s life as gratitude (rather than guilt) is harvested from the altar of forgiveness.  Joy is what Lazarus must have felt when he walked out of the tomb, breathed fresh air, and realized that he had another chance at life.

The joyful person is a magnet to non-Christians.  It has been said that “Joy is the flag which flies above the castle, showing that the King is in residence.”  Joyful people seem to affirm beauty and truth wherever they find it, and are able to respect and appreciate all as being people for whom Christ died.

When legalism steals a Christian’s joy, it leaves judgment and anger in its place.  These substitutes will short-circuit God’s objective of producing enticing spiritual fruit.
II Corinthians 10:4 says that “the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”  Still, angry Christians will attempt to beat the world at its own game by marching and yelling, rather than by seeking a platform to “give account for the hope within, doing this with gentleness, and respect” (I Peter 3:15).

Legalism will steal joy by causing spiritual amnesia in Christians, who tend to forget what life was like, or would be like, without the Savior.  Christians will no longer identify with the non-Christian as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.”  Rather, they will begin to lose sight of how much sense sin makes to the person who has no hope.  Legalism creates an “us and them” mentality.

Legalism will also affect how Christians raise their children.  Most “products” of the legalistic Christian home will resemble either robots or rebels.   Running a legalistic home requires little thinking, talking or discussion; obedience is the only requisite.  Admittedly, developing convictions is not a sure science.  Legalism, however, is the easy way out and leaves only two alternatives: passive acquiescence or blatant rebellion.  In too many cases “I have decided to follow Jesus,” will really be “You have decided I’ll follow Jesus.”  This type of follower is unconvinced, and unconvincing.

Judgment and anger will render Christians either unable or unwilling to take the light of Christ into a dark world.  They will attempt to reserve the fruit of the Spirit for those willing to join the Christian’s small and acceptable circle, ignoring Christ’s warning that  “even sinners do the same” (Matthew 5:47).  When Christians begin to isolate from, rather than identify with, the lost, the thief will steal a final prize.

Legalism will steal the Christian’s witness, leaving arrogance in its place.  A kind of smug satisfaction will arise which comes from thinking one is on the winning team; an attitude which sticks its tongue out at anyone who isn’t.
A self-serving intoxication induced through a type of martyr complex develops, wherein the disapproval or disqualification of another proves and even perpetuates one’s sense of right.  The residue of arrogance will leave the Christian with little to say to the world.

Legalistic Christianity will brand unbelievers as dangerous and all that they produce as counterfeit.  Acceptance and appreciation will be reserved for people and things which pass the “sacred/secular” test.  The aroma of legalism will rob Christians of both the respect of those they seek to reach, as well as the characteristics that make people want what they have (spiritual fruit).  Legalistic Christians will be regarded as condemning and judgmental rather than the most compassionate, joyful people on the face of the earth.

Christians must allow God’s love and compassion to crowd out notions of condemnation.  They must begin to see unbelievers as victims rather than enemies.  They must make friends with the world and have a balance of relationships both within and without the Church.

Christians must begin to view believers from other fellowships as family members and continually discard their own legalistic tendencies, lest they become fruit-inspectors rather than fruit-producers.  Both denominational labels and multitudinous church-splits have born witness to the world that Christians cannot get along.  The warning in I Corinthians 8:1-2 is that “knowledge must be held humbly, the better way being to build up in love.”  Christians must withhold condemnation except in the case of clear and blatant immorality or heresy, and focus on celebrating the mutual joy of new life.

Legalism is a progressive intrusion, and isolation from the World is its warning light.  Living well may be the best proof of God’s Truth, but loving well is the best proof of His Grace.  Christians must major on the majors and keep the main thing the main thing.  They must be willing to risk misinterpretation for compassion’s sake; risk identification for joy’s sake; and risk everything short of sin for an effective witness.

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