Just recently the subject of legalism has come up. I think it’s important to clarify what legalism is and what it’s not.
Dictionary.com gives the definition as follows:
Legalism – noun
1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit.
2. Theology . a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
3. (in Chinese philosophy) the principles and practices of a school of political theorists advocating strict legal control over all activities, a system of rewards and punishments uniform for all classes, and an absolute monarchy.
Chinese philosophy is not part of this discussion so I’ll deal with the first two definitions.
There are two very poignant ways to illustrate this. In fact, these two illustrations can be considered as basic precepts to the Christian faith and are very helpful in differentiating Christianity from other religions.
It just so happens that an article has appeared today concerning the first definition reference. One of New York’s finest recently gave a Rabbi a ticket for jaywalking. This occurred on a Sabbath day (Saturday).
In strict adherence to Mosaic law, the Rabbi was not carrying identification. The officer asked the Rabbi to write his name down (ostensibly to get the correct spelling and/or sign paperwork). The Rabbi didn’t want to because, again, it was against Mosaic law to write your name on the Sabbath.
You may have heard of other criteria for “Mosaic” Sabbath keeping. You can only walk a “Sabbath mile”, for example. The idea being that taking a long trip, by any means, is breaking the Sabbath, therefore the distance one can travel is limited.
Or, one cannot leave an egg outside in the sun on the Sabbath. It may cook and therefore you’ll break the Sabbath by cooking!
A very famous example that Jesus used in demonstrating to the Pharisees what hypocrites they were is in Matthew, Chapter 22. On a Sabbath day the Pharisees were trying to once again trap Jesus and asked if it was “kosher” to pay taxes to Caesar.
Jesus asked for a coin and gave his famous response. What most people miss is that he was also showing the Pharisees that they didn’t follow the Mosaic law anyway, so why try to obtain grace and favor by strict adherence to it.
You see, it’s against Mosaic law to carry money on the Sabbath. Jesus was once again showing the Pharisees it was hypocritical to try to adhere to all these Man-made laws.
This principle of strict adherence is anathema to the Christian. (See Col. Ch. 2) These handwritten requirements of Moses are contrary to the Christian, including sabbaths and festival days. (please notice: lower case "s" is used for "sabbath" here and in the Bible. It refers to festival days that were also called sabbath days. It does not refer to the weekly Sabbath.)
The Second part of the definition has everything to do with works.
Works can correctly be divided into two categories; works that one does physically such as giving to the poor, establishing and running a soup kitchen or a religious blog, counting beads, praying five times a day, etc; and works that are spiritual in nature. For example, if a person actively grows in his relationship with the Holy Spirit and the Lord and shares this with his fellow man, he is actually doing good works. (In fact, we are to be judged by this "class of works" - Rev. 20:12)
Obviously, in the Christian world, the first kind of works may be “good” but it doesn’t earn anything for you in the sight of God.
Isa 64:6 But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.
In other words, any “work” we do to make ourselves more pleasing to God is worthless. (that’s not to say we shouldn't try to please God – but we should do it for the right reasons)
BTW, attending church on Saturday just because you’re trying to do good works is also WORTHLESS!
So, why is it that some Christians say we should go to church on Sunday and some say Saturday? Or, does it matter?
The short and concise answer is that it is Man’s law verses God’s Law.
People who attend church on the Sabbath (Saturday) are not trying to follow the law of Moses, they are trying to follow the Law of God. What is it about the 4th Commandment that makes it different than the other 9? Surely, a Christian would not say it’s OK to covet because if I try to “adhere strictly” to the 10th Commandment it will be legalism! So, ignoring or changing the 4th Commandment simply makes no sense.
The real difference is that man is following man’s tradition, instead of God’s Law, when he/she attends church on Sunday. Sunday worship came from man. And it certainly did not come from the biblical text. In fact, Sabbath worship was instituted and sanctified at creation! (Gen. Ch. 2)
When it comes right down to it, it is all about obedience to God. It is also about recognizing God's supremacy over man. Is following God’s Law good obedience, or is it legalism?
Firstly, does God really see and take note of me personally? Some religions, such as Islam, say God doesn’t care about the affairs of men. But the answer to the question is yes! In fact, no detail is hidden, or can be hidden from Him.
"Thou God seest me." Genesis 16:13. "O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou ... art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether." Psalms 139:1-4. "But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered." Luke 12:7.
Next, can I be saved in His kingdom without obeying His Word, as found in the Holy Bible? The answer is no! It takes more than just a profession of faith.
"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." Matthew 7:21. "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. " Matthew 19:17. "He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him." Hebrews 5:9. … see also, Acts 4:12 (this obedience can only be done through Christ).
Next, why does God require obedience? Why is it necessary? Because there is only one narrow path that leads to "godlikeness", and thus to His kingdom. All roads do not lead to the same place. The Bible is the map and guidebook with full instructions, warnings, and information on how to safely reach that kingdom. To disregard any part of it leads away from God and His kingdom. The universe of God is a universe of law and order. Natural, moral, and spiritual laws are involved. Breaking any of these laws always has certain fixed results. If the Bible had not been given, people would sooner or later have discovered (by trial and error) that the great principles of the Bible exist and are true. These Bible principles are written in our nervous systems, glands, and minds. When ignored, they result in shattered nerves, disease, and unhappiness of every kind. So the words of the Bible are not merely advice which we can accept or ignore without consequences. The Bible tells what these consequences are and explains how to avoid them. A person cannot live any way he wishes and still become godlike any more than a builder can ignore the blueprints for a house without running into trouble. This is why God asks all to follow the blueprint of the Holy Scripture. There is no other way to become like Him and thus be fitted for a place in His kingdom. And there is no other way to true happiness.
"Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." Matthew 7:14. " But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death." Proverbs 8:36. "And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive." Deuteronomy 6:24. (the reference in Deut. is referring to the Big 10!)
Next, why does God permit disobedience to continue? Why not destroy sin and sinners now? God permits disobedience and sin to continue until all people everywhere are at last fully convinced of God's justice, love, and mercy. All will finally realize that God, by requiring obedience, is not trying to force His will upon us, but rather is trying to keep us from hurting and destroying ourselves. The sin problem is not settled until even the most cynical and hardened sinners are convinced of God's love and confess that He is just. It will take perhaps a major catastrophe or worse to convince some, but the horrible results of sinful living will finally convince all that God is just and right. Then, and only then, can sin and disobedience be safely brought to an end by the Lord.
"Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him." Jude 14, 15. "As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God." Romans 14:11.
Will God actually destroy the disobedient? No question about it. The disobedient, including the devil and his angels who sinned, will be destroyed. This being true, surely it is high time to abandon all fuzziness regarding what is right or wrong. People had better stop letting their own foolish whims and egotistical notions guide them and pay attention to God's great book. And they had better do it now--there is not much time left!
"God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment." 2 Peter 2:4. "All the wicked will he destroy." Psalms 145:20. "In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." 2 Thessalonians 1:8.
Next, what if I want to obey all of God's rules. How can I be certain I will not overlook one? God leaves no room for doubt. He promises to keep me from error and lead me safely to all truth if I: (1) pray earnestly for guidance, (2) sincerely study God's Word, and (3) follow truth as soon as I am shown.
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find." Matthew 7:7. "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, ... rightly dividing the word of truth." 2 Timothy 2:15. "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God." John 7:17. "Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you." John 12:35. "As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me." Psalms 18:44.
Does God count me guilty for disobeying Bible truth that has never been made clear to me? No …
"If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth." John 9:41. "To him that knoweth to do good,and doeth it not, to him it is sin." James 4:17. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee." Hosea 4:6. "Seek, and ye shall find." Matthew 7:7.
But isn't full obedience an impossibility for a human being?
"With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26. "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." Philippians 4:13. "Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ." 2 Corinthians 2:14. "He that abideth in me, and I in him, ... bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing." John 15:5. "If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land." Isaiah 1:19.
None of us can obey in our own power, but through Christ we can and must. Satan, in order to make God's requests appear unreasonable, invented the falsehood that obedience is impossible.
But, are the Big 10 (all ten) part of our obedience to God?
"Jesus answered ... If a man love me, he will keep my words. ... He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings." John 14:23, 24. "This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous." 1 John 5:3.
I’m starting to get long now, so I’ll close with the following:
Any minister, preacher, pastor, or priest (or layman) who claims the 4th Commandment is no longer valid or is legalism, should be ignored, for there is no light in them! They speak not of the Word of God! (Isa 8:20)
I'll say it again because some folks - EVEN CHRISTIANS - don't seem to believe it - MAN CANNOT CHANGE GOD'S IMMUTABLE LAW. It is blasphemes to do so.