The Dangers of Legalism

by | Aug 7, 2016 | Theology | 0 comments


A reading of the life and story of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, reveals a number of encounters with the religious leaders of his day. Jesus was continually being questioned and challenged by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Scribes. The game played by these religious leaders is called challenge-riposte. David deSilva says, The challenge-riposte is essentially an attempt to gain honor at someone else’s expense by publicly posing a challenge that cannot be answered. The religious leaders of Jesus day were continually engaged in this behavior. They came to Christ, tempting him repeatedly and challenging his teachings. Their goal was to discredit Christ before the people. They wanted to destroy his credibility so that they could put a stop to his influence. It is in these challenges that a picture of the legalistic and hypocritical attitude of the religious leaders because obvious.

What is legalism? How dangerous is legalism? How can we know that we have moved from sound biblical discernment into a legalistic attitude? These are important questions, because, as long as men have walked the earth, we have been prone to legalism. Unfortunately, there remains a lot of confusion in the church today surrounding the question of legalism. Some have adopted antinomianism, regrettably, they have swung to the opposite extreme of legalism to open the flood gates to all sorts of ungodly behavior. For instance, to inform a brother that sex outside of married is actually viewed as judging and legalistic by some professing Christians. If it is clearly condemned by Scripture, it cannot be legalistic to judge the behavior as wrong and call those engaged in it to repentance. In fact, it is unloving not to do so. Antinomianism is an unloving attitude. But so too is legalism. They are both different manifestations of pride, of arrogance. In both cases, we are replacing divine law with our own standards, our own criteria for how others ought to conduct themselves. In some cases, it is really quite subtle. But in others, it is flagrant.

When I know a brother is cheating on his wife or on his taxes and I do nothing to help him recover himself from such sin in the name of not judging him or in the name of not being legalistic, or in the name of grace, or in the name of loving him, I am flagrantly embracing an antinomian attitude. I am arrogantly replying to God that I will NOT confront my brother even though God has demanded that I do so. That is a flagrant antinomian attitude. When I do not confront because I see myself as a sinner too and I really do not think my brother’s behavior is my business, this is a subtler adoption of antinomianism. Both forms are ungodly.

When I set up a rule in my life that I wish to live by as a matter of preference, such as no alcohol, that is fine. There is nothing wrong with someone not drinking alcohol. There is nothing wrong with someone not watching movies or TV. This is not legalism. It is not even subtle legalism. But if I adopt the view that God prefers my practices, even slightly, over the practices of others for whatever reason, now I have stepped into a subtle legalism. Without realizing it, I think my rules make me a better Christian, more devoted, a better judge of deeds and acts than those who do not follow my system. Without realizing, I am subtly judging others hearts or their ability to make sound biblical judgments about these issues that I have deemed to be significant. But when I say that, for example, watching a Harry Potter movie is celebrating witchcraft and is in the same category as viewing pornography, I have shifted from a clandestine, subtle legalism to a blatant legalism and as a result, I am in immediate danger of succumbing to a self-righteous attitude. The entire scenario calls for a pause on my part. I should stop dead in my tracks and back the train up on this one immediately. The last thing I should do is double-down on my thinking.

Recently, a friend expressed concern about Christians practicing Yoga. He told me that Yoga was designed originally as prayers to false gods. And because of this, Christians should avoid doing Yoga. Each Yoga position is a prayer to a demon, or false god, or an idol. What my friend refuses to acknowledge, even though I pointed it out to him repeatedly, is that sin springs from the human heart. A pose, regardless of what someone 10,000 miles away and 4,000 years ago used it to accomplish, is merely a pose. I can use a pose to worship a false god, a demon, an angel, name it. It is how I am using the pose that makes that pose ungodly. The sin is located in the intent of the heart. I practice Jiu Jitsu. On occasion, we will warm up doing a number of these Yoga movements. They are really very good for the muscles and joints, especially for an old guy like me. Should I avoid these movements because some other individual uses them to worship demons? To claim that Christians who engage in Yoga are deficient in their discernment is not only legalistic, it is arrogant and self-righteous. Why? Scripture does not speak to this issue. The best we can do is deduce principles for how we should think about these things. And any time we are a few steps removed from the clear instructions of Scripture, humility should certainly be our closest guide.

The argument goes like this:

Yoga poses were created to worship false gods. I use Yoga poses only for their physical benefit. Therefore, I am worshiping a false god. In any valid argument, the conclusion must follow necessarily from the premises. As we can see here, this argument is not a valid argument. The reason is because the conclusion, I am worshiping a false god, does not necessarily follow from the premises. Guns were created to murder innocent humans. I use guns only for recreational purposes. Therefore, I must be a murderer of or intend to murder, innocent human beings. Can you see how these two arguments parallel one another and yet, neither of them are valid arguments. We could walk it back a bit. Christians should avoid Yoga poses because they are used by some people to worship false gods. Is this good logic? It depends. If I am in a culture where Yoga is used predominantly for religious purposes, I probably would want to avoid the poses so as not to send the message that I am worshipping their false gods with them. But it is the context that determines my behavior. I am calling on Romans 14 here to make my decision on when it might be unwise for me to engage in certain practices. But this principle applies to numerous behaviors, not just Yoga. Some cultures show the bottom of their feet as a sign of insult. When in those cultures, it is a good idea to understand these practices so as not to inadvertently offend people or place a stumbling block in their way.

To imply that Christians who do Yoga lack discernment, and those who watch a Harry Potter movie are celebrating witchcraft, and may as well be watching or reading porn is a serious charge. It isn’t the product of biblical exegesis. It is the product of certain conclusions about what the Scripture teaches and then the logical extrapolation of those interpretations with specific principles applied based on one’s own rules and personal preferences. This is how legalism finds a place in one’s system and if left unchecked, will eventually threaten to ruin our soul. At a minimum, if you have been told that you are antinomian or on the other hand, moving down a path of legalism, you should slam on the brakes and evaluate your position more carefully. It is one thing to say I prefer not to do Yoga and I prefer not to watch certain things on TV, or to listen to certain music. But that’s me. It is an entirely different matter when you actually think that someone is not measuring up, regardless of what that measuring up looks like on the basis that they have not embraced your personal position on these issues.


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