Two Sides of Legalism

A reporter goes up to smokers in a New York City park and asks them to put out their cigarettes. It’s an experiment, because smoking in such public places could possibly become illegal there.

A few smokers approached in parks were courteous, or cowed, enough to put out their cigarettes, or at least to move. “I’m not that militant,” said Nick Whalen, a 22-year-old photojournalist.

But several reacted legalistically.

“I don’t see any sign saying I can’t smoke,” said Ken Dorazio, who described himself as “in the twilight of a mediocre career on Wall Street,” as he sat in Bryant Park smoking a cigar and consulting his BlackBerry.

My question: what does legalistically mean to this reporter? To most Christians it means “an excessive focus on following rules” (barely anyone, in my experience, uses it to speak of works salvation). An excessive focus on following rules may mean legislating every aspect of life, but there’s a flip side to legalism that this reporter hit: legalism is insisting I can do what I want when the rules don’t cover my situation.

The problem with any Christian who tries this evasion is that the Bible has put up barriers on all the exit ramps.

  • “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet 1:15.)
  • “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph 5:11).
  • “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).
  • “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14).
  • “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

These are what my pastor calls “general scriptural prohibitions.” There is nothing in life that is not covered by “the rules.” Be holy in all your conduct. Whatever you do, glorify God.

This does not mean that the Bible is legalistic in the first sense I mentioned—excessive focus on following rules—because implied in that aspect of legalism is an externalism that is obviously foreign to the “pure religion” of Scripture. The Bible does command everyone to obey God’s laws, but God’s most important laws are internal (Matt 22:37-40). If you truly obey God’s commands to love Him and your neighbor—with all of you and as much as you love yourself, respectively—you will never be a legalist in any sense.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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