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Are You A "Legalistic Christian?" (Article 17-7)

Many Christians may not realize that being "legalistic" in practicing one's Christian faith runs contrary to the Gospel, thus teachings of Jesus Christ. What is legalism? Legalism is attempting to fulfill God's "Laws" (the 10 Commandments) by one's own abilities to obtain and maintain one's salvation. You may recognize "Legalistic Christian" traits by a person's zealous or aggressive religious mannerisms; rigid interpretations of scripture; or perhaps through a person's spiritually elite attitude and behavior. A Legalistic Christian often sees sins in varying degrees of severity, thus living by a selective moral code and is usually critical of others who do not live by the same code. Concerning too, is that a Legalistic Christian places the Law above or beyond the teachings of the gospel thus, the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Legalism is Disobedience

The issue is not whether we should abide by God's Laws (The 10 Commandments), for they are good and holy. The issue is believing that we are to fulfill the Commandments by our own efforts as a requisite requirement for our salvation. Any Christian following such a belief is:

  • Undermining Christ's Teachings. A man's attempt to fulfill God's Commandments by his own abilities is a direct contradiction of God's grace and Christ's teachings. By way of contrast, true followers of Christ and His teachings are very aware of their propensity to sin, and as a result, know that they must turn to Him and He alone, for all things. They also know that Christ fulfilled the requirements of the Law for us. As the Book of John tells us: "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost". (John 19:30). Legalistic views and practices suggest that Christ died in vain.

  • Undermining the Work of Christ on the Cross. Paul tells us in Galatians 6:14, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." Paul warns us of those who pervert the truth of the bible by leaving or cutting out the message and purpose of the Cross. Similar to the problems Paul had with the Galatians, we have Christians today desiring to augment or replace Christ's Works with the Laws (10 Commandments) given to the Israelites. They are motivated to do so out of love for the world, not Christ.

  • Inviting the Judgement and Condemnation of Others. Paul taught that legalism is an aggressive evil that those who have been saved by grace must strongly oppose. Many of his letters contain strong warnings about the dangers of legalism. In Colossians 2:16-23, Paul tells us that we must strongly resist the legalistic approach. He later states in verses 16-19: “Let no one act as your judge in regard to certain matters" (vs. 16); and, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize” (vs. 18), which might better be translated, “Let no one set themselves up as umpire to pass judgment against you.”

  • Practicing "Self-Exaltation". Like the Jewish Pharisees in the time of Christ, Legalistic Christians don’t seek to exalt God. Instead, their intent is to exalt themselves. They operate in the flesh, not the Spirit. They take pride in their own external conformity which is used to judge others. As Christians, we are to be Christ-centric, abandoning our self-centric nature. By way of Christ, we exalt and glorify the Father and not ourselves.

  • Being Hypocritical. Legalistic Christians often pick rules that they are able to keep and conveniently neglect or ignore the things they are not able to keep. Again, like the Jewish Pharisees, they focus on external conformity while neglecting the righteousness heart God requires (Matt. 23:23-28). Ironically, a Legalistic Christian is quick to profess his humble nature, when pride is really the motivating force.

The Purpose of the Law

God gave us His Commandments so man would know what sin was and that sin is what separates man from Him. Before the time of Moses, man had no knowledge of what sin and its consequences. Without this knowledge, it was impossible for man to know what was needed to be one with God and his need for God. God's Commandments also provided the Israelites of the time a moral framework, from which, to develop their values and resulting belief system. Today, as followers of Christ, God's Commandments serve as our “schoolmaster” or “tutor”, bringing us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).

The Law as it Relates to Other Abrahamic Faiths. - As Christianity evolved, God's Commandments shaped our values and belief system just as it had did for the Judaic (preceding Christianity), and later, the Islamic Faiths. The difference is that unlike the other two Judaic and Islamic Abrahamic Faiths, Christians believe that Christ is the promised Messiah (Savior), and that He fulfilled the requirements of the Commandments on our behalf. Without Christ, Judaic and Islamic followers have no recourse other than to attempt to fulfill the requirements of the law by their own accord and efforts. This is why these two faiths emphasize the importance of doing "Good Works" on earth (by way of their own abilities) as a key requisite for salvation. Christians however, do not see doing earthly "Good Works" as having anything to do with our salvation. For we believe that Christ fulfilled the requirements of God's Law (the Commandments) for us, thus securing our salvation. We need only to give our life to Christ and believe in Him. In short, it is by means of our "Faith" in Jesus Christ that are salvation is obtained. This is why, as Christians, our orientation is "spiritual" and not "worldly" in it orientation.

Now after stating the above, please do not misconstrue what I'm intending to message. I'm not saying that followers of the Jewish and Muslim faiths (or any other non-Christian faith) are incapable of doing "Good Works" according to God's Will, nor am I saying that followers of other faiths have not performed or are not presently performing "Good Works" in the world. Why? Because God will work His power and glory through all people according to His Will, pleasure and glory. What I am saying is that as Christians, we know our salvation is contingent on our Faith in Jesus and not on performing "Good Works." Second, as followers of Christ, we know that it is only by way of Christ's Spirit are we able to bear the spiritual fruits (peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control) to perform works according to the Father's Will.

Pride Dominates the Heart of a Legalistic Christian. At the heart of legalism is pride. In spiritual terms, pride means one's lack of knowledge (or acceptance) of who one is in relation to God and one's need for God in all things. Pride is the focusing on one's "self" with little concern of another person's thoughts, views, or feelings. Remember that a legalistic person thinks that he is made acceptable to God by his own (self) efforts. He often believes that he is spiritually self-sufficient, self-righteous with possibly, a sense of self-entitlement. A Legalistic Christian's spiritual life is one of perpetual restlessness, frustration, fear, and guilt. Why? Because he fails to acknowledge that it is only through abiding in Christ (being Christ-centric) that peace, joy, security, and mercy can be obtained. A Christian's failure to accept this fact will never find happiness.

Be Steadfast and Believe

As believers of Christ, His ministry, and His "Works on the Cross", we must be steadfast to Christ as head of the Church and as our Lord. Rejecting legalism doesn’t mean to live an unholy or undisciplined life. Instead, it is to understand that our righteousness comes only from the Christ in us. We are made righteous only through and by Him. There is no other way. As such, we must abide in and depend on Christ for all things.

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