What comes to your mind when you hear the word “legalism”?
The Pharisees? Those old folks in your church who hate rock n’ roll and cards? Your weird, Fundamentalist uncle? Westboro Baptist Church?
I tend to think of legalism in pretty black and white terms: Legalism is trying to earn God’s forgiveness and acceptance through my obedience rather than through the finished work of Christ.
Bam. Problem solved, legalism identified, on to the next.
And while that may be the technical, dictionary definition, I’m beginning to learn that legalism is much slimier and more slippery. It shows up in odd places, unexpected and unwelcome. It slides into the nooks and crannies of my heart. It’s an expert con man, pretending to be my friend and convincing me to give up the free grace of God for a much heavier burden.
But legalism always carries with it certain symptoms. It’s like a disease. It may not be easily detectable, but if you know what to look for, you can usually spot it and root it out.
One of those primary symptoms? Becoming irritable and frustrated at God’s grace poured out to others.
Legalism In The Vineyard
Remember the story Jesus told of the workers in the vineyard? Some worked all day, busting their backs in the hot sun after being told they would receive a day’s wages. Others worked half a day, some worked a quarter day, and a few only worked an hour.
At the end of the day, they all received the same wages. The men who worked all day were seriously ticked off:
Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house… (Matthew 20:10-11)
The workers thought they deserved more because they worked more. It was simple mathematics and economics to them.
They were angry at the master for being gracious to those who worked for only an hour. Even though they got a completely fair wage, they were furious that those who worked less got more than a fair share.
When they saw grace, it grated against them.
Legalism At The Party
After the Prodigal Son came home, his father threw a massive party to celebrate his return. A fattened calf was slaughtered, a ring was given, and everyone danced for joy. I like to imagine some karaoke as well.
Everyone was ecstatic except the elder brother (typical first born).
He griped at his dad:
Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ (Lk 15:29–30)
The older brother was angry because the younger brother didn’t get what he deserved. He got grace. He got mercy. He got a party. He got a happy reception and a calf and a ring, even though he had wasted his entire inheritance on loose women, booze, and being the life of the party.
The older, obedient brother had never gotten a party, and that really bugged him. He had always followed his father’s commands to the letter, and yet here was his dad running to celebrate the younger brother.
Something was backward about that.
Legalism Turns Us Into Terrible Accountants
The weird thing about legalism is that it tends to make us really bad at math.
What do I mean by that?
Legalism turns us into blessing accountants. We see the blessings God has given others, and we feel that an accounting mistake has been made by God. That somehow God has forgotten to give us the wages we deserve. That our obedience has earned a specific amount from God and that God hasn’t delivered on that amount.
We weigh our obedience against our blessings and come to the conclusion that our obedience outweighs what we’ve received.
God! I’ve done the obeying, yet they’ve received the children/ministry/house/spouse/any other blessing! This is patently UNFAIR! Where is my blessing? Where is my reward?
This is the insanity of legalism. It leads me to forget absolutely everything God has done for me and given me and instead obsess over what God has given someone else.
Legalism springs out of gospel forgetfulness.
Gospel math says I deserve nothing yet have received everything.
Legalist math says I deserve everything yet have received nothing.
I can’t think of anything more insulting to God. Essentially we’re saying, “God you’ve screwed me! You haven’t given me what I deserve!”
To which God gently replies, “You’re right. I haven’t given you what you deserve. I gave my Son what you deserve and I’ve given you what he deserves.”
Being Continually Astonished
The Valley of Vision puts things in a helpful perspective:
O Lord, I am astonished at the difference
between my receivings and my deservings,
between the state I am now in and my past
between the heaven I am bound for and
the hell I merit.
I fight against legalism by constantly remembering the difference between my “receivings” and my “deservings”.
When I remember the heaven I’m bound for and the hell I merit, legalism is astonished out of me.