Legalism is Indiscriminate

Legalism In A Little Corner

I grew up in a small corner of Christian culture unknown by many. To the greater whole of the earth’s population my subculture was probably less well known than the Amish– probably because we drove cars so that helped us go unnoticed. This corner of Christianity is known as Fundamentalism; its like the Christian F-word that very few people want to be associated with. For most, Fundamentalism is synonymous with terms like uneducated, awkward, arrogant, cultish, extreme, and legalistic. I’m not saying that all of those things are true; I’m also not saying that they are untrue. That’s not the point.

When I was a teenager, I secretly wanted out of this subculture. I didn’t really know why, but I just did. By the time I was halfway through college, I started gaining some shape to my concerns and began to cry, “Legalism!” I wanted nothing to do with the subculture I was nurtured in because of its horrific legalism. I bought wholesale into the idea that this sin of legalism was a gangrene pervasive in my small corner of Christianity and that the rest of Christianity was immune, because they were inoculated by their doctrines of grace. I needed to get away from this obscene legalism!

Where Legalism Really Resides

Legalism is indiscriminate. It leaves no stone unturned and it leaves no soul untouched.

While I think some of my concerns about my subculture were very valid, I have come to learn that my thinking on this was extremely flawed. You see, legalism is indiscriminate. It leaves no stone unturned and it leaves no soul untouched. No one movement or subculture has a corner on the legalism market. It is not confined to some awkward extremist corner of Christianity. It doesn’t matter if you are in the most Gospel-centered church out there. It is still pervasive because legalism is in each of us; that is where legalism resides. It is rooted deep in who we are in Adam.

We all desire to save ourselves. Every single one of us has our own self-salvation project going on. It doesn’t always come in the same form but we all try to save ourselves because that is the nature of depraved people. Whether we tell God we can save ourselves or try to one-up God by keeping the Law, we are all building our own “Tower of Babel” to get to God.

The message of legalism is this: I don’t need you Jesus, because I can save myself.

Though the building blocks may look different depending on what subculture we find ourselves in, our towers proclaim the same message: I don’t need you Jesus, because I can save myself.

Everyone A Legalist

I’m a legalist. It doesn’t matter that I have fled the small corner of Christianity that I once was a part of, I still have this burning passion within me to live my life apart from the grace of Jesus– to save myself. I am learning that legalism wasn’t a problem for me because it existed within the DNA of a movement. It was a problem because it exists within the DNA of who I am as a fallen human. Don’t ever buy into the lie that says legalism is a problem outside yourself.

So if we’re all legalists and cannot escape legalism by removing ourselves from a certain subculture what is our hope? The only cure for the self-salvation we try to procure is to receive a new DNA– one that is exclusively righteous– a DNA that is wholly good and acceptable to God. Obviously something outside of myself, a movement, or a religion. That DNA can only be found in a person, and that person is Jesus.

An Indiscriminate Savior

What’s comforting is that though legalism is indiscriminate–engrained in everyone– Jesus is an indiscriminate Savior. When He died, He died for legalists like me and you. He died for the pagans who whipped Him and the religious crew who spit on Him, both of whom were legalists in their own ways. He died to take your self-salvation project and make it his finished project– it’s grace, saving grace.

We need to think about legalism rightly. We all want to save ourselves. It is not the church’s problem. It’s not some odd faction of Christianity’s problem. It’s not “the world’s” problem. It’s your problem and it’s my problem. But it’s a problem Jesus asks us to give to Him! I think of these lyrics:

“Majesty, Majesty, [Jesus] Your grace has found me just as I am, empty handed but alive in Your hands!”

That’s us. Empty handed. Dead. Nothing to offer God but filthy legalist rags. But by grace we are made alive in His hands. Hallelujah for Jesus– the only solution to the indiscriminate legalism in each of us.

David D Morse

Author: David

Imagining what our world could look like with Jesus at the center. Husband to Jaimee. Papa to August & Bear. Church Planter in Maine.

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  • I think part of this issue is how the word “legalism” is used. People often use the word in various and distinct ways. And the word doesn’t occur in scripture, so there’s not some Biblical definition of legalism that’s binding on all of our uses or something. So this variety of use is often legitimate and various uses often have scriptural support, even if they differ. But one does well to ask what one means by “legalism” when it’s used. Some mean “justification by works”–although all orthodox churches reject this, this seems to be an innate thing within all sinners and therefore “indiscriminate” as you would say. This sense of earning God’s grace by our effort… –also indiscriminate among all sinners. But, if by legalism we mean a certain corporate doctrinization of certain man-made rules (cf. Matthew 15), then I might want to make the case that this specific form of legalism tends to show up in some parts of Christianity more than others (i.e., less indiscriminate). –One case being fundamentalism. I guess I’m afraid of falling into this trap: If everyone’s a legalist, than it may appear that no one is actually a legalist; and no one is liable to a special critique for a problem that’s somewhat particular to them. I see what you’re saying. And I agree. But I think when we look at different ways that “legalism” can be used, it can be particularized. So, think of this comment as supplementary. 🙂

  • Great post 🙂 And I thought a “certain corporate doctrinization of man-made rules” had another name. A friend of mine told me about “nomism” (I think that’s what it was called at least) where instead of trying to work for salvation because we know that’s impossible, it’s this sense that my works can merit God’s approval of me and that’s why I work so hard. Could that be what Kirk is talking about?

    • “Nomism” would come from the Greek word nomos, which means law. So, “law-ism” v. “legal-ism.” I think we’re splitting hairs here.

      Like I said, we don’t have a universal code for how to use these terms. So, I think we need to recognize HOW the words are used and recognize the diversity there.

      As such, although I agree with David that a certain generic sense of legalism is common to all, I think legalism can take many forms that are more particular to some than others. And these “types” of legalism are reflected in the various ways people use the word.

      David, I’d be interested to see what you think.

      • Sorry for how long it has taken me to reply… I had another post that blew up and was working on answering people over there.

        I may have done well to define legalism at the outset, but I think most people catch the vibe I’m going for based on the examples I give. There are really two types of legalism (i.e- attempts to get to God apart from Gospel– maybe that’s the definition that you’re looking for). The first type is to get in good with God by keeping the rules and the second type is to “get to God” by becoming god.

        That is why I said in the post that we are all legalists in some sense. The Roman pagans and the Jewish religious crowd each attempted to get to God apart from Jesus.

        So, I think legalism could mean any of the things mentioned in this thread. There is some elasticity to the word as Kirk has said and so justification by works or sanctification by works apart from grace are both in play here.

        • I think see what you saying.

          But I guess what I’m afraid of is making legalism into merely a “heart” matter, merely something internal. And therefore, according to this view, it wouldn’t really matter if we establish a bunch of rules and such, because that’s not legalism necessarily. Legalism is a heart thing, so it is said. The rules are just for practical purposes; and one can view these rules legalistically or un-legalistically. The issue isn’t the rules but the heart. So, this sort of thought gives people a pass to maintain a set of rules that might otherwise rightly be called “legalism.”

          But what I see in Matthew 15 is Jesus not just condemning legalism as a heart issue, as if the external rules don’t matter; and what matters is just how one internally responds to them, uses them, views them, etc. No, he is also condemning the setting up of these rules itself.

          In sum, what I’m saying is that there seems to be a certain type of legalism (corresponding to a certain way people use the word as opposed to other ways it is used) that is particular (less indiscriminate). And this is treating man-made rules and God given rules. This may be a manifestation of a generic indiscriminate legalism. But I don’t think we see this specific FORM of legalism universally in everyone equally. I want to be careful not to flatten our sense of legalism so that, as I said early, if everyone’s a legalist than no one’s a legalist–using “legalist” in this particular sense of the word.

  • Renting 136 Do not want to make beds clean & crap on vacation so I do the hotel. Mine is just fine. Grew up there, now the kids run it Mom & Dad old. We grew up knowing each other it’s a good situation. I have “my” room same one every time over looking beach. It works for me. Enjoy!