Incognito Legalism

13 Oct

Few things are as universally decried in today’s western Church as legalism. To many of us, the worst possible name anyone could label us is “Pharisee”. We all (rightly) want to avoid that pit of buidling rules upon rules, religiously adhering to stringent requirements that God never commanded. Most young believers today would have no problem identifying and avoiding that kind of legalism. We are culturally geared to not really like the confinements of rules anyway, so we are more than happy to call legalism what it is.

However, there’s an entire other side to legalism that the vast majority of us embrace. Ironically enough, the people most prone to it are the loudest proclaimers of personal freedom. It’s much more covert, but it’s just as real and locks our hearts up just as quickly.

There is a view that cries, “it is never enough”, and pressures people through guilt and shame into increased (joyless) works that have no bearing on righteousness. We quickly recognize that as legalism. However, there is also a view that says, “It is just enough”, claiming that bare minimal obedience is all Christians should bother with. We are no longer obliged to keep the whole law, so we’ll keep the super important parts and kind of let the rest slide. The works are seen as the grudging duty we must perform to remain in God’s good graces, the damper on our otherwise fun life.

Legalism cuts both ways.

The New Testament makes several references to the “letter” versus the “Spirit”. Many of us are all too happy to latch onto that distinction. We aren’t bound to the dead letter of the law,  so therefore, in our minds, we are free to do almost whatever we want. Sure, we need to avoid the big grevious sins, but there is a whole realm of gray area we feel liberated to play in. We’re under the New Covenant, so that whole law business is a thing of the past.

Now, it’s true that we’re no longer under the Law (and all the pork-eating Gentiles said, “amen”). So since we’re under the New Covenant, we should take some cues from Jesus as to how we live now. Isn’t it great He dismissed us from such a burdensome responsibility?

…Yes, but we need to see what He actually says before we run with what we think He says.

In roughly 1500 B.C., God’s glory descended onto Mt. Sinai and He delivered the Law to Moses. In the first century A.D., Jesus, God incarnate, stood on another mountain and delivered the Sermon on the Mount. In some ways, we can see this as a New Covenant parallel, helping show us how now we should live. So let’s see what Jesus has to say about the Law:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. (Matthew 5:17)

Wait a minute. What? I thought we were released from all this unpleaseant business of the letter of the law.

We are. But we must see a crucial distinction: Jesus is not destroying the Law. He isn’t throwing it crumpled into heaven’s wastebasket as a centuries-long divine mistake. He’s fulfilling it, and giving us a way to live by the Spirit of it, rather than the letter.

So what does this look like? Jesus explains. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment'” (5:21). That’s the letter of the law. That’s Old Covenant stuff.

He continues, “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (5:22). Rather than give us license to do anything short of actually killing our brother, the Spirit actually raises the stakes. If we despise our brother in our heart, that’s just as negative as murder.

Again, Jesus speaks of the Law, saying, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultry'” (5:27).

Again, He immediately ups the ante. “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:28). The Spirit does not give us leave to do anything we like short of actual fornication. He actually gives us an ultimatum concerning what we do with our eyes and heart, not just our body.

I believe that one of the things Jesus accomplishes in the Sermon on the Mount is to address the issue of Isaiah 29:13 — “…these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me…” It is possible to give God stellar lip service and be completely hardened on the inside. Many religious people in Jesus’ day were doing just that. On the outside, everything was polished to a pious glow. But on the inside, darkness and death ruled their hearts (see Matthew 23:27).

This is actually what makes a Pharisee a Pharisee. We all know the Pharisaical system for its labrynth of religious rules. We think of people bound up in excess requirements and traditions, fervently striving for a righteousness they could never attain. But what most of us don’t know is that the Pharisees were also masters of the loophole.

In order to avoid transgression, the Pharisees had built what they called a “hedge” around the Law. For instance, they didn’t want to violate the Sabbath law (which is good). So they decided how far is too far to walk, how much is too much to carry, and what household activities people may or may not do. They intentionally made their own rules much broader than the ones laid out to Moses. This way, in order to violate the actual Law, people would first have to plow down several layers of the “tradition of the elders”.

It even sounds like a logical argument — people sin a lot, so let’s set up a bunch of extra rules to try and keep people out of sin. If they accidentally break a rule, it will be one of the traditions, not one of the Ten Commandments.

The fact that it didn’t really work is beside the point right now.

The point is that, being the ones who built the hedge, the Pharisees knew all about how to get around it. Their legalism appeared to be about, “never enough…” always saying, “Do more, perform better, stretch further, and failure is inexcuseable.” However, to the Pharisees, this was still, “just enough”, giving them a new religious waterline to meet. As long as they fulfilled a certain set of standards, in keeping with the traditions, they considered themselves to have righteousness in the bag. They paid their dues, fulfilled their duties, and were thus free to live the rest of their lives.

Jesus indicts them of this duplicity with a scathing rebuke in Matthew 23. “…they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (i.e. the traditions of the elders burdening the people) “…but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (the loopholes, allowing the Pharisees an easy out).

Jesus spells out a couple of these loopholes in verses 16-23.

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.” Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, “Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.” Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? (23:16-19)

In other words, if you vowed, “By the temple, I will do such-and-such”, you could get entirely off the hook if you backpedaled on that promise. After all, you only swore by the temple. But if you swore by the gold of the temple, you were considered to be bound to your oath.

The rule was extra, and thus more constricting, but the loophole was actually bigger. The Law itself says, “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:2, emphasis added). In other words, if you made a promise, you’d better do it. The Pharisees built a hedge around that, but they also installed an escape hatch. Keep your promise — unless you swear by something paltry enough that it magically doesn’t matter any more.

Jesus pointed out another area where the Pharisees’ hedge failed them:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay title of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weighter matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (23:23)

The Pharisees were obsessive tithers, even down to the most minute of their possessions. (Imagine going to your spice rack and tithing a teaspoon out of each jar.) Tithing is something God commanded of them — of their harvest and their flocks. Measuring out every tiny pantry item was going above and beyond. But in their drive to excel at the littlest details of the law, the Pharisees neglected the very heart behind Law in the first place.

Jesus hit it directly on the head with His rebuke: “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (23:24)! The Pharisees were really good at catching miniscule infractions of the traditions. They were really bad at living for the very reason God set up the Law in the first place.

In fact, earlier in the book of Matthew, while identifying yet another loophole of the Pharisees (dodging the Fifth Commandment), he quotes that verse from Isaiah: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Matt 15:8). God doesn’t care about a nice religious show. He wants our hearts.

This is where we come in. We don’t like obviously oppressive legalism. But in getting religious about not being legalistic (hah), we end up just as tangled in it as anyone has ever been.

For instance, the grumpy holiness preacher says, “Movies are all 100% evil! If you’ve ever seen anything move on a large screen, you are destined for the Lake of Fire!!” We roll our eyes at that, but then fly in the opposite direction, saying, “There’s nothing at all wrong with movies. I can watch whatever I want. I’ll just avoid the NC-17. And I just need to look away during the love scenes. And try not to repeat too much of the language outside the theater. And make sure I don’t sign up for the worldview. And make my best effort not to salivate too much over the leading man/lady.”

That’s still legalism. It’s still searching for, “What is that minimal standard that will tip the scales into ‘permissible’ range? How can I show that I honor God without having to invest my heart into it that much?”

We may find the one blogger who is deeply offended by women wearing pants, and is convinced that each inch between a dress’s hemline and the floor represents the next deeper level of perdition its owner will be banished to.  But we’re liberated women, by golly, so we’re going to keep up with the latest fashions. As long as we don’t look like we stepped off the cover of Vogue, surely we’re doing okay. If it fits right and looks good, it’s permissible for us to wear.

We don’t like the Pharisee’s rules, but we do appreciate their loopholes. We find ways to exploit the loopholes whenever possible. We just come up with the reasons to exempt ourselves, then we measure our action against our own personal checklist for righteousness, and exonerate our lifestyle simply because we can. It’s still mostly about the rules, and not very much about our hearts.

So if it’s legalism to make the rules, and it’s legalism to excuse ourselves from the rules, what is left to us?

Here’s a hint; we’re called to live by the Spirit, not the letter.

Now there are certain laws that we do adhere to because they are spelled out for us in Scripture. Things like Sermon above — do not murder, and do not be angry with your brother without a cause; do not commit adultery, but also don’t look at another person lustfully. The Bible says it, it’s incontrovertible, and so we should live it 100%. I’m certainly not suggesting that we throw out any moral code we’ve ever held.

What I am suggesting is that when it comes to the gray area, we reach for the Lord before we reach for the rulebook. We’re not looking for a complex religious ritual to help navigate the decision (overt legalism). We’re not looking for squeaking by with the minimal standard of obedience we’re obliged to meet (covert legalism). We’re looking for what the Lord is inviting us to right now. We don’t want to only honor God with our lips; we want our hearts to draw near to Him, too.

If we talk to the Holy Spirit a lot, and involve Him in our day to day decisions, it’s going to iron out a great deal for us. He is a good leader, very skilled at challenging us without overburdening us. For instance, it’s one thing to have the “movie code” I gave above. “I can watch it if it meets ABC criteria and if I do XYZ while I watch it,” is an easy rule to live by. However, what happens when we say, “Lord, what do You think about me going to see this movie…?” and actually wait to hear what He has to say?

I don’t know about you, but the second option sounds significantly more intense to me.

Living by the Spirit is not living lawlessly. It is obeying Him in what He has clearly commanded. But even more than that, it is asking Him in the areas — big and small — where we don’t have a rule to govern our every step.

Maybe the Lord tells you “no” to the movie, even though all your friends have already seen it and assured you it’s okay. Maybe He doesn’t even say a hard “no”, but it’s clear to you that there is an invitation for you to go deeper in Him if you choose not to go. Maybe in the example of clothes-shopping, He tells you that the article of clothing is not His best for you. Or maybe He tells you to relax and enjoy it because it’s just fine, and it’s actually good for you to feel beautiful in it.

This can be frustrating to our legalist tendencies, because we just want someone to tell us what to do. But God’s not primarily interested in that. He mostly cares about what’s happening in your heart. He may say to us, “That’s great that you’re honoring Me with your lips, but where is your heart? Are you getting more tender or more hardened to Me right now?”

We don’t need a bunch of regulations that the Bible doesn’t give us. We need more fellowship with the Spirit. When we have areas of question, we hold them lightly, ready to cut the ties in a moment if the Lord says it needs to go. We should be asking Him constantly, “What do you think of this? What are you feeling about this? What are you inviting me to right now?”

I use the word “invite” on purpose, because again, this is not mainly about keeping rules. This is about engaging our hearts. We should have a higher vision than simply surviving Christianity. We should be pursuing the most vibrant, alive heart possible, and asking God how to do that in our day to day choices.

This turned out much longer than intended, but I am provoked right now. It is vital that we don’t buy into the subtle legalism of our society, pursuing minimal obedience at all costs. Free hearts which walk by the Spirit pursue righteousness, not because it’s the rule, but because it is life itself. I desperately want a heart like that, drawing near to God with all that I am.


Posted by on October 13, 2009 in Bible, Intimacy with God


6 responses to “Incognito Legalism

  1. Tim Visher

    October 14, 2009 at 8:57 am

    As always, terrific stuff Amanda. 🙂

    It’s interesting that you called both ends of the spectrum legalism. Why not use the traditional term ‘licentiousness’? On the one hand you set up rules and regulations that are far beyond what God demands of our external actions in a hope that by beating enough external methods upon ourselves, our insides will fall in line. On the other hand, you decide that because God is merciful he must be okay with you doing whatever you want except where conscience/the Spirit really clearly stop you.

  2. Amanda Beattie

    October 14, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    I think of licentiousness as giving no thought whatever to the rules, or only thinking of them long enough to decide you don’t really care. “Minimal obedience,” as I’ve seen it, takes a lot of forethought and explaining to try justify oneself.

    In other words, legalism thrives on the loophole. Licentiousness doesn’t even bother to look for it.

    In my mind there’s a pretty clear distinction, but maybe I didn’t communicate it well enough. 🙂

  3. Libby

    October 14, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Deep, powerful, timely.

  4. Tim Visher

    October 15, 2009 at 8:31 am

    I think you did a decent job explaining it in the post although I think I finally grok it now that I read your clarification.

    It’s almost like there’re three classes, _Delusional_ legalism, _honest_ legalism, and licentiousness. Delusional legalism takes a lot of thought because you have to convince yourself that you really are following all the rules you set out for yourself. My pastor knew an Orthodox Jewish case worker and I always got that impression when he talked about her. She believed she was following the whole of the Mosaic law (What are there, 600+ rules? I can never remember) when as a Christian I believe that she had to have been delusional. There’s no way you can keep all of that law or even keep track of all the times you failed to keep it in order to offer appropriate sacrifices to atone. Especially when it’s all summed up in Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbor. It’s just not possible to perfectly follow those commands 24/7. That’s why we need grace.

    Honest legalism, on the other hand, says “Of course I can’t follow all those laws, so they can’t mean what they mean at face value.” Thus you take a long exegesis of the law in question and come up with all the things it doesn’t mean and all the obvious misinterpretations of it, being very careful to honor traditional understandings of it, etc. and you come out the other end thoroughly convinced that you have explained how the original law, which was impossible to follow correctly and simply revealed your complete lack of ability, actually was a law that you could follow all along.

    And licentiousness is simply what you defined much better than I could.

    Very interesting way of looking at it.

  5. Sir Emeth Mimetes

    October 24, 2009 at 8:33 am


    I found this article from a friend, and discovered that it was a boon. It is refreshing to hear someone else who understand what legalism is, and what it isn’t. I wrote a two part series on this subject a while back on my blog, and the response was positive. I went more into the principles and covered a bit more ground than you, but you gave more concrete examples from Scripture, and I like that.

    If you want to read my articles, you can find the first one here:

    Thanks again, and I hope to hear more from you!

    With joy and peace in Christ,
    Jay Lauser

  6. cj springer

    October 30, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    brilliant … been meditating on it today … trying to sort out my thoughts as this sent them in a dozen different directions … but brilliant and helpful to me … thanks!


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