In my first few years as a follower of Christ (in my early 20’s), I felt confused by legalism. I desired to obey God but didn’t want to be trapped by unnecessary rule-keeping . I heard believers proclaim that obedience expressed love toward God, but I also observed those who wanted to justify dishonesty or indulgence say, “Well, there is no need to be legalistic.”
In response to this, I embarked on an experiment. I figured if I could live according to every rule for some period of time, I would gain insight into the benefits and harm of legalism. I knew all around perfection was out of the question, so I compromised. I set out to obey every law written about how to drive a car for a full week.
As my experiment started, my hands were at 10 and 2, my eyes on high alert, and my feet at the ready to come to complete stops and submit to all speed limits. With a little practice, I improved.
I observed with heightened attention.
I resisted the urge to speed.
I stopped before the white lines at every intersection.
I ensured the right person went first at all four way stops.
With precision, I shoulder checked, signalled, and never left my high beams on to blind oncoming drivers.
Within a couple days, I could get from my home to town and back without a single mistake. I attained superstar driver status in my mind. Good for me, right?
You know what two things I also became excellent at? First, I became great at focusing on myself. Second, I became great at finding fault in other drivers. I realized there are too many haphazard drivers out there who don’t follow the rules of the road. I could pick out errors everywhere I went. I compared my precision with their lacklustre performances and became convinced I was superior behind the wheel.
I was astounded at the rapid onslaught of new thoughts. Legalism is a powerful, mind-altering condition. Before this endeavour, driving was just a means to an end. I was mindful of safety, but didn’t get my knickers in a knot over traffic violators. I paid little attention to my performance the majority of the time.
Within a few short days, I was arrogant over my success and judgmental of other’s mistakes. I was motivated to do everything “right”, rather than embrace to the larger concept of safety.
The legalism spoken of in Christian circles refers to the belief that adherence to the law (man-made rules, the ten commandments, and the holiness laws of the Old Testament) has the power to attain or maintain salvation.
Imagine if I believed my success at driving earned me (or dictated the nature of) eternal life. If this were true, driving well would set me up for arrogance and judgment, whereas driving errors would elicit self-depreciation and envy.
Either way, if my performance dictated the eternal outcome, I would be consumed with myself, how I compared to others, and the specific rules rather than the big picture application of the rules. This is the tragedy of legalism.
I wonder if there is evidence of such poison hidden in other areas of my life and the lives of believers around me. When we find ourselves consumed with evaluation, comparison and rule-keeping, we have deviated from the gospel.
We trade the grace extended to us through faith in Christ for the pitch of every other world religion which says our future is based on our performance. The beauty of the gospel resides in the freedom it affords — not to disregard obedience, but to disregard the pre-eminence of self.
John 6:28-29 ESV: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'”