One of the problems many people have with being governed by the law of love rather than a specific code of law is that love is too general – too open ended. I can certainly see where people who lean toward the idea that we must be governed by a strict legal code consisting of rules regarding the most miniscule things and applicable to practically every aspect of life and religion would conclude that. There are people who do actually believe different versions that concept that God must have given a complete set of rules and regulations and all we have to do is dig them out of the Bible.
The Pharisees and their allies, the scribes, in Jesus’ day had just that kind of problem with what Jesus taught. When Jesus addressed them by name in the 23rd chapter of Matthew he detailed some of their peccadilloes.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24).
Can’t you imagine all those devoutly religious people sitting around their kitchen tables, heaped with mounds of herbs from their gardens, tediously counting “…nine leaves for me, one for the Lord … nine seeds for me, one for the Lord” and on and on, while outside in the street children were going about begging for a scrap of bread a widowed neighbor is being defrauded out of her livelihood, a wife is being abused by her husband and a poor, crippled beggar languishes for want of a helping hand. That is the picture Jesus paints. That is what legalism looks like – at least a very small part of it. There are many more manifestations of it. The extreme enormity of it is dramatized by Jesus’ hyperbole about straining gnats and swallowing camels.
But I don’t want to dwell on legalism just here. I want to draw a positive picture of what living under the law of love looks like. That positive picture is there in the New Testament. We see it every time we look at the face of Jesus as he “went about doing good” as Peter said to Cornelius and his household in Acts 10:38.
In this text, (Matthew 23), Jesus was healing “all who were oppressed by the devil.” We could go through all four accounts of the life of Jesus (the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and see how many times he did good for people because he saw their need, their suffering, their pain and had compassion on them. He didn’t have to be commanded to do the specific acts he did. He was doing what he did to glorify the Father (John 17:4) and he did them out of his love for human beings.
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:8).
What is the fruit we are expected to bear? Paul tells us what it is in Galatians 5. The first thing the apostle does is to urge that Christ has set the believer free and that they should by all means keep their freedom. In verse 13 he urged them to use their freedom properly. How were they to fulfill the law and have freedom at the same time? In just the way we have been arguing in these three articles.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Then the apostle gets to the matter of fruit bearing. After naming the “works” – notice the plural – of the flesh, he then itemizes some of the “fruit” – singular – of the Spirit. When one “walks” by the Spirit, the Spirit will produce the fruit which consists of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” The apostle ends this description of good fruit by saying that there is no law against these things. These are things that make up the character of the individual. These are not just things a righteous person does – they are traits of his character. They are all manifestations of the first item named – love. Love is the basic quality and all the rest flow out of it. The person who operates on the basis of love will demonstrate all these qualities in the various situations in which he may find himself as those qualities are called for.
But the person who fails to understand this will seek a specific determination of every situation of life. For example I offer this quote from a tract I was given by a very nice gentleman who came calling at my door a few weeks ago. The tract is titled “Neglected, Rejected and Forgotten Truths.” One of the “truths” listed is the following: “The Bible teaches against worldly amusements, sports and entertainment.” Then in elaborating on this assertion lists “Pleasures highly esteemed among worldlings, such as cards, dancing, swimming pools, prize fighting, ball games, movies, television, and suchlike, are an abomination to God.”
The problem with this list is that a blanket assumption is made, lumping everything into the “abomination” category when God has said absolutely nothing about any of the things listed. Appeals to certain scriptures which speak in general of an abomination does not prove that Christians should avoid everything that is done in the world. I would hasten to add that with many of the things listed the Christian should exercise reasonable discretion, but to lump everything into the same category and say it is all equally condemned is a human assumption based on questionable human inferences and not on the Bible. This practice of assuming things not proven or not provable is one of the characteristics of legalism.
The tract ends with a paragraph that exhorts that “obedience is essential for the saved.” In principle I would not disagree with that statement, but coming at the end of a diatribe against not only the things cited above but many other dubious conclusions as well, the obvious meaning is that if one does not “obey” the conclusions laid down in this tract (or by the religious group which publishes it) they cannot be saved. This clearly is legalism.
It must be understood that legalism is not a problem confined to one sect or denomination. Neither is this a problem confined to backwoods fundamentalist sects, or to any one religious movement, but is a human problem. In some groups, a legalistic attitude is more evident than in others. With some it is a matter of degree whether or not a thing is considered legalism. In an article I found on the internet entitled “YOU MUST LET GO OF LEGALISM” the author begins with the following …
I once asked why church attendance among ________ seemed on the decline. As a response I received the following email:
“It’s no mystery. The ‘something missing’ is the grace of God. I know exactly what you are thinking: ‘we preach salvation by grace through faith, not of works.’ Yes, you do, as well you should. But after the sinner is saved, you toss grace out the window and legalism barges through the door. One book I read about believers like you summed it up this way: It’s grace for the sinner and law for the saint.
“Its name is legalism and it is unscriptural. None of your oppressive rules are written in the Bible. I’m not talking about things like adultery, murder, drunkenness, lying, homosexuality, abortion, etc.
“If you want your churches to grow and make a difference for Jesus, you must let go of legalism and return to grace. It’s for the saint too. Life is hard and people are hurting. They need Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden. Legalism’s yoke is heavy, and its burden is impossible to bear…that’s why people are leaving.”
The writer of this email makes a very good and timely observation which applies not just to the denomination under consideration in this article, but broadly applicable to many different religious groups. Almost all groups are afflicted with the disease of legalism to a greater or lesser extent. In response to the email the author of the article proceeds to give a very good discussion of what legalism is and why it is wrong. But then he goes out of his way to defend what his church is teaching, insisting it is not legalism – it is just an appropriate “standard” of conduct!
As I write this I am not singling out others who are particularly characterized by legalism. My own religious heritage is woefully wounded by this most horrendous of maladies. I, myself, for years was entangled in the web we have woven and in which countless good, sincere, loving disciples of the Lord are trapped. I helped to build and maintain parts of that web until a good many years ago I began to see the faults of the system we had built.
All my life I have been – and still am – identified with the historical religious phenomenon known as the Stone-Campbell Movement or simply the Restoration Movement. Sadly, what began as an effort on the part of a number of different people two centuries ago to unite believers in Christ by discarding the doctrines, creeds and dogmas of the divided and divisive denominational system and all simply be Christians, has over the years, turned into one of the most divided religious groups in the world. Most of the blame for this baneful blight may be attributed directly to the disease of legalism.
The primary reason for this is that the effort to unite believers turned into a program that excludes everyone who does not perfectly agree with certain teachings and practices of whatever particular segment of the Restoration Movement one may be addressing. Issues of classes, multiple cups, head coverings for women and hair length for men and women, pants or skirts and dresses only for women in the assembly, Lord’s Supper (morning only?), instrumental music, orphan’s homes, kitchens in the meetinghouse, marriage and divorce questions and on and on we could go. Some bind and others loose and neither recognizes the other as children of God because those who object regard their conclusions as matters of divine law and thus binding on all Christians while those who practice will not come under the dictates of the conclusions and consciences of others – as well they shouldn’t.
The sad reality in all this is that love is lost and freedom fails. People are trapped in the dreary dungeons of legalistic religion in their feeble attempt to assure themselves of God’s approval on the basis of their perfect performance. This is far from the jubilee of freedom we should all be celebrating every day with all the beloved saints of God.
This celebration of freedom is what we were made to enjoy. It is, in fact, what we shall one day joyously share when we receive our eternal inheritance – and all creation shall participate with us in that glorious freedom (Romans 8:18-25). What we experience now should be a foretaste of what is to come on that great Jubilee morning.