SGBC Modesto

Evangelical Legalism

March 27, 2024 by

William Heinrich

We live in the whiplash of the efforts of the thousands who have cried “legalism.” Evangelicals 30 years ago invented a new definition for the word legalism. Originally it was a term flung in the Pharisaical face of any who added works to grace for salvation. However, probably due to an improper interpretation of the Book of Galatians as well as pressure from those who seek “Christian liberties,” it has come to more commonly be associated with Sanctification. The normal usuage of the term today is to associate it with standards found in schools, churches and homes.

The results of this have been traumatic in all three institutions. Since, in the same 30 years the word “democracy” has been amended to include the freedom to be immoral, and that it is unamerican to pray in schools, arrest one for adultery, or limit the activities of homosexuals, standards in our schools are hard to keep. All standards made by well meaning teachers, principals and board members must face the whiplash of the now infallible condemning cry of “legalism”.                                                     

The results are even more obvious in the church. Standards for church leaders are called legalistic. They are said to depress growth and to work against the Spirit. I have wondered how God could have been so unwise to have ever given the law if these over confident evaluations are correct. I have often asked those who cry legalism if they think Moses was a legalist or if David was unwise to love God’s Law and teach others to do the same.   “We’re not under the Law” is the cry I have heard most often.  True, if saved we are delivered from under the condemnation of broken laws and are now under the blessings or forgiveness through grace. However, those who love the Lord, keep his commandments. If the school can have its standards and the home its rules, why can’t the church? Schools often have a dress code, hair code, certain grade level to compete in sports, certain grade level to pass, attendance requirements, certain conduct on the grounds etc.   Strange as it, is if the church seeks to try this, people would leave over so called “legalism”.  Why is this?  Years ago, the church would keep people from communion for years as a measure of discipline for sin.  Today with the same Bible but a different society none dare try the same.

           The home has not escaped these deadening effects of the cries of legalism. Teenage youth often use it to hinder the efforts of parents in bringing law and order to the home.  Parents find it necessary often to set standards of curfew, choice of friends, where they can go, dress codes, hair lengths, chores to be done,  TV time, etc. Far too often, the child will challenge the parents right to do this claiming they are an adult and don’t want to be treated as a child.  The whole issue of the rights of home rules and parental standards are often treated cruelly and spoken of disrespectfully as “legalism.”

The result is a country losing its morals, a church of libertines and teen rebellion in the homes.  The problem is not standards.  The problem is man doesn’t want anyone telling him what to do.  This spirit of rebelliousness hasn’t any limts of authority, be it in the school, church or home.  As Adam knowingly rebelled in the garden, so man rebels today.  Good standards are not bad because men cry “legalism.” If standards are good standards then they are good by their very nature, regardless of any cry of criticism.Those who cry against standards are not seeking holiness.  Holiness is not threatened or helped by standards. 

Those who cry against standards seek liberty to do what pleases them, not others.  Standards often represent or speak to an area of one’s life that is weak.  If one chooses not to strengthen that area, he feels obliged to do away with the standard.  To rid himself of this mirror of weakness, he must condemn it convincingly, that he might look good and the standard keeper look badly.  This has nicely been accomplished by the invention of the new usage of legalism.

Worldly churches and homes will give us a worldly country.  The cry of legalism has not brought holiness, but it has lowered standards.  The whiplash results of the cry of legalism stings a mighty blow upon the objects of God’s love. Holiness is replaced by license called liberty and purity redefined to include things the church once called  impure.  May God cause each of us to evaluate our stand in this issue lest we all fall.