The Practicing Legalist Who Discovers He is a Functional Liberal
By: Brad Bailey, Ph. D.
Legalism could be classified as a number of disorders all rolled into one person’s ego. The ingredients of legalism are diverse, but the staples of legalism surely include a little megalomania mixed in with some arrogance and pride. After that there must be a generous dash of pessimism, respect of persons (James 2:1), self-aggrandizement and a critical spirit. If you throw in a little mental disorder you have the recipe for legalistic madness.
The legalists of the New Testament include the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Sadducees, the Judaizers, the Nicolaitans and possibly an obscure group known as the Essenes. These people were ultra-seperatists for the most part and they usually hated each other even more than they hated sin. I still find it surprising that some of these sects had to join together to get rid of Jesus because they knew that He was bad for their business. Legalists have been trying to get rid of Jesus ever since.
Today’s legalists are equally diverse, and also equally dangerous. They all still hate each other. “Legalism” is the wrong use of laws or rules. For example, there is a form of legalism that uses rules or commandments as a way of slavation. Such laws in and of themselves might be good and proper, but they cannot save a soul. Thus, the Apostle Paul warns against the view that salvation can come about by keeping the law, as the Judaizers erroneously taught. Paul said in Galatians 2:21, “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.”
Among Christians there is also a kind of legalism that teaches that, although we are saved through faith in Christ, sanctification is a matter of submitting to certain rules or standards. Thus, one’s Christian progress is judged by whether or not one keeps the prescribed rules: such as no movies, no dancing, no gambling, etc. Make no mistake, these rules might have value to keep Christians from certain select sins, but they are not a substitute for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Thus, once again rules are misused.
Another form of legalism elevates mere human preferences to the level of biblical absolutes. For example, there are churches that teach that every Christian man should be clean shaven or that no woman should wear lipstick, etc., and these cultural differences are held with the same convictions as important doctrines.
Legalism wars with the pure teachings of the Gospel. It contends that the work of Christ is not enough and that the Holy Spirit is insufficient in the sanctifying process (Gal. 3:3). Tragically, you cannot survive legalism because it is NEVER satisfied.
I vividly recall a dear friend of mine who had grown a beard through the winter and (with permission from his wife) decided to keep it. He was present with me in a series of conference services when a particular preacher made it a point to single him out for his facial hair. I was quite sure that the young man was being targeted because the preacher had an issue with my beard and decided to go after an easier target since I was also preaching later that week. The preacher called the young man liberal and worldly for having his beard. The young man returned the next day to the conference and this time he had reduced his beard to a goatee. The preacher again singled him out and made a very lewd and vulgar remark about what his goatee resembled. It was awful! The young man came back the next day shaven, but it still wasn’t enough. The preacher told him publicly that what he lacked now was trimming his sideburns. What’s next? Eyebrows? Legalism is never satisfied. It is a miserable cycle of fault-finding.
The Scribes and the Pharisees had a bomb dropped on them one day while listening to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said in Matthew 5:20, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” That was a devastating comment to the present legalists. Legalists of every age have isolated the law from the God who gave the law. They are not so much seeking to obey God or honor Christ as they are to obeying rules that are devoid of any personal relationship. The Scribes and the Pharisees were no different.
So, how does a legalist discover he is actually a liberal. It is when the legalist is made aware that his/her rules are earthbound and carnal that he discovers that the rules are mitigated by a sinful preoccupation with being right in his own eyes (Prov. 14:12; 3:7; 12:15). You see the Pharisees had discovered a way to enjoy sin. That’s right! They were extremely liberal in comparison to what the Word of God actually taught.
For example, Jesus said in Matthew 5:21-22, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” In other words, if all you are claiming as justification is that you have not physically murdered someone, you are a liberal and don’t know it. If you are angry without a cause, or if you insult people when you are angry, you are a murderer and don’t know it.
Jesus also said in Matthew 5:27-28, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Again, it is not abstaining from the physical act of adultery that makes you straight, but rather addressing the heart that desires the sin.
Jesus continues to address divorce (Matt. 5:31-32), swearing (Matt. 5:33-37), revenge (Matt. 5:38-39), and neighborliness (Matt. 5:43-48). Each one of these is a worthy subject on its own, but I hope you get the point. The Pharisees had devised a way that they could lust, hate and be vengeful (among other things) as long as they did not let that slip out and become manifest physically. What a kanard.
The last thing a legalist wants to be called is a liberal. I don’t have the authority to diagnose the condition completely, but permit me to pose some scenarios that may shock the legalistic ego. Three things come to mind:
I recently watched a brother squirm when it was revealed to him that his convictions and preferences were substandard in comparison to what the Bible actually teaches. Rather than gloating, I rejoiced that finally the light was being shined on some important subjects. He entered the room a legalist, but quickly discovered that in some ways, he was actually a liberal. How do we avoid that embarrassment. (1) Love before you hate. (2) Read before you conclude. (3) Lose before you win. (4) Master compassion before confrontation.
Are you lacking joy? Are you losing more friends than you are making? Are you lacking true victory over sin? Are you oriented more towards performance than affirmation and encouragement? Do you find it difficult to get your attention off of standards and on Christians? Do you have a sectarian attitude towards other believers? Do you have little or no assurance when you are confronted with the truths in the Sermon on the Mount? You may see yourself as a gun-barrell-straight saint, but it is more likely you are a liberal. Jesus won’t change (Heb. 13:8), so you must!
Brad Bailey is a husband, father of four, author, pastor-teacher and college president in Brandon, Florida.
Excellent article. As a Fundamental Christian it is sometimes a hard line between living Godly to please God & not letting that godliness turn into being a Pharisee! God help us! DH