First of all, legalism must be defined. Legalism is, according to The Dictionary of Religious Terms, by Donald Kaufman:
3) Undue stress on legal details without balancing considerations of justice or mercy.
Let me give an example:
Mr. Lawabider, a devout law abiding citizen is out for a Sunday drive when he comes to an intersection with a red light. There are no oncoming cars and there are no cars approaching from the left or the right. But the man notices a large truck coming up from the rear. The truck driver is obviously approaching at a high rate of speed and Mr. Lawabider notices the truck driver honking his horn and waving to him to get out of the way. It is clear the truck driver has lost his brakes. Now Mr. Lawabider takes the last few seconds he has to decide what he will do. He decides that the law says a car must stop at a red light until it turns green. Therefore, he stays put and does not move because the light is still red. Mr. Lawabider and the truck driver collide and are
The Bible says the letter killeth but the Spirit bringeth life. Mr. Lawabider has just learned how the letter can kill! The spirit of the law refers to the intent of the lawgiver. One must know the lawgiver and have the same heart in order to properly interpret the law.
Now what was the intent of the red light law? The intent of the law was to provide safety for drivers and to save lives. If Mr. Lawabider had decided to run the red light, he would have actually been OBEYING THE SPIRIT OF THE LAW THOUGH THE LETTER OF THE LAW WOULD HAVE BEEN CONTRADICTED. As it occurred, he disobeyed the intent or spirit of the law because he did not understand the intent. He only understood the letter of the law which said to stop at a red light. Mr. Lawabider is a legalist.
Here are some fruits of legalism to watch for:
1) Denying your own guilt while openly broadcasting the other man's guilt. Legalism condemns. Therefore, it causes the person to always see other's faults, but triggers a self-preserving denial of self guilt as a protection from the same condemnation legalism would bring on one's self.
2) Doing evil that good may come while accusing one of the same.
3) Whitewashing your sepulchre and thanking HaShem you are not as the other man.
4) The inablility to give grace allowing God to work with a person where they are, in order to take them into perfection. Requiring instead that the person correct their inability before being allowed to move in the move of HaShem. This also involves judging motives.
Legalism demands payment for sin but leaves no room for the fact that we are all sinners and fall far short of HaShem's glory. Legalism does not take into account the fact that HaShem has caused us to be washed in the blood of Mashiach so we can be free of condemnation for not being experientially perfect while on our trek to perfection.
Legalism also does not take into consideration the tremendous spiritual battle we are in. Legalism does not care that our flesh is weak but our spirit is willing. Legalism only demands that the law be satisfied.
Whitewashing the sepulchre has no affect on the dead men's bones inside. The bones have to be forced out into the open and dealt with. HaShem wants to make and mold us into the bride of Mashiach. At first the sight will not be pretty. It will be ugly and embarrassing. That is one reason why we should be doing the opposite of legalism --covering each other, especially when we have put our trust in others to protect our hearts. Legalism will not cover sin but expose it and judge it. But HaShem is the judge and He has chosen to extend grace to us in this age. Sin is not ignored by HaShem, but HaShem knows the pure heart of an individual and is not judging imperfect sons and daughters who are not yet perfect. If the heart is not pure -- HaShem is the only one who knows. We cannot judge one's heart and motive.
LEGALISM IS NOT...
1. Hating sin and the world. The Nazarean Codicil says, "the friendship of the world is enmity with God" (James 4:4)
2. Careful Jewish living.
3. Praying often.
4. An ordered life.
5. Following a schedule or a budget.
6. Striving to conquer the sinful desires of the flesh.
7. Foregoing fun and parties in order to pray, counsel, or keep an appointment.
8. Diligently keeping your word.
9. Refusing to compromise even a little bit.
12. Having a lot of rules and procedures to follow.
LEGALISM IS .....
1. Misapplication of the spirit of the law. The example of the Sunday driver shows that although the letter of the law written on paper was followed, the result was to completely violate the intent of the law.
2. Overemphasis of legal details. Demanding perfection from people with no consideration of their age, ability, understanding, maturity, environmental pressures and temptations. This may cause an OUTWARD compliance, but inside, hopelessness will set in and legalism becomes a tool of the devil to steal away the joy of our salvation.
3. Trying to earn salvation. This really involves any works done to achieve favor with HaShem (as opposed to being motivated out of love for HaShem, which is not legalism). "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast".
4. Straining at a knat and swallowing a camel. The legalistic Pharisees tithed even the most insignificant herbs (mint, anise and cummin - Mat 23:23), but at the same time, they omitted the weightier matters of the law: Justice, mercy and faith.
To avoid legalism, have the heart of HaShem. Know the intent of the lawmaker. Consider the circumstances of the case, but avoid trying to find loopholes in the law, rationalizing away its true intent (a sign of impure motives).
This study was written by
Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David
Comments may be submitted to:
Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian
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Olympia, WA 98501
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 Eph.2:8,9; see also Gal 2:16 and Titus 3:4,5