Bypassing the Detour of Legalism (Part 1)

In our journey to receive and live out God’s righteousness in a fallen world, we encounter well-intentioned detours. A young man once asked, “What is it I must forsake?” He was instructed, “Colored clothes, for one thing. Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don’t eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against Him who created us, to attempt to improve on His Work.”

Elizabeth Elliot responded to this: “Does this answer sound absurd? It is the answer given in the most celebrated Christian schools of the second century! Is it possible that the rules that have been adopted by many twentieth-century Christians will sound as absurd to earnest followers of Christ a few years hence?”[1]

Let’s consider a couple of introductory questions about legalism, then examine its negative influence on the lost as well as the saved. Our goal is to avoid the detour of legalism and walk in God’s grace and love.

A. Preliminary Issues

1. What is legalism?

Legalism is essentially the misuse and overuse of the law. “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8). Biblical theologians usually distinguish three aspects of God’s law: the ceremonial law, the civil law, and the moral law.

The book of Leviticus, for example, is full of instruction about Israel’s prescribed ceremonial worship under the Old Testament law. The New Testament reveals that these ceremonies prefigured the blessings purchased for us in Christ; these laws have been superseded through Christ’s finished work on the cross. “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col 2:16,17; see Heb. 10:1-10).

Part of the ceremonial law featured dietary laws. These requirements were to teach lessons of holiness and promote good health and hygiene. Although there still may be valuable wisdom in these areas of Old Testament Law, they are not legally required after their fulfillment in Christ (Matt. 15:20; Mark 7:15).

Likewise the laws that governed Israel’s government and civil affairs (Deut. 17:1-20) have been fulfilled; they do not apply to God’s New Covenant people–the Church (Eph. 2:14-22).

The moral law, however, is based upon God’s unchanging character: “For I am the LORD, I do not change…” (Mal 3:6: see James 1:17). There is continuity in God’s moral standards and purposes (Matt. 5:17,18). To disregard the moral precepts taught in the Bible (and witnessed by one’s conscience) is sin. “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). In the New Covenant, morality is reaffirmed: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another…” (Col 3:5-9a).

So if someone demands compliance with Old Testament ceremonial, dietary, or civil laws such demands would be unwarranted and legalistic.

2. If legalism is the misuse and overuse of the law, then we ask, What is the purpose of the Old Testament law?

The apostle Paul clearly answers this in Galatians 3:19-24:

“What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions [to identify sin as lawbreaking], till the Seed [Christ] should come… But the Scripture [law] has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came [the New Covenant], we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore, the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

Therefore, the law reveals the bad news that all are sinners and cannot save themselves (Rom. 3:19,20). In this age of humanism and relative values, God’s law has an integral role in convicting people of their need for a Savior!

Part 1 of 3

[1] Elizabeth Elliot, The Liberty of Obedience, Nashville, Abingdon, 1968, pp. 45-46. ( archive)

For free resources that use the Law to bring conviction to a lost person in evangelism, see GN “Are You Good Enough to Go to Heaven?” (by Ray Comfort)

Copyright 2009 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Please credit Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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