Bruce Collins, Evangelist

The personal website of Bruce Collins

Meditation for the week of February 17, 2008

Matthew 15:9 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
Matthew 28:20 Teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.

I get confused when people talk about legalism. Being legalistic is supposed to be wrong, and I do believe that some kinds of legalism are wrong. But obeying the Lord and teaching others to obey Him is not wrong and is in fact required of us in order to be saved and to please the Lord. In order to obey Him we need to know what He commands. Is it legalistic and therefore wrong to obey God? Of course not!

It is not legalistic to recognize that there is only one way of salvation (John 14:6). It is not legalistic to teach that there is only one God (James 2:19). It is not legalistic to expect believers to be baptized, that is immersed in water ceremonially, to identify with Christ after we are saved (Acts 10:48). It is not legalistic to tell Christians to obey the laws of the land (Romans 13:1) or to live moral lives (Romans 13:8-9). It is not legalistic to teach Christians to love one another (John 13:34).

So what does it mean to be legalistic? In some cases, people use the term to describe autocratic teaching and leadership. We may ask people to obey us instead of obeying the Lord. The reason that the commands in the above paragraph are not “legalistic” in the autocratic sense is because the Lord teaches these truths. He says in Luke 6:46, “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” The Lord is our creator and our redeemer and has the right to tell us what we should and should not do. He has the right to be autocratic. We do not. Some people who would never consider themselves legalistic are very autocratic when pressing for their points of view.

Sometimes we talk about people being legalistic when they try to make people live under the Old Testament law. For example, it is legalistic to tell people that they must tithe or give a tenth of their income to the Lord when the New Testament does not teach that. The New Testament teaches proportional, regular, cheerful and sacrificial giving, which may require giving far beyond a tenth. To say that we have to live under the dietary laws of the Old Testament is legalistic when the New Testament says that all food is sanctified by prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

However, Biblical legalism is making rules where God has not and teaching them as though they were laws that God has made. In Matthew 15:9, the Pharisees, who were experts in the Old Testament law, made their own laws and taught them as though they were God’s laws. Sometimes as Christians we put burdens on people in the same way. We can be legalistic by demanding things that the Bible does not demand. However, we must be balanced. It is also possible to be just as wrong by autocratically teaching people to ignore things that God does command. For example, some are adamant that we should not deal with the public moral sins of 1 Corinthians 5, because “we must not judge.” Others want to ignore the truth that in the church, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), a woman is not to teach or to exercise authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:12).

We must obey God (Acts 5:29) and we must obey the Gospel (1 Peter 4:17). We should do it out of devotion, but we must do it whether some would consider that to be legalistic or not. Submitting to the Lord is simply a matter of showing our devotion to the One Who knows best.

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