I once heard a preacher in a sermon briefly mentioned the corresponding dangers of legalism and license (or sometimes referred to as libertinism). The latter is the fallacy of thinking we have freedom to act any way we choose because of God’s grace and forgiveness. It seems as though this preacher understood legalism to be the idea of works (our actions) leading to salvation. In other words, it’s the idea that if we follow the rules we can become good enough to be acceptable to God. The preacher correctly rejected this.
However I believe legalism goes beyond this. It struck me as a bit ironic that, after going over this, much of the rest of the sermon was about all the things we need to do. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that conservative Christians tend to have an anemic view of the Holy Spirit. They certainly acknowledge the Spirit and he has a place in their theology, but they seem to have little understanding about how he actually works in a believer’s life. I believe this leads to some significant aberrations.
Because conservative Christians have a weak understanding of the Holy Spirit, in practice they act like we’re essentially on our own to understand the Bible and to “work out our salvation”. Thus Solo Scriptura becomes, “You must agree with our understanding of the Bible” (because God doesn’t really work through the Spirit to teach us in other ways). Certainly, God doesn’t contradict the Bible. But he sure can contradict our understanding of the Bible. Jesus did this all the time to the religious leaders in the first century. (One of the most interesting of these is recording in Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12.)
The preacher went through so many things we need to do. If I didn’t know better, I think I’d be overwhelmed. I got the impression—unspoken—that we basically need to be perfect. What a burden! The Bible does say, “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Conservative Christians have come to understand holiness as complete perfection. However I’m not sure this is really the meaning of the word. As I understand it, holiness means set apart or dedicated for special, sacred use. I believe “be holy” means not “be perfect” in our understanding of perfection, but rather means that we are supposed to reflect the Father’s character as his children.
Basically, much of the latter part of the preacher’s sermon seemed to encourage not sinning. This sounds good, and truly, not sinning is good. That’s certainly something we ought to earnestly desire. But I find that there are some problems with focusing on sin. First, it communicates that we are on our own to not sin, that we have the power to choose to not sin, and therefore the means to abstaining from sin is our own effort and will power. Anyone who has tried to live this way will certainly know the frustration. Paul captures the struggle in Romans 7.
When we think this way and approach the Christian life this way, it leads to significant guilt and shame on one hand, or self-righteous hypocrisy (posing) on the other. And wouldn’t you know it, isn’t this what conservative Christians are known for? In other words, we’re taught that we need to be perfect because that’s what Christians are suppose to do. So we either learn to act perfect (hypocrite = actor) or we feel ashamed that we don’t measure up.
As I understand it, this is the fallacy which the Pharisees fell into. This is religion. Sure, in their systematic theologies, conservative Christians don’t believe our works lead to our salvation. But they sure seem to think that we need to work for our sanctification (changed life). However I believe this is a form of legalism too.
I have good news! Not only does Jesus make a way for our salvation, God works to sanctify us through the power of the Holy Spirit as well. Jesus said his burden is light. This is because we don’t have the burden of legalism, of all the rules we have to follow. We simply must follow him, commune with him, them obey his instructions to us. He will convict us of sin and give us the strength to overcome it.
Using the example of modesty, the preacher was on the line of defining what is modest and what is not. This is where legalism comes in. This also brings us to a second problem of focusing on sin and not sinning. In our effort to not sin, we attempt to define clear boundaries as to what is an isn’t sin. We think that if we’re to avoid it, it needs to be clear—black and white. Unfortunately for us, life often isn’t so clear cut. Also, in most cases, whomever defines the boundaries of sin applies these boundaries to everyone else as well. In other words, I don’t just hold a belief about what would be a sin for me to do, I believe it is a sin for anyone to do. (If you don’t think there can be a difference in what is sin for different people, read Romans 14, especially verse 14.)
Again, I understand that this is exactly where the Pharisees found themselves. I believe that much of Jesus’ teaching confronted this religious understanding of God’s will. A problem with this focus on sin is that it’s extremely difficult for it to not lead to the kind of judgement and condemnation that Jesus instructs us to abstain from. If we have a list of sins in our mind, rules about what constitutes sin, and an understanding that Christians don’t (or shouldn’t) sin, then we almost can’t help but judge people based on how they measure up to our list. If someone is doing something which constitutes sin in our mind, we think—if not say—that they can’t be a Christian, or at least aren’t being a very good one. But no one can apply a standard of sin consistently. What happens is that certain more easily identifiable sins get targeted with harsh condemnation (homosexuality anyone?) while others are barely mentioned (division, pride, greed, envy, lack of care, concern, or respect of others).
A third problem with focusing on sin is that it tends to lead to isolationism. After all, “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33). We then think our witness to the world is our condemnation of our culture. When people are offended by this, we say that they are offended by the gospel. In reality, they aren’t offended by the gospel so much as being offended because we don’t know how to incarnate God’s kingdom the way Jesus did. It’s worth remembering that the people who were the most offended by Jesus were the most religious people. They were offended that Jesus didn’t follow their religious rules—rules for religious posturing—and he loved those who didn’t measure up to their standards. He criticized the “right” people and accepted the “wrong” people. And the “wrong” people were transformed by their encounter with Jesus.
To review, legalism can be more than simply thinking works lead to salvation. Three problems with focusing on sin and not sinning are:
- We believe we have the power to stop sinning, which leads to hypocrisy and/or shame.
- We attempt to make sin black and white though our rules are inconsistent with the Bible. We then apply our standard to others and subsequently judge them when they fail to measure up.
- In our attempt to separate ourselves from sin, we isolate ourselves from anyone who isn’t like us and condemn them from arms length.
(Post script: It’s worth noting that in my writing I primarily address the main culture with which I’m familiar, conservative Christianity, which tends to emphasize rules and appearances over concern for and care of people. If I were addressing a different group of people, my emphasis might well be different.)
(Note: This article was adapted from my previous article “Secret Church Review and Problems of Focusing on Sin“.)