Monday, August 25, 2008

What is Legalism?

James 4:11-12 (NKJV)11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?

The modern church tends to devote a lot of attention to the problem of legalism. And with good reason. Legalism is a nasty sin. It packages idolatry in nice wrapping paper and pawns it off as the worship of the true God.

But for all the opposition to legalism out there, one would think that the problem itself would be well understood. Instead what one finds is a general fogginess. What exactly is legalism? “Well,” responds our fuzzy friend, “it means putting too much emphasis on the law.” Too much emphasis on the law? What does that mean? “It means,” responds another even further out on the branches, “that once the Spirit of God has taken residence in our hearts we aren’t required to keep any written codes any more.” We aren’t required to keep written codes? Why did God give us His Word? The definitions of legalism offered by most people are foggy at best and smack of anti-nomianism, opposition to all written law, at worst.

So what is legalism? James tells us today that legalism is hatred of God’s law. Did you catch that? Legalism is hatred of God’s law.

Legalism takes the law of God, which is good, holy, delightful, and life-giving through the Spirit of God, adds its own restrictions and regulations on top and then uses that to grind others to powder and speak against them.

Legalism is not paying too much attention to God’s law. Listen to the psalmist and tell me – is this legalism? “Oh how I love Thy law, it is my meditation all the day.” “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testmony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” “How sweet are Your words to my taste, Sweeter than honey to my mouth.” The law of God, the psalmist tells us again and again, is good, delightful, a source of light and salvation when empowered by the Spirit of God. Love for God’s law is not legalism – it is life itself.

You see the Pharisees were legalists, not because they understood the law of God but precisely because they misunderstood it and misconstrued it, applying it in ways that were oppressive and destructive. They hated God’s law and loved their traditions instead. They set themselves up as lawgivers and became, as James says, not the doers of the law but judges of the law – putting themselves in the place of God Himself.

Notice then what James is and is not doing in this passage. He is most certainly not forbidding his audience from evaluating behavior based on the law of God. How do we know this? Because he has been doing this throughout his letter! What then is he doing? He is rebuking those in his audience who were tempted to make all the people of God obey their personal whims and opinions. Whether those opinions were like the Pharisees’ restriction on washing all one’s utensils carefully or whether they are more modern restrictions like complete abstinence from alchohol, or opposition to trans-fatty foods, or hatred for marmalade. There is, James tells us, but one lawgiver and judge. Who are you to judge your brother?

And so listen – learn to distinguish between principles and methods. The Word of God is given to direct us in the way of obedience and provides us with a full and complete resevoir of wisdom and instruction for life. As we apply these laws in our lives in specific ways, we will be required to utilize methods that will enable us to fulfill the principles. When your brother uses a different method, leave him alone - whether the issue is private Christian dayschooling versus homeschooling, eating twinkies or multi-grain muffins, consuming steak or cooking up a veggie burger. God’s law grants a great deal of liberty to each household in the methods they choose to implement biblical principle. So who are you to judge your brother?

Reminded that we often hate God’s law by judging our brothers based on our own opinions rather than his word, let us kneel and ask God to forgive us through Christ.