Being Legalistic: What is it? & How do I avoid it?

#TalkingThursday – If you don’t talk about Jesus who will?

Have you ever come across this word − Legalistic? I hate this word. I don’t know if it is because I’m an advocate – in – training or because of a conversation I was recently a part of but either way, this word really irks me, yes irks. I did very little research on the word and this is what I’ve come up with as the definitions that explain it to the best of my understanding.

Legalism: Defined as,

  • Strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. The judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
  • A works based religion

I am in complete agreement with everything it stands for, what I do not agree with is the way people use this word in conversation to attack the views of others. I was privy to a conversation where someone was called legalistic for quoting 2 Corinthians 6:14Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” as justification for refusing to date an unbeliever.

The way that conversation went down, I completely agreed with this bible verse and with the person quoting it but this other person suggested that using that bible verse to say such a thing means that one is closed minded and is limiting how God can work to bring two people together and that’s being legalistic.

This had me questioning not just my faith, but my sanity. Surely obeying Christ isn’t being legalistic! The questions wouldn’t stop pouring into my mind,

Am I legalistic? What does it really mean to be legalistic? Isn’t the bible legalistic? Shouldn’t we try to adhere to all that it says? 

I don’t have all the answers, but on deeper thought I realised that when we begin to do certain things not because we want to in our hearts but because we feel that God will be pleased with us if we do them, that’s when we move away from spirituality and begin to live by our works. We feel that we are justified by our works and that’s being legalistic.

Therefore, in that situation and conversation, legalism should never have come up at all – refusing to date/marry an unbeliever does not make one legalistic, on the contrary it is actually shows concern for one’s spirituality because being yoked in the flesh will also make one yoked in the spirit – what is the point of dating without purpose or marrying someone who does not share your core values? There’s nothing, absolutely nothing legalistic about that. Legalism would only come into such an equation where someone suggested that God loves or justifies me because I refused to date an unbeliever.

Anyway! I read a particularly interesting article by Blaise Foret (click here to read the article) called 4 signs you might be legalistic. They are,

1. Your Spiritual Disciplines Define Your Spirituality

What I understood this to mean, is that certain people feel they are justified when they do certain things e.g fasting, going to church every sunday or every day of the week, tithing etc. These are all important and good spiritual disciplines that christians to have but to make them the basis by which God loves or accepts someone, yeah – that’s legalistic!

2. You Separate Your Spiritual Life from Your Natural Life

Under this heading, Blaise writes:

Do you feel like you are doing something spiritual when you pray but something carnal when you watch a movie or hang out with friends? If so, you might be slipping back into legalism.

I definitely relate to this bit. I tend to shy away from hanging out or watching a movie because I often feel that time could be better spent listening to a sermon podcast, does that make me legalistic? Only God knows!

He says further,

As Christians, we often find ourselves viewing Church activity as exclusively spiritual instead of seeing all things as spiritual. I see it like this: No matter what you are doing, do it as a spiritual activity, knowing full well that God is with you and loves you deeply in that very moment.

I would definitely agree! If we begin to see all things as spiritual, we will be more cautious of what we let into our lives.

3. You Only Hang Out with “Saved” People

Blaise writes,

Jesus was often accused of being the friend of sinners. When was the last time you were accused of that?

When I read this, it really reminded me how much I cherish my muslim and atheist friends and colleagues, I often get sour looks because I hang out more with them but I am honestly more comfortable in their company than when I’m surrounded by church fellows. Many of us refuse to hang out with unbelievers and we often look down on them, that’s really being legalistic. Jesus said that those who are healthy don’t need a doctor, it is the sick who need a doctor. You are that doctor, why do you look down on the patients you were sent to heal? Go into the world and let your light shine!

4. You Live in Constant Condemnation for Your Mistakes

Guilt is important to our christian walk but guilt should drive us to Christ and not to condemnation.

As Blaise writes,

Your feelings don’t define you. Christ’s work defines you. If you believe that your identity is “sinner,” you will live tied up and bound by sin. But if you believe what God says about you, then you might start seeing a difference in your attitudes and actions. And even if you do sin, it doesn’t have to dictate your day. Repent, change your mind, and move forward. God’s not waiting on you to make it right before you can come to Him. God wants friendship with you no matter where you are in your journey, so don’t let a legalistic mindset stop you from coming to Him as the clean, forgiven and loved child that you are. God’s not holding your mistakes over your head, so you don’t have to either.

This is the easiest way to fall into legalism and it is the hardest one to avoid, we must never look down on ourselves because of our sin, we should always run back to Christ whenever we falter. The christian race is a spiritual one not a physical one that is dependent on works. Let’s keep short accounts with God and make sure our hearts are in the right place. We must never let our sin pile up before we seek repentance and we must definitely stop trying to earn God’s love & acceptance through our works! 

Please do read Blaise’s full article and let us know via our twitter/facebook pages what you think about the phrase “Being Legalistic”. 

Grace & Peace! 

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