Legalism and Pendulums

I grew up in an environment where many people would today call it “legalistic.” I am sure many of you would perhaps give that same label to your background. What is most often meant by that label is we were instructed to live a certain life style, have our devotions, get our hair cuts (if we were male) or not get our hair cut (if we were female), do not go to movies, do not, do not, do, do, do not…etc. You get the drift.

In all of that doing/not doing there was a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit teaching that we were then accepted, or we were “good” and well favored. Really very few questions were ever directed to the heart and accountability was most always a surface accountability, meaning, dealing with only what was on the surface of your life. I could go on and on, but that is not my point. God was good to me in my past and I am grateful for where God has brought me and am constantly learning His glory in my weaknesses and the weaknesses of those around me.

There is a lot of talk in just about every “circle” about legalism. I have noticed some things about this chatter. It has been bit by the “pendulum” bug. In other words, in running from legalism there seems to be a jettison of many of the clear commands and disciplines of the Word.

This is really nothing new and shouldn’t surprise us. In his book, “Living the Cross-Centered Life” C.J. Mahanney explains legalism: A legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s forgiveness through personal performance. (p. 112) [Legalism is] a danger that we’ll never outgrow in this lifetime. The tendency for legalism exists for each of us each and every day—because of the pride and self-righteousness of our indwelling sin. (p. 114)

But as the pendulum swings on our Grandfather clock in our living room, so do reactions against certain things. Sometimes they swing needlessly too far. Fear usually is what drives this. The fear of being legalistic has swung over to the point that anything that looks like discipline and self-control or pursuing holiness and actually seeking to live out the righteousness of Christ is seen as legalism. This is unfortunate. It is almost like those who live in fear of legalism are legalistic about their not being a legalist.

Paul exhorts his good brother Timothy to be strong in the grace in Christ! He then explains it in 2Timothy 2:1-7 to:

  • endure hardness
  • don’t entangle yourself with the non-essentials
  • strive for masteries lawfully
  • labor as a good husbandman

All of this falls directly in line with the grace that Christ provides.  These must be done in the grace, but they must be done and they take careful disciplined work. We cannot automatically assign legalism to following the commands of Scripture.  We do so joyfully not in order to gain forgiveness but because we are forgiven!

Don’t be swinging the pendulum, but be Spirit-filled–and pursue it!

4 comments on “Legalism and Pendulums

  1. Andy says:

    Great post, Pastor. Like you said, it certainly is not legalistic to live a life of pursuing holiness out of desire to be more like Christ as a result of our salvation. I’m reminded of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:2, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”. That word “conformed” is the greek word “συσχηματίζω” (soos-khay-mat-id’-zo). It’s where we get our word for “schematic”, and it means a pattern. Literally, we are not to pattern ourselves after this age.
    It is all a part of living a life different from this world, set apart, sanctified, transformed into the image of Christ.

    • graceisflowing says:

      Very true, Andy. However, just as the pendulum bug bytes those concerned about legalism, the bug bites in those who are always fearful of “not being separated.” Scripture has so much more to say about the unity of believers and the importance of honoring brothers–esteeming them greater than yourself. Christ says we are to be known by our love for the brethren (John 13:35) not by our separation from the brethren. One’s tendency to bite and devour people not only undermines gospel effectiveness, but it ultimately undermines one’s personal integrity (See Gal 5:13-15). The reason we are to live life in the world yet not a part of the world is simply for God’s great glory to be seen. Worldliness is always seen in Scripture as matters of the heart — lusts, desires, pride, because these all attempt to steal from God’s great glory. The more profoundly we are affected and governed by the Spirit of God the more spiritual we become. Our lives mimic the Spirit. Those things are seen in as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in our lives. How wildly the pendulum swings sometimes.

  2. jblaha says:

    I think that in my life, the legalism that I grew up with has taught me to not trust teachers. The pendulum has swung so far that I almost dismiss everything a preacher says unless it is Scripture. The type of lifestyle that you mentioned, “that anything that looks like discipline and self-control or pursuing holiness and actually seeking to live out the righteousness of Christ is seen as legalism”, is something that I could be accused of. However, I have come to realize that the Bible does set a standard for followers of Christ. I’m learning what that looks like. Although, it is hard to read the Bible freshly without thoughts of faulty sermons and erroneous teachings flooding my head. I guess that is just the path that God has led me on to see Him in a pure light.

    I would definitely agree with you that we are to abstain from the “pattern” of the world, but the pattern that is mentioned in the Bible is very different from the pattern set by legalistic teachings.

  3. Josh G says:

    A good article. As with most things the truth lies some where between. There are things that God does expect of us. The Bible is full of commandments, promises, laws, and principles that we would all be better off knowing and correctly applying to our lives. I do get pretty tired of being labeled and judged a legalist simply because I follow the Spirit’s leading for myself and my family. I think most Christians should just tear out Galations and put lighter fluid and a match on the rest. How many times have I heard the proclaimation, “It’s all under Grace”, as if your saved and now God no longer cares if you live like a heathen. Needless and unscriptual rules harm many people and there is no excuse for it, but the damage being done to the cause of Christ by accepting and even promoting the world’s systems in church will last for generations. As I said in the begining, some where in between.

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