I remember the look on his face. An elder in a church genuinely believed what he said, “we may have problems here, but legalism is not one of them. We certainly don’t have legalism here.” I couldn’t believe it. You could smell the legalism before you entered the door.
Why do we feel immune? I suspect it is because we excessively overlap our legalism definition with the idea of works-salvation. It is not just about seeking salvation through obedience. Legalism is also about seeking God’s ongoing favour through obedience. It is about trying to perform in order to stay loved, as well as to get loved.
But why do Christians slide into legalism? In Paul’s writings he sets out the fight between our flesh and the Spirit. As Christians we have the Spirit of God united with our spirit, and so we long to please Him. At the same time we are still in the flesh with all its pre-programmed rebellion against God’s good rule in our lives. So we feel a tension within. But to avoid legalism we have to make sure we understand what it means to live in the flesh.
Too easily we can view “fleshly living” as the pursuit of licentious decadence, the kind of wild and lust-charged living we see in certain places and on certain TV shows. But if we think the flesh is just about wild living, then we are set up for the trap of legalism. Why? Because we feel safe if we don’t live like “those people,” if we can resist the urge to let loose and do crazy things, then we are obviously living in accordance with the Spirit. Or are we?
The flesh is defined primarily not by a certain lifestyle, but by an orientation. The flesh is all about me. It is about autonomy. It is about living my way in my strength. And that is where we can be sucked into a very fleshly lifestyle that looks very holy. In my strength, in my own autonomy, I can be a “good” person. I can attend church, avoid unacceptable sins, dress well and look holy. Instead of living a wild and extravagant overt rebellion, I can live a hidden and self-sufficient religious rebellion. I can be entirely fleshly, and look very very Christian.
Once we recognize that the core issue in the flesh is not licentiousness, but autonomy, we can start to avoid the legalism trap. Galatians 2:20-3:3 can start to make sense to us.
Sinclair Ferguson makes the helpful point that both legalism and licentiousness are related in this way: they separate God’s Law from God Himself. Thus they both reveal the human tendency to prefer autonomy. Rather than dealing with God Himself, we can keep God at arm’s length and live in essential separation from Him, precisely by looking to a disconnected Law and give it our self-concerned obedience.
Legalism is not only possible for Christians, it is the default of our flesh in one form or another. Let’s pray for God to sensitize us to the subtle slide to legalism that stirs within all of us. It’s a slide away from Him and back towards self.