Today I'm thinking about legalism. What exactly is legalism? I've heard so many different definitions, but none seem to quite cut it. It seems that everyone knows what it is, and can easily say "oh that's legalistic" but not many people can put a good definition on legalism.
Sometimes it seems that the word legalism is thrown around whenever someone's convictions are more stringent than your own. Its easy to dismiss a person as legalistic when you don't agree with their convictions, but when someone calls you legalistic about something you get up in arms. What is it about legalism that has us so up in arms?
The basic question I guess is what is legalism? Is it just a blanket word to throw around when someone happens to have stricter convictions than ours? Or does it mean something about how you gain salvation? Or does it mean something about "the spirit of the law" vs "the letter of the law"?
Dictionary.com defines legalism as "strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit." and "the doctrine that salvation is gained through goodworks"
But I'm not sure that fully captures legalism. I can see it working. I can see it in the person who refuses to be friends with someone because they do not have the same convictions. I can see it in the child who tattles on his siblings because he feels they are not following the rules set out exactly. I can see it in the person who talks about someone behind their back just because they feel that their convictions are not strict enough. I see it in the person who feels like they are closer to God because their convictions are different.
I think the definition needs to be when someone uses their convictions as a standard for everyone else.
I have to admit, I am definitely guilty of doing this. I have looked down my nose at other people just because our convictions on something were different. Its easy to do. Human nature wants to feel more important than other people. It wants to puff itself up.
I do want to say that not wanting to be legalistic does not give license to allow your brother to sin. If you see your brother in blatant sin, and lovingly talk to him, that is not legalism. Legalism is about convictions, not blatant sin.
Legalism is something that, when it rears its ugly head, can destroy churches, friends and families. It is directly linked to pride, and kills love. God calls us to love our Christian brothers and sisters, and in 1 Corinthians 13:8 God talks about love and what it is not.
"Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,"
Love is not puffed up. That is exactly what happens when legalism starts. We get all puffed up in how good of a Christian we are, and lose love. How abhorrent of a thing legalism is.
I know that I have to continually be on the watch for legalism. Its easy for it slowly creep up in my life, and drown my love for people. Its something that can easily happen and when it does, not harms my life, my relationship with God, and those I love.