Legalistic Death
by Paul Hazelden


This article is a (fairly random) series of thoughts on the subject of legalism, and the impact I have seen it have on the lives of individual Christians. It may go some way to explaining why I keep returning to the subject of 'grace'.

[You can read some feedback I received about this article on the Legalism, Part 2 page.]

1.   The Consequences of Legalism

1a.   The Law and Suffering

The legalistic Christian is usually very hurt inside. After many years of listening to these people, I have discovered a remarkable degree of consistency. The story, as they tell it, usually goes something like this:

"I am not, at heart, a legalist: I really believe this is how God want us to behave. I am hurt when other people, especially Christians, do not live the way He wants them to. I know I am nothing special: I am weaker and less able than many of my fellow Christians, so why do they accept standards that are so much lower than the ones God requires of us?"

One basic problem here is the assumption that the 'laws' or 'standards' being used are taken to be absolutes, known and accepted by everyone. This is especially true in evangelical circles: it fits our mindset and our approach to the Bible so well.

In reality (as I describe later), many of the laws people live by are inventions and applications known only to the individual concerned. This is a very 'liberal' position ('truth is relative and subjective'), which makes it even harder for good, sound evangelicals to recognise that this is in fact what they are doing.

1b.   The Law and Death

To say we are 'not under' law means simply that we are 'over' the law. What do I mean by this?

No set of laws is, or could be, perfect. Laws are sometimes wrong or inappropriate. We have to judge whether or not the law is right and appropriate. This is a moral responsibility we cannot afford to ignore.

The guards in the Nazi Death Camps were 'simply following orders' - the law said they should obey your commanding officer at all times, without question. The law always produces death, only sometimes it is not as obvious.

2.   The Impossibility of Keeping the Law

2a.   Contradictory

Laws also contradict each other or come into conflict in unexpected ways. We then have to decide which law to keep. Or, to put it another way, which law has priority over the other. The legal system rarely has a set of priorities neatly laid out for us: we have to find our own way through these conflicts.

2b.   Irrelevant

Many laws in the Bible are irrelevant or impossible to keep these days. We do not often run the danger of boiling a kid in its mother's milk, but we cannot avoid usury without refusing to have a building society account or pension.

Strangely enough, this does not seem to cause much of a problem to most legalistic Christians. Why? Because they have a great deal of practice in choosing the laws they want to keep. It becomes second nature.

3.   Living Under the Law

3a.   Interpretation

The legalistic Christian has not only to select the laws to keep, but also has to decide how to interpret them. All this processing must be done in secret, because if you admit you are doing it, then you are admitting you are in control. It is a classic double standard: I claim to be judged by the law when in fact I am judging it myself.

The big problem, though, is not with interpretation. The big problem, as the Jews discovered, is that interpretation inevitably leads to invention. You don't think of it in this way, of course. You are not inventing anything, simply clarifying what was always implicit in the original law.

3b.   Invention

Once you are used to inventing new laws, the process becomes unstoppable. The legalist soon discovers that simply extending and clarifying existing laws is not enough.

The law does not cover most of the situations I face, so I have to invent new laws for myself. This is the normal response of a legalistic to a new situation. It may be considered just the legalist's version of a new habit, but it is much more dangerous.

A habit has no moral imperative; a law does. They are both hard to break, but the laws people invent for themselves are much harder than normal habits, because they are repeatedly and deliberately reinforced.

It does not matter if your habits aren't the same as mine. The difference might produce difficulty or confusion, as we come to realise that we do things differently, but it has no lasting significance. However, to a legalist, you don't just have a different habit: you are breaking a law. The fact that it is a law they have invented for themselves seems to make no difference: the law appears to them to be self-evident. "All well-intentioned people would act as I do. Isn't it obvious?" And this leads on to the final area: other people.

3c.   Other people

Trying to live by keeping laws is fairly disastrous for anyone. But even more damage is done because the legalistic Christian believes that everyone shares the same set of rules, and so is mortally offended when anyone appears to deliberately break them.

It is hard to give examples without making the whole problem appear to be completely trivial, but that is the reality in this area. On many occasions, I have heard a complaint which goes like this:

"This person who I thought was my friend greeted someone else before saying hello to me. I would never do such a thing to them, so they must have intended to hurt me very deeply, so I will never talk to them again. I can never relate to them again, because I can never trust them not to hurt me again in the future."

They are always certain that the hurt was deliberate. On investigation, I have always found that the other person was - as far as I can tell - genuinely unaware of the problem they had caused, and completely ignorant of the rule they had broken.

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Copyright © 1995-2001 Paul Hazelden was last updated 25 August 2012
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