Home Pastors Articles for Pastors Scot McKnight: Why Legalism Isn’t What You Think

Scot McKnight: Why Legalism Isn’t What You Think

It often is noted by an overemphasis on performance.

…that, in some way, calls into question the sufficiency of what Christ has done and what the Spirit can do.

It always erects boundaries between people.

…and puts a boundary between people who are designed by God and called by God to be as one. For Paul, this was seen in the Judaizing believers wanting the Gentiles to become Jews, and if they didn’t, then they were not accepted. Paul’s simple word against all of this is one: We are one in Christ (Gal 3:28).

It creates an atmosphere that is pervaded by judgmentalism.

Judgment, yes; discernment, yes.

But legalism ramps this up and a judgmental spirit pervades a person—always judging others—or the church—always assigning who is in and who is out.

Yes, discernment: The issue here is whether or not a person is accepted because of what Christ has done and how the Spirit can lead.

Legalism’s concerns are nearly always good things.

The beliefs or practices are added to the gospel, and they are usually good things: not drinking too much or not putting yourself into a place of temptation or extra rigor in one’s spiritual disciplines—all these things could be, and frequently are, good things.

But, legalism takes these things to the next level and calls into question the sufficiency of our acceptance in Christ and the adequacy of the Spirit’s power to guide us.

It often goes beyond the Bible in order to protect the Bible.

The additions we so often encounter in legalism are often ideas or behaviors that go beyond what the Bible says, and those extras are designed to keep us from getting near the Bible’s “rules” and “laws.”

“Keep the Sabbath,” the Bible says. When does it begin? Let’s say it’s 5 p.m. on Friday evening. OK, that’s reasonable.

At 5 p.m., one finds another working: Breaker of the Sabbath? Well, not necessarily. 5 p.m. isn’t what the Bible says. I could go on.

Legalism, finally, often has a reverse logic: If I don’t break the law, then I am righteous.

That is, “not breaking” becomes equivalent to “keeping.” But one can “not break” and not keep.

I have not, the hypocrite says, had sex with another man’s wife, so I haven’t broken the law. I’ve kept the law.

But no, Jesus says, the law is about loving your wife and it’s about your mind and your heart…