Why Legalism Isn’t What You Think

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.

Legalism 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…

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Scot McKnight
Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.