L egalism is the incorrect application of laws in matters of faith. The word legalism is derived from the word law, and it describes the attitude where one tries to focus on obeying rules as a means to obtain favour with God.
In the book of Galatians, the Judaizers were legalists. They believed that to be a Christian one had to do certain things. In particular, they felt a Christian must first be a Jew before God would honour their faith in Christ. This meant that Greeks who were being converted to Christianity in the province of Galatia were in the eyes of these Judaizers not truly saved.
Paul dealt with these Judaizers harshly. He cited words, like accursed, bewitched and foolish. The Judaizers were to be cursed if they tried to add to the gospel of justification without works. This was the precious gospel that Paul had laboriously sown into the hearts of the Galatian church on his first missionary trip.
He also felt that the Galatian church must be either bewitched or indeed foolish to veer of the foundation of the faith-based salvation that he had laid. Bewitched, may sound quite harsh to us, but it made sense to Paul. This was the only explanation for the erratic change in their belief system. They had received the gospel with simple faith Paul expressed (see Galatians 3); they had witnessed miracles of healing that had been brought forth by faith, and they had received the Holy Spirit, not by their merit, or being Jewish, but solely by faith which trusted in Christ’s saving ability. So Paul had to come to the conclusion that someone had put a spell on them.
If however they were not bewitched, then according to Paul, they must be simply foolish. Saying this, referenced the pervasive Jewish belief in that day that Gentiles were barbarians, and thus foolish. So Paul said you are either unwittingly bewitched or characteristically foolish; take your pick.
Today, the Christian church faces another kind of legalism. Sure the legalism of Galatia still exists today in certain Christian sects which believe salvation is faith plus a whole bunch of things ( baptism, attendance of their church, worshipping only on specific days, etc). However the legalism that is quite problematic today is more specific to Christians. This kind of legalism is focused not so much on salvation but sanctification.
Sanctification is the process of becoming more like Christ. As we trust in Christ’s transformative power He changes us more and more, making us act better ie holier. Sanctification thus has a works effect, whereby as we become more like Jesus we should act better.
Though sanctification results in better behaviour, Biblical teaching is that behavior transformation is a work of grace by faith in Christ. (Just like salvation)
Yet many of us Christians tend to judge not only others but even ourselves by how good we are doing.
We say things such like “brother so and so, reads their Bible daily and prays passionately in church, so surely they are a good Christian”. Or “sister so and so wears inappropriately clingy clothes to church so she must not be strong in her walk with God”. These kinds of conversations indicate how externally focused we are as Christians. Yet God looks not on the exterior but the heart. Who is to say brother “so and so” doesn’t have hypocrisy in his heart, and is actually in Gods view worse than the tight clothed sister.
This type of meritorious judgment cuts closer to the heart of the dutiful Christian when we speak of necessary Christian disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer and fasting. We tend to judge our Christian progress by how well we are doing in these areas. Though vital to Christian growth, these disciplines don’t determine the value of the believer in God’s eye.
Just as God does not care what clothes you wear, God does not care how much you read your Bible, or pray or fast for that matter. His assessment of you was determined at salvation. He sees you as He sees Christ Jesus. Righteous in His sight. But Pastor isn’t it important to grow and become more Christ-like you may ask? Indeed it is. But, however that comes about, we cannot judge each other’s Christian progress by these works. This would be legalism.
In Galatians Paul challenges this church to focus on developing their walk in Christ via the Spirit. Paul’s answer to the legalistic entrapment of excessive focus on Christian behaviour, is that we should stop trying on the effects of behaving better. Focusing on good behaviour alone does not induce right action since we don’t have in our natural self the ability to do good. Instead Paul wants us to focus on the spirit, and trust Him for transformation in our lives. As we surrender to the spirit of God, that is placed inside of us as believers we exhibit an inside out change. This is opposite to legalism, which is emphasize external change. As we allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us and convicting us of wrongful thinking, we find that we begin to slowly but surely change on the outside.
So wear what you want to church. Be who God has called you to be. Don’t let others perception of what you should be determine who you are. Let the spirit of God lead you daily to become more and more like Christ.
– Pastor Olu Jegede