Ray C. Stedman
Legalism can... be described as
false Christianity because that is essentially what it
is. It uses Christian language and biblical terms. It sounds
evangelical. It loves to use phrases like "evangelism,"
"fundamentalism," "biblical literalism," and such. It sounds
Christian, and looks Christian, but it is emphatically not true
Christianity. It as a spurious fake, an imitation Christianity,
an empty, hollow counterfeit of the real thing....
How can you recognize legalism?
...since legality is basically false Christianity, then you
can never recognize the false unless you understand the true.
That is where I want to start.
What is real
Christianity? What is
Christianity as the Scriptures set it forth -- true
Spirit-filled living? Let me attempt a definition: True
Christianity is to--
- manifest genuinely
- by dependence on the working
of the Spirit of God within,
- motivated by a love for the
glory and honor of God.
... it has three essential
elements, and without all three it becomes legality:
expected pattern of behavior.
There is a law, if you like,
a code, to which we are expected to conform. Many Christians
make the mistake of thinking that to be free from legalism you
must become free from any law whatsoever. Nothing is further
from the truth. The Scriptures never endorse that notion. I know
that we sing,
Free from the Law, O happy
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission,
but what we are talking about is
not freedom from the Law but freedom from the curse of the
Law. That is something quite different. There always must be
law. This is a law-governed universe because the law reflects
the character of God. God himself is reality. God is behind all
things, and his character is the law which governs everything.
Therefore Christians must always
be related to law -- the law of the character of Christ, of the
law of the Ten Commandments -- it is the same thing. The Ten
Commandments simply describe the nature of God's character. So
true Christianity isn't freedom from the existence of law. There
is always a standard, always a code of conduct to be
sufficient and adequate power.
That is absolutely essential to true Christianity. The whole
glory of the gospel comes in right at this point. The good news
is that God has given us a sufficient and adequate power,
indwelling us, available to us at all times, so that we never
have an excuse for not being what we ought to be. In the Spirit
of Jesus Christ, indwelling us, we have what it takes -- a
sufficient and adequate power.
3. [A] motive
which moves us to action
-- a powerful, compelling hunger for the glory of God, an urge
that God be honored and glorified. If I can put all the
foregoing in another way, the true Christian life is fulfilling
a law by means of a unique power because of an overwhelming
desire. It requires:
- An outward standard or code
- an inward power which makes
it possible to meet it, and
- a motive which drives us on
to do so.
You cannot manifest genuine
Christianity without all three.... Let me go over these and show
you what I mean:
have the wrong standard.
Legality then becomes making unwarranted or unnecessary demands
on yourself or on someone else, especially in areas which are
not prohibited in the Scriptures. That becomes legality.
There is a standard which is
prescribed. As I have mentioned, the Law of God never changes
and it is always right, always applicable and relevant to a
Christian. For instance, it is always wrong to murder, or to
lie, or to steal, or to commit adultery.....
But there are other areas in
which we are given a great deal of personal liberty, and it is
legalism to make standards (particularly for someone else) in
these areas. Here we must be careful, because, for ourselves, it
is proper to set standards or rules which apply to us.... But
legality comes in when a group of Christians makes rules for
each other, or for anybody else. That is what is wrong. That
to do with the power upon which you rely in order to act.
... The actual behavior can be exactly the same in the case of a
legalist or of one behaving as an authentic Christian.... It is
what is going on inside that is the issue in question. ... Are
you counting on your ability, your own adequacy, your talent,
your personality? Is that what you are reckoning on in order to
accomplish what is expected of you? Well, if you are reckoning
on anything other than the activity of God at work in you, you
are a legalist!...
Third... the motive which
moves you to do things. Legality is also the fulfilling of
external requirements for reasons of self-exaltation or personal
merit. Here we are focusing on the why of what you do.
You must be right in what you do, how you do it,
and why you do it....
Are you trying to build a
reputation for yourself? Do you want a name as a spiritual
Christian?... That is exactly on a par with the religion of the
Pharisees. This is what Jesus is highlighting in the Sermon on
the Mount -- men who love to be seen before men instead of being
content to be visible only to the God and Father who sees in
Of course, combinations of these
failures are possible. You can be wrong at two points as well as
one, or at all three -- and then you are really a legalist! You
can be an obvious legalist as well as a subtle one. ...
Now we are ready to attempt a
definition of legality which I hope will fit all the
circumstances we have looked at:
Legality is a mechanical
and external behavior growing our of reliance on self,
because of a desire to gain a reputation, display a skill,
or satisfy an urge to personal power.
That is legality. It is religious
performance, scrupulous and meticulous in its outward form, but,
inwardly, as Jesus described it, "filled with dead men's
bones," (Matthew 23:27). It is relying on self, personality,
background, training, and talent or skill instead of the Spirit
of God. And it is operating for and on behalf of one's own
personal glory. That is full-orbed legality.
We don't like that, do we? We all
want to deal with God directly. We don't mind his seeing us. We
don't mind his telling us what is wrong because he does it in
secret. But it really gets to us when he chooses to use someone
else to do it. As Oswald Chambers says:
"God never allows you to
choose the scene of your own martyrdom. If you object to the
fingers by which he crushes his grapes, you will never
become wine poured out to bless the hearts of others."
Well, then, what is the cure of
legality? ...The Scriptures suggest a very simple and unfailing
remedy: Repent and believe -- that is all. Repent of it. Change
your mind about it. Don't justify it. Don't excuse it. Don't
call it something else. Don't try to cover it up and pretend
that it is something acceptable. You may fool the people around
you but you won't fool God. He knows.... Commit it to him and
out of death will come resurrection; from death will come life.
The moment you acknowledge the death, the resurrection
immediately follows -- always. God brings to life that which
would otherwise be barren and dead. That is the secret of