Are We Too Legalistic?
Christians are often accused of being “too legalistic.” Legalistic means “adhering excessively to law or formula.” Is there any merit to the accusation? To answer a question such as this we need to first understand authority. The concept of authority is defined by the very existence of and nature of God. Recall Pharaoh’s bold statement, “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?” (Ex 5:2) A battle of wills followed. Ten plagues later Pharaoh was intimately acquainted with the God who made heaven and earth and all things therein. Nebuchadnezzar was another pagan king who did not consider God’s influence in his rise to greatness. A period of living among the beasts of the field brought Nebuchadnezzar to his senses. “And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom is from generation to generation” (Dan 4:34).
We are introduced to God in Genesis chapter one. God spoke over the course of six days and brought the heavens and earth into existence. The earth was populated with living things including man. Isaiah reveals the following. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable” (Isa 40:28) .God is eternal, unlimited in knowledge and power. His power and authority is housed in His Word. The centurion imploring Jesus to heal his servant understood that only a word from Jesus would fulfill the request (Lu 7:1-9).
As Creator certain rights are inherent. God’s rights are illustrated by His first command to Adam. “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; ‘but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’“ (Gen 2:15-17). Man broke the commandment and faced punishment. The Creator had the right to command, the right to judge and the right to exact punishment.
God’s commandments are intended to bring life. However, when broken the same law demands death (Rom 7). If breaking the law produces death, logically one would insist on keeping the law to preserve life! This is a reality that cannot be ignored. Can one be “too legalistic” knowing that a misstep will result in death?
The basis of the accusation of legalism stems from insistence on adhering to Biblical authority. The previous generation rightly cited “book, chapter and verse” for all things spiritual. Unfortunately, the phrase became a mantra which directed the focus away from the source and purpose of authority and placed the spotlight on the mechanical index. This is much like the Pharisees who were so meticulous that they weighed out the spices produced in their gardens while ignoring “weightier” matters. Practicing legalism caused them to miss the reasons the Creator insists on the keeping of law. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Mt 23:23, 24; Lu 11:42).
The Israelites were instructed to “Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today, to observe them” (Deut 7:9-11). “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul…” (Deut 10:12) “Therefore you shall love the LORD your God, and keep His charge, His statutes, His judgments, and His commandments always” (Deut 11:1).
King David exclaimed, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119). “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Ga 5:14). “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil” (Eccl 12:13, 14). The keeping of the law is important. More important is the motivation behind our keeping the law. We cannot be “too legalistic” but we certainly can become so focused on minor details that we fail to please God by omitting major responsibilities.
Ken Fleeman (2018-11-11)
**All references NKJV**