18 Apr 2012

Restrictive vs. Legalistic

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. Gal. 2:15-16

Debate rages in Galatia over how Christians are to live, especially Gentile Christians. Is their standing before God - their justification - determined by how closely they keep the Jewish law? In particular, must they be circumcised as Jews and observe Jewish dietary customs to be justified before God?

In these verses, Paul recognizes two competing systems by which we might be justified - faith in Christ and works of the law. Though the term never appears in Scripture, we call the system based on works of the law legalism. It is man's attempt to work his way into fellowship with God. It is a belief in the power of the law (hence legalism) to bring salvation. In contrast, faith in Christ affirms a sole reliance upon Jesus' death and resurrection to restore fellowship with our Creator. Jesus kept the law and suffered judgment on our behalf, conquering sin and death. We enter into fellowship with God by believing He did this on our behalf and turning from our sin. The righteousness of Jesus is then credited to us as a result of mere faith; it has nothing to do with anything we have done.

It's important to keep in mind exactly what error Paul is fighting in his letter to the Galatians. Legalism will never justify anyone before God and it compromises the true gospel! (Gal. 1:6-7) No one attains righteousness through law-keeping. (Gal. 2:16) Unfortunately, we sometimes extend the term legalism beyond the situation Paul addresses in Galatians and associate it with various kinds of restrictions.

Hey, let's see if John can go to the baseball game with us after church.

Not gonna happen. His parents won't let him do anything like that on Sunday afternoon. He can't even go to a movie unless it's rated G and his parents have already seen it. They're super-strict.

You know, now that you mention it, I always thought it was odd how his sisters wear those long dresses everywhere - even in the middle of summer!

Yeah, they can't even wear make-up until they're sixteen. My parents say they're just really legalistic. Too bad for John!

In each of the examples above, some might refer to the imposed restriction as legalistic. Part of the problem is the flexibility of words. We've extended the meaning of legalism beyond the issue of Jewish law-keeping. While that's not inherently wrong - all languages change over time - it can lead to confusion if we're not careful. We want to avoid connecting the heresy of legalism that Paul opposes in Galatia with a personal distaste for restrictions that we don't see clearly in Scripture, such as watching certain movies or wearing make-up at a certain age. We don't want to hastily condemn these restrictions as "legalistic".

The Awakening Conscience
William Holman Hunt (1853)

Could these examples be related to the kind of legalism Paul opposes? They might be, but only if the individuals who practice them believe they are somehow securing a righteous standing before God by keeping such regulations. It's entirely possible they are observing these regulations, not as works of the law that secure their righteousness, but as acts of humble obedience and devotion, or as an application of wisdom. As a matter of conscience, some Christians simply avoid certain activities that others may never consider problematic. They may argue that their participation would be an act of disobedience, but we shouldn't equate their practices with the legalism Paul faced.

Paul addresses these kinds of restrictions elsewhere in his letters, but he never condemns them. Instead, he helps us see more clearly how to respond to those "legalistic" types around us.

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. Rom. 14:1-6

When there are certain differences of opinion among Christians, Paul divides believers into two categories - the weak and the strong. The weak are those with consciences that won't allow them to participate in certain activities. The strong understand that God does not consider such activities to be sin and freely participate. It would have been incredibly easy for Paul to tell those abstaining from certain foods or esteeming certain days over others, "Hey, lighten up a bit and drop the legalistic attitude." But he doesn't understand legalism the way we sometimes do. Given the manner in which he condemns legalism in Galatia, we can be certain he would have condemned these things in Rome if he thought they were identical. The believers Paul addresses in Rome are not connecting their practices to their justification; rather, they're acting on a sincere desire to live a life pleasing to God in response to His grace toward them.

Does this mean sin is a subjective experience for each believer? In some sense, yes. Paul goes on to say, "But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." (Rom. 14:23) What is sin for the weaker brother is not necessarily sin for the strong, but the sin doesn't lie in whether or not one eats. Rather, it is sinful to go against the judgment of one's own conscience. We might imagine a weaker brother among a group of fellow believers who freely eat whatever food is placed before them. The weaker brother may be tempted to ignore his conscience and eat along with them, but it would be sin for him to do so while those around him were not sinning. Verse 14: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean."

So are we free to participate in any activity if our conscience doesn't prohibit us? No. We always need to check our conscience against the clear teaching of Scripture. Subject to the effects of Adam's fall into sin, we can train our consciences to ignore those promptings that direct us away from sin. God's Word is always to instruct and overrule our conscience. (Rom. 1:28-32) It is also necessary to consider those around us. "Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble." (Rom. 14:20-21) If our actions would lead others to violate their own conscience, it is best to avoid such actions.

We should always remember that rules and restrictions do not equate with legalism, and extend charity to those who hold differing opinions on debatable matters. If our brother is confident that his righteousness comes through Christ and Christ alone, we should thank God for his desire to live out his faith as fully and sincerely as he knows how and we should encourage him in that pursuit. Of course, we never want to rule out the possibility that our own conscience needs to be awakened to join him.

Related posts:
Restrictive vs. Judgmental