Spirit of Grace Ministries
Spirit of Grace Ministries
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The New Legalism

The Law

by Dennis Pollock

 I grew up attending the quintessential legalistic church. Of course I never thought of it as such. I just assumed that this harsh, rule-based version of Christianity was how things were supposed to be. We were taught that how we dressed was a very serious business with God. Shorts were forbidden to both sexes, and the wearing of slacks was considered a grave sin if done by a woman. At church there was a standard uniform for men: dark suits, white shirts, ties, and black shoes. Creativity and color were looked upon with suspicion, summed up by that word that instantly condemned any non-kosher clothes or practices: worldly. Many lengthy sermons were devoted to the evils of worldliness and the importance of holiness, which was a code word for dressing plainly and covering as much skin as possible.

 Most forms of recreation were condemned. Television was the devil's box. Games were a carnal waste of time. Going bowling was a sure way to forfeit your relationship with God. And woe to that man, woman, or child who happened to be at the movie theater when Christ returned!

 Looking back I have to admire the devotion of these committed, though misled, Christians. They certainly took their religion seriously. Nevertheless the legalistic beliefs and practices of many of the churches of those days did considerable harm and blocked the way for many to enter the kingdom of God. The stern, cold ways and attitudes of some of the saints were not particularly appealing to those outside the faith, and with all the hard preaching, salvations in such churches were not common.

 Today we occasionally hear pastors refer to the old, legalistic preachers, usually in a mocking tone. They are easy to ridicule and it usually gets a good laugh, but in truth this is a moot point. Churches that rail against lipstick and women wearing slacks have disappeared from the landscape. They are as scarce as LP record players and saddle shoes. To bemoan such preaching and churches would be like a doctor continually warning folks about the terrible consequences of polio. He would be right – but irrelevant, as America just doesn't see polio anymore.

 To be honest, there are still a few hard core, clothes-concerned churches here and there, but they are few, they are small, and they primarily consist of older people. They make almost no impact on the world or on the larger body of Christ. You might assume that the church has been cured of legalism forever. You would be wrong. Legalism is an insidious spiritual disease that the church must continually combat. It wears many guises and can easily morph from one form to another. In truth legalism is alive and healthy and in some ways far more dangerous and prevalent than it has ever been.

Nature of Legalism

 At the heart of legalism is substitution. Legalism occurs when the church substitutes rules, principles, or philosophy in the place of Christ. Reversing John the Baptist's motto, the legalist's mantra is "He must decrease, and my ways, rules, or principles must increase." Paul was a passionate defender of the central place of Jesus Christ in the church's preaching, teaching, and thinking. He wrote to the Colossians: 

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ (Colossians 2:8). 

When church leaders, writers, pastors, and teachers fail to make Christ the focus of their ministry, they are cheating the people to whom they are ministering. Of course they don't look like thieves. Today, they are often warm, friendly, outgoing individuals with great smiles and wonderful personalities. They may come out to teach God's people wearing jeans, sandals, and Hawaiian shirts. If you were to accuse them of being legalistic, they would look at you as though you had come from another planet. But if they are attempting any form of Christian ministry without a major emphasis upon Jesus, they are legalists, robbing and cheating those who would hear them.

 Paul's harshest words were for the legalists. One of his epistles, Galatians, is devoted almost entirely to condemning this evil. In most of his letters, Paul starts with a warm, greeting and makes a number of kindly introductory comments before getting on to any instruction or correction he wants to bring. But in Galatians he can hardly wait to bring the hammer down. By the sixth verse of the first chapter, he declares with obvious outrage, "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel…" (Galatians 1:6). 

Today's Version 

PrinciplesAt the heart of today's legalism in the church is a Christless, crossless, principles-centered approach to success in life and acceptance with God. Today's legalists would never dare use the word command, but they use the idea of principles to the same effect. Their sermons, seminars, teachings, and books essentially declare, "If you do a, b, and c, you will achieve success." Thus we have twelve step messages to overcoming addictions, ten steps toward a great marriage, eight principles of financial prosperity, six principles of great leadership, seven steps to church growth, and on and on it goes. In some cases the principles are truly from the Scriptures and can be helpful; in other cases they have been gleaned from secular books whose authors had no experience with Christ whatsoever.

 Principles are not insignificant. Any man or woman seeking success in their calling would do well to study the lives of those who succeeded in similar endeavors and employ as many of their principles as fit their case. Years ago I was at a Billy Graham conference for evangelists when I learned an important principle of setting up evangelistic events at one of the workshops. One of Billy's workers taught us that "involvement produces commitment." He shared how that the more people you can get involved in an event, the more committed they will be, and the more friends and family they will bring with them. This is why Billy always had huge choirs of thousands of singers at his meetings. It is not that you need so many people to produce beautiful music. But when you have thousands signed up to be in the choir, you can be sure that they will most likely be there every night, and will brings lots of friends and family members.

 It is a good principle and has been highly useful to me. I attempt to employ it in every evangelistic meeting I am involved with. Principles can help, but they become ruinous if they are relied upon exclusively, with little or no reference to Jesus. No amount of principles, regardless of how diligently they are followed, can ever replace Jesus – the One who declared, "Without Me, you can do nothing." If I were to attempt evangelistic missions relying and focusing solely upon the principle of "involvement produces commitment" with no prayer, no dependence upon Christ, and no preaching of Christ, all the involvement and all the commitment would be utterly meaningless and useless.

 We read in the gospels of how Peter went out fishing all night and "caught nothing." After coming in tired and probably a little depressed, Jesus shows up and asks him to go out for another fishing trip. Peter is not particularly enthused, but declares, "Nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net." This time is different however. With the first cast of the net he catches so many fish the net begins to break. He calls another boat over and they begin to load the fish in their boats but the weight of the catch is so great they both begin to sink.

 Was it a new fishing technique that made the difference? Had Peter managed to quickly peruse the latest book in the Galilee gift shop: "Twelve steps to successful fishing"? No, this had nothing to do with fishing principles or techniques. It was the presence of the Son of God in the boat that made all the difference. The net was still used. They cast the net in the same way they had been doing the night before, but the presence of the Savior brought results they could never have dreamed of in ordinary times. Net casting may bring some results, but net casting with Jesus in your boat brings miraculous results.

 When Joshua led Israel into Canaan, they went from victory to victory as they conquered their promised land. While God did give them battle strategies from time to time, it was more than mere military technique that gave them the victory. In Psalms we read: 

For they did not gain possession of the land by their own sword, nor did their own arm save them; But it was Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your countenance, because You favored them (Psalm 44:3). 

One of the battle tactics God gave Israel was to draw the enemy out of their city with a feigned retreat, while others waited behind to capture and burn the city behind them once the enemy warriors had left. The strategy worked well, but Israel's victories were far more than good strategy. The key to their success was the Holy One of Israel who went with them as a consuming fire to rout their enemies and scatter them in every direction. It was His right hand, His arm, and the light of His countenance that made the difference. 


One of the missing factors in our modern legalism is an emphasis upon prayer. Why pray when you can employ all your principles and get the results you need? At its heart prayer is an acknowledgment of desperate need – need for the grace of God. But when the focus is on principles to follow, people are often deluded into thinking they are not so desperate. Their needs can be easily and entirely met if they only follow steps one, two, three, and four. In truth none of us will ever be able to perfectly follow all the principles we need to live a life pleasing to God, or achieve the goals God has set before us. We need grace! Not only will we never be able to completely follow all the necessary principles, we will never even know all of them. "We see through a glass darkly." To presume to believe we can please God and achieve His calling on our lives merely by following the ten steps to great leadership, or the twelve points to successful parenting is nonsense. If the principles are God's principles, by all means follow them as best you canbut do not take your eyes off Jesus and never stop praying. It was not principles of effective water walking that enabled Peter to walk on the Sea of Galilee; it was the command of Jesus. And it was only when he got his eyes off Jesus and onto the storm that the water could no longer hold him. 

Jesus' death on the cross for our sins and His resurrection three days later have unleashed a torrential flood of grace for the human race. In this stream there are blessings and victory, enablement and fruitfulness. But this grace is irreversibly linked to Jesus Christ--and faith in Him. As we look to Jesus, He will indeed give us instructions about how we are to carry out the tasks He has assigned to us. Sometimes we share these instructions with others and they are called principles. These principles can be extremely helpful, but we must never allow God's principles to overshadow His Son, who is to be the object and focus of our faith. Christless sermons, seminars, books, and teachings are robbing the church of its power. May we never forget the exhortation from the book of  Hebrews: 

…and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

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