An Honest Look at Legalism

“Legalism.”  This word gets thrown around a lot when it comes to Biblical finance.  Anytime the issue of how to go about handling money comes up in church, this term surfaces.  I think we only use this term correctly about half the time.  There is a lot of confusion as to what the word means, so let’s dig in and try to clear the smoke. 

First off, what does legalism mean?  The simplest explanation I can come up with this this:  Legalism is the belief that “Jesus + __fill in the blank__ = salvation.”  It is an attempt to allow works to creep their way into a person’s salvation.  It is bad theology.  It is completely unbiblical:

“A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus…by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” (Gal. 2:16)

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works.” (Eph. 2:8)

I will state it plain and simple:  Christians are saved by grace alone through faith alone.  There is nothing whatsoever that we can do to save ourselves.  Nothing.  We are saved by the gracious gift of our generous God.  Amen.  Nothing I write will ever vere from this understanding.  If I ever do, call me on it.  There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.  Plain and simple–it is all the gift of God.  (For more scripture, the book of Galatians revolves around Paul arguing with early Christians that said you had to be circumcised to be a believer).

It would be “legalistic” to say that someone has to do a certain thing to be saved.  So, if I said something like “You have to be baptized to be a Christian”, then that would be legalistic because it makes our salvation contigent upon our works.  That being said, the majority of confusion around this term comes when we move from discussing salvation to sanctification.  We have to realize that when we are talking about how to become a Christian and how to live as a Christian, we are speaking into two different contexts.  Let’s continue the example of baptism.  I could, with scripture on my side and without being legalistic, tell a new Christian “You should be baptised.”  Why?  For starters, it is the first thing Jesus told new believers to do!  Baptism is a command spoken throughout the New Testament, and telling another believer that they should do x, y, or z because the Bible commands them to is not legalism.  It is simply confronting God’s people with God’s word.  (There is a huge difference between saying a Christian should do something and saying someone is not a Christian if they don’t.)

I think American Christians (myself included) are fiercely individualistic.  If we are completely honest, we just don’t like the thought of anyone telling us what to do, period.  We hate legalism (and should!) so much that we often label anyone telling us what to do as “legalism.”  I think at times we mistakenly confuse things such as discipline, truth, accountability, and discipleship with the idea of being legalistic.  Anytime someone tells us we “should” do something, we shrug it off without the slightest chance of conviction under the false accusation of legalism.  We use definitions of legalism like “man made law” to fill our minds with the unbiblical notion that man can never tell us what to do.  This is only half true.  If a man is making his personal convictions law to other believers, then we are not bound.  But, if he is simply speaking the truth of the Bible, then it is not a man made law–it is God’s law coming through the mouth of a willing vessel.  We must begin to pray for the humility to judge a man’s words against the truth of scripture instead of writing off every statement that challenges us as legalism.

What in the world does this have to do with Biblical finance?  Simple.  Let’s say I posted the following challenge on my blog:

Don’t make your life about accumulating as much as you can here on earth.  Instead, try to live for heaven as much as you can.  That is the only wise choice when you think about how temporary things are here.  Afterall, we always spend money on the things that we value in our heart.  So, if all your expenditures are earthly, I have to question whether or not you even care about heaven.  You can’t serve God and serve money at the same time.  So let’s be completely honest- If all are you are doing is accumulating for your own enjoyment in this life, I might wonder whether or not your heart even belongs to God at all because all of your actions seem to point more towards worshiping money than worshiping God.

Now, if I posted that paragraph on my blog I would have so much hatemail I would have to buy extra server space just for my email account!  And, the top of the list would be accusations that I am being legalisic.  But compare the paragraph above with the following words of Christ.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:19-24)

There really isn’t that much difference between the two paragraphs.  Nowhere in the above paragraph did I say that you aren’t a Christian if you are only accumulating treasure on earth, I just challenged believers with the very challenging words of Christ.  But believe me, there would be an outrage if I posted my hypothetical post above. 

For sake of another example: Let’s say a pastor preaches on the New Testament’s call for radical generosity and tells his congregation:  “The Bible calls us to be radically generous.  To do so, you should give 50% or more of your income away.”  That wouldn’t so much be legalism as it is bad teaching (the pastor is not saying you aren’t a Christian if you don’t give 50% or more of your income).  He is just saying you should do something that he can’t back with scripture (the 50% number that is), so his congregation is “free” of such a demand.  But here is where the rubber meets the road.  If pastor says something like this, then we as Christians argue till we are blue in the face about the 50% number with such passion that we never give a second glace as to whether or not we are radically generous.  You see, even if a pastor make this statement, his congregants are free from the 50% contingency, BUT NOT free from the call to be radically generous.  We often take one blip here, one poorly worded statement there, and run hard and fast from the overall truth of a message.  So please, be patient and forgiving with us “teachers” who try to connect doctrine with daily living in a way that is meaningful for those we teach.  Always try to look at the heart of the message.  A much better way to say it would be: “The Bible calls us to be radically generous so you should be radically generous.  Spend time in prayer allowing the Spirit to define ”radical generosity” for you.  Personally, I came to the conclusion that radical generosity is giving more than half of your income away.”   Hold fast to scripture and give grace to those who carry the burden of trying to teach God’s word.

I know there are a lot legalistic teachings out there, and I am side by side with you fighting for the purity of the gospel message.  However, we must recognize our adversary (and sinful self) hate being confronted with the word of God.  So let’s try to be a little more honest with ourselves and a little less quick to pull the legalism card whenever someone says something that causes our conviction muscles to flex.  We must always judge the words of men againsts the truth of God’s word, and we are bound by nothing a man says without the authority of scripture.  However, a man speaking from the Bible to Christians has every right to say what we should or shouldn’t do.  After all, these men will be held to account for their teaching:  “Let not many of your become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgement.” (James 3:1)  I will be accountable to God for how I used Dollars and Doctrine to teach His word.  Please pray that I handle this responsibility well.

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