On my way into work this morning, a thought popped into my head. How many times are people who are striving to be holy chided for being legalistic? Maybe they choose not to drink alcohol. Maybe they choose to have a more limited vocabulary. Maybe they don’t watch the same movies or listen to the same music as everyone else. And how many times are these believers scoffed for being legalistic?
I grew up in a pretty conservative Christian home. And I’ve spent a lot of my adult life trying to find the balance between being legalistic and having too much “freedom in Christ”. And there is a movement in the church today that is somewhat disturbing. Essentially, it portrays itself in a way that says, “It doesn’t matter how you act as long as you love everybody.” This is an oversimplification of the gospel. It negates the teachings of Christ, Paul, and others about living in holiness. I realize it is probably a knee-jerk reaction to the legalism that flourished in the evangelical church in the late 1900′s (and still flourishes in some places), but we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. True, we are called to love God and love others. But holiness matters. Right living matters. And our lives will be better if we seek to live the way the Bible has taught us.
On the flip side of this coin is that legalism is often mistaken for holiness. What I mean is that some people really have no love for God or others, but feel they are living godly, “holy” lives because they have this list of “pet sins” that they choose to avoid, and do a fairly good job of avoiding them. These lists seldom ever include things like “gossip, lust, or greed” but often include things like “drinking alcohol, adultery, tobacco use, pornography, or $5-buy in poker.” As Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13, if we give all we have to the poor or speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, we have nothing.
Our faithfulness to Christ is not defined by our avoidance of certain vices. It is defined by our love for Christ and for others. But it should be expressed in the choices we make. Numerous times in the gospels, Jesus makes the statement (or a similar one), “If you love me, keep my commands.” Primarily, this includes loving God and loving others, but it also includes many of the other things.
One of the things I’ve tried to teach my youth group over the years is that Christianity is more about the things we are called to DO, than the things we are called NOT TO DO. But that doesn’t mean that the avoidance of sin doesn’t matter. Daily I battle temptations and impulses that validate my humanity and give me opportunities to choose God’s way over my own. In the times I get it right and choose God’s way, it is not done out of legalism, but rather out of love.
What are your views on holiness and legalism? Is living holy the same as being legalistic? Or does it even matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts.