How to spot legalism

The other night, we were looking at Paul’s passionate plea and rebuke to the Galatian church, the one where he talks about wishing that the Judaizers would go all the way and just castrate themselves. The question came up about how we spot legalism at work.

In the conversation, we talked about how legalism might be hard to spot because it seems to focus on good things, on a desire to be active in Gospel service and to be holy.  How can we spot the difference between a simple passion for Christ and the Gospel and a legalistic burden? How can we distinguish between a right concern to love the church and becoming captured to the slavery of joyless duty?

I suggested a little test because actually I think it should be easy to spot legalism. This isn’t the whole story but it is a good starting point. You know when a situation should be relaxed, joyful, a blessing but it feels anything but? I described it as feeling like you have suddenly been punched to the stomach for no reason.  Chances are that if you feel like that in church, then legalism is at work. Now I know that we are meant to be convicted by preaching, teaching and discipleship but God’s word should pierce your heart like a sharp pointed sword, not hit you repeatedly like a blunt instrument.  The Holy Spirit will deal with you through incisive spiritual surgery not by constantly punching you.

So, why is that not easy to spot? Well, I think that at times, we have created cultures where that feeling is actually normal.  We are used to feeling battered and bruised by our brothers and sisters. At its worst, this is seen in some of the reports of abusive cultures and bullying behaviour. One of the disturbing things about the Jonathan Fletcher case was that he associated striving for holiness with receiving actual physical beatings.  Yet it happens on a spiritual, emotional level too doesn’t it.  I remember an older chap at the church I attended in my late teens, John Dobson, coming out of a ministry meeting. Everyone was singing the praises of the preacher and how great the preaching had been. John just sighed and said “Well they must be a load of masochists.”  You see, what we had heard was a telling off without grace. We got law and no gospel. 

Think about church life. Think about the talks you listen to, or if you are a preacher, the ones you give. Think about your interactions with others. Is grace present? Are people built up in Christ, even when there is pain in the process. Or is the result that those involved simply feel like they have been beaten up? If the latter, then it is perhaps time to think again and consider how legalism might be replaced with grace.

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