What is Legalism?
Legalism is in the broadest sense a strict and maybe even overbearing adherence to laws.
In Chinese philosophy, legalism attained prominence in about 500 to 200 B.C. Legalism in Chinese philosophy is a belief that government should be modeled reactively to a belief that the human condition is one of selfishness and short sidedness. Therefore for a ruler to be effective, they believed that the people must be absolutely loyal based on a set of laws with strong governmental control and a set of rewards and punishment.
In China it eventually backfired under the Qin Dynasty due to their brutal implementation and the eventual overthrow of that Dynasty. That overthrow discredited that philosophy.
In theological use it can be divided into three forms.
The first form of Legalism requires that a person follow strict rules; in Christianity it means following those rules to obtain salvation. It’s not necessarily a belief of “works” being necessary to achieve salvation though works may be a part of that belief. That form of Legalism may include following the Ten Commandments to achieve salvation. Certainly I believe that the Ten Commandments should be followed, but I don’t believe it alone provides salvation and an eternal place in Heaven.
Now let’s see, I recall these are Commandments from God and not suggestions.
They are from Exodus 20;
“ And God spoke all these words:
1 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the
form of anything in heaven above or on the earth
beneath or in the waters below.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,
6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.
11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Unfortunately we all sin and none of us have followed these all without fail.
The second form of Legalism in Christianity is a belief that one must follow the laws in order to keep their salvation.
The third form of Legalism in Christianity is a judgment by Christians or even those of other religions where some judge fellow believers that they feel do not keep the laws as well as they and thus do not rise to the same level of holiness. An example is found in Matthew 12:1:
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat.
2 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath."… Jesus went on to say regarding King David in Matthew 12:4, “He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread--which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.”
Each year as Christmas draws near, I think about the birth of Jesus Christ; He was fully man and fully God. The most important Christian celebration is Easter when we celebrate a risen Christ, the Son of God who had paid the ultimate sin offering. Knowing that Jesus rose from the dead is the proof and the hope of our eternal residence with God in Heaven if we believe in Him and ask for salvation.
Note that I said, “ask”. What a novel concept to ask for salvation and to believe. You don’t have to strictly follow the law to gain or keep salvation and we certainly are not to judge others relative to our own observance of religious laws. But if we truly love someone, especially Jesus who willingly died for our sins and loves us more than any earthly person, how could one not want to do what God commands to show our love and to please him. A good friend of mine was telling me about a conversation with his thirty-year-old son. He mentioned to his son that he and his siblings were good kids while growing up. The son answered, “We didn’t want to disappoint you”.
On December 25th we celebrate Christmas and to many it means the Birth of Christ. God loves us so much he gave us the gift of His only Son. We only need to ask for Salvation. Then we will seek to do what is right out of love because we will not want to disappoint.
This article is informative only and not meant to be all inclusive. Additionally this article does not serve as legal advice to the reader and does not constitute an attorney- client relationship. The reader should seek counsel from their attorney should any questions exist.
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