The real freedom that we have is freedom within the bounds of the law of God to honor it as a way of gratitude. People today are making the assumption that freedom is freedom to live outside the law of God. Simply put, “If you come to us, we won’t require anything of you.” We need to properly define legalism as putting a yoke over people for their justification before God, in addition to faith in Christ.
What is legalism? The charge of legalism is so carelessly flung around today that people have no idea what the term means. It’s become a catch phrase to write off any teaching of God’s moral law.
There are three ways this term is being misapplied and abused to attack churches that have remained confessionally Protestant.
First, churches that are serious today are characterized as legalistic. In fact, any church that is serious or formal anymore will “stand out like an organ stop” (quoting David Wells) and be labeled as those who are joyless and legalistic. People are equating legalism with formality, as if freedom means casualness before God. I’m reminded of the Lord’s complaint against Israel,
For My people are foolish, They have not known Me. They are silly children, And they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, But to do good they have no knowledge.” (Jer 4:22)
Just before Israel’s impending judgment for apostasy, the Lord tells us that the worship became full of sheer “silliness.” No word could better capture the feel of today’s worship than silliness. We have forgotten the Lord’s warning, “By those who come near to me, I must be regarded as holy.”
Second, legalism is being carelessly used to attack people’s liberty. I have noticed the reverse problem of striking at a brother’s liberty because he wants to, for example, offer his first-fruits in the way that he dresses or looks. “They make all their people dress a certain way at that church.” Broad characterizations and generalizations are made this way and lumped together as a “legalistic” when, in fact, practices of people are often birthed out of genuine gratitude for the grace given. In other words, marketing mega-churches keep kicking the traditional churches as legalistic in matters of Christian liberty—they wear ties, they sing out of a song book, etc.
Third, and most dangerous, the charge of legalism is made against those who are sincerely trying to honor the law of God out of gratitude. Now none of these people would advocate that Christians should murder, steal, commit adultery, etc.; but when a Christian wants to, for instance, keep the second commandment and not make images or have icons for worship, since it is expressly condemned in that commandment, well, that is now said to be legalistic. If someone says, “I want to honor the fourth commandment and keep the Sabbath day holy” this is the kind of stuff being labeled as legalistic, when in fact, it is a law of God.