The word ‘legalism’ seems to get thrown around in the church with alarming frequency. Having been a “good Christian girl” (heavy on the inverted commas there) all my life, I’ve certainly come under the heavy fire of legalist accusation in my time.
What really distresses me about the over-use of this word, is how drastically wrong we’ve got it. See, the majority of the time, all you’ve got to do to be called legalistic is stick your neck out as someone who actually tries to live by the teachings of the Bible.
It doesn’t take much digging to see that much of our Church culture has redefined legalism this way: “You choose to adhere more closely to what the Bible says than I do, therefore, you probably think you’re more righteous than me, therefore, you must be legalistic.”
There are plenty of issues with that way of thinking, but one of the scariest is how it’s labelled. Because legalism is actually a really big deal.
The dictionary defines it, in a theological sense, as ‘the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.’
To accuse someone of legalism is to accuse them of trying to earn their salvation apart from grace.
I’d say that’s just about the heaviest charge you can lay against a Christian, because, if it’s true, it mean’s they’re probably not a Christian at all.
So, before we throw the word around based on preferences, we should probably know what it means.