Moving through the Book of Galatians, it is impossible to miss the major point that legalism is just as destructive to the soul as license.
I was reminded of a sermon written by John Piper on the dangers of legalism. During the sermon, he preached in support of a provision that was being considered by the church board regarding the careful consideration of alcohol use and against a stricter provision which would go further and require members to completely abstain from all alcohol. What’s most interesting is that Piper IS PERSONALLY AGAINST Christians using alcoholic products recreationally. So why would he not support the more stringent measure for the members of the church? The answer is because legalism is far more dangerous than alcoholism. Here are a few short snippets from the sermon:
“If any of you still wonders why I go on supporting this amendment after hearing all the tragic stories about lives ruined through alcohol, the reason is that when I go home at night and close my eyes and let eternity rise in my mind, I see ten million more people in hell because of legalism than because of alcoholism.”
“Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn’t look like one. Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world. Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one. Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength. Alcoholics don’t feel welcome in church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church.” (source)
Piper’s point, and my point, and I believe Paul’s point all throughout Galatians is that we need to stop thinking of legalism as a “safe” sin. It is just as sinful and wicked to add to what the Bible says as to ignore what it says, and yet many in our evangelical world feel that it is safe and cozy to hold fellow Christians to standards that the Bible doesn’t specify.
It may be (I would say it is) wise to abstain from all alcohol. I know many, many people whose lives have become shipwrecks because of alcohol. And yet, we cannot make a blanket statement that using alcohol in and of itself is sinful. Remember that Christ turned water into wine (did He then enable others to sin?) and that Paul commanded Timothy to take a little wine to heal a stomach ailment. What’s more, what was served at the Last Supper wasn’t Welch’s Grape Juice! No, it was wine.
Similarly, I think it wise to avoid certain sorts of slanderous dancing because of the lust that is necessarily involved. But does that mean all dancing – including the waltz or a line dance, for example – is necessarily sinful? No. (The Bible verses on the people of God dancing for joy are numerous, by the way)
What about movies? There was a time in Christian circles when seeing movies over a certain rating was considered to be outright sinful. Is that always the case? No, you won’t find Bible verses saying that. But is viewing some movies (of whatever rating – let’s face it, even children’s movies are including more and more “adult” humor) sinful – can it lead to lust and impurity? Most definitely.
My point in all of this is to realize two truths:
1) No matter what standards you set up – you can abstain and avoid every sort of thing – you will still be a sinner. You may not sin in particular ways, but you will sin in others. The dangerous seduction of legalism is that it subtly tells us “hey, I’m ok, because I’m not strung out on drugs or alcohol!” But that’s a lie. There are plenty of folks who have been condemned to hell and yet weren’t users and abusers. Our response to this world, then, must not be legalism nor should it be license. Instead, we must consider our actions, our entertainment, how we spend our time and our money and continually ask “does this bring glory to God or not? Is this wise or foolish? What does this say about Christ?”
2) Legalism has never, will never, and does not save anybody. Paul makes this argument in Galatians 2 by noting that if, theoretically, you decided to use the law as a scoreboard for your holiness then you would be greatly disappointed. The law wouldn’t vindicate you. Your legalism wouldn’t make you look good. No, ironically, it would condemn you because the standards of the law would be higher than you could reach. The law shows us God’s holiness, His righteousness, and the gulf that separates Him from us. The law points us to Christ, but only He saves us – not our keeping of rules. Only He brings joy, not our rules and regulations. Should we hold to moral codes? Yes. Should we obey the statutes put forth in the New Testament? Yes. But not for salvation. Not for righteousness. Not to to be made right before God. No, we should do so as a living example, pointing to the holiness of God who has sent His Son Jesus Christ as the Savior from our sins. We are no longer condemned by the law, but instead are identified with Christ.