Did you know that there is no term for legalism in Scripture? The idea is present, and Paul struggles to define it with terms like, “deeds of the flesh”, but if you flip open your concordance, there will be no reference for legalism (if you have a literal translation, anyway).
But we all know about legalism, don’t we? We hear Jesus’ stinging rebuke of the Pharisees calling them white washed tombs: dead on the inside, but beautiful and clean on the outside (Matt 23.27). We rebel against authority because we know that our hearts are not in our obedience, and we are so disgusted by religion that we would prefer to break the rules than look like a fake.
Is morality good?
This is a difficult question. Scripture tells us clearly that anything apart from faith is sin (Rom 14.23). Anything. Feeding the poor, obeying the rules, being morally upstanding people is sin if it is apart from faith. But what does that mean? If we are in a situation where we are tempted to sin and we do not feel like obeying, is it therefore sinful to obey if our hearts are not in it?
The bottom line here is, “what is faith”? Scripture tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11.1). So we are left to understand that any action we preform without the assurance of our future hope is sin. There is no emotion described here. Faith is not the warm fuzzy feeling that salvation can bring at times. Faith is not the feeling of butterflies or great excitement. Faith is not happiness. Faith is assurance. Confidence.
So if faith is not a feeling, how do we know if our obedience, when we begrudge it, is legalism or genuine reverence? How do we know if our morality is wicked or righteous?
It has to do with our mindset. Emotions are fleeting and generally uncontrollable. But if we have right, biblical, and holy thinking about our circumstances then we can determine our driving force. When you encounter a dilemma, do you think about the relational, legal or situational ramifications? Or do you think about what God has to say about the decision? When you consider sin, do you remember that your sin is primarily and foremost a sin against God? Or do you think of it as against another person or authority in your life?
If we keep rules for the sake of keeping rules, these are acts of self righteousness and therefore apart from faith, and ultimately sinful and damnable. This is legalism. If we keep rules because we know Gods expectations and we think we can earn favor or merit with God, we have no faith in the atoning death of Jesus, and therefore are performing sinful deeds. We must have the mindset of trust in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and preform acts of obedience out of love and thankfulness. This is not a feeling, but a response.
Vain morality is every bit as much an outpouring of our sinful nature as blatant acts of sin. God is primarily concerned with our hearts and motivation. If we act out of honor, reverence, love and thankfulness for our forgiveness and future salvation, then we are acting in faith and not sinning. We do not have to emotionally enjoy or even engage in every act, as long as our motivation and hearts are pure. There will be emotional responses and we will feel His presence, but the emotion is not necessary allthe time.
So let’s check ourselves.
“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do all in the name of The Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”
– Col 3.17