On the corner “Legalism”

Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief

I make no pretenses relative to being a theologian. I have examined God’s word as an amateur. I have sought meaning from a number of different references and consulted various commentaries. I have strong commitments to Christ and the Army. I keep trying to be like Christ and to fix the Army.

Legalism, n,  1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. 2. Theology a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws. (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language)

It is not by works that we are saved, but by faith.

According to Paul, writing in his letter to the Romans, 9:30-33, reliance on works got the people of Israel into much difficulty. Their blind obedience to the law came without faith. They created their own approach to righteousness by trying to earn it through strict obedience to the law of Moses and to the Levitical code. They confused the acquisition of righteousness as being the same as earning payment for a day’s work. It’s not gained that way. They had the wrong motive. Obedience to the law gained from fear of punishment or from some type of enrichment was not the purpose of the law. Taking care of aging parents from obligation instead of love is not obedience to the law. That is what Jesus meant when he said “I have not come to abolish the law of the prophets, but to fulfill them.”

Paul described his commitment to the law prior to his conversion as “faultless.”

He further states concerning Israel’s “missing” the arrival of Messiah while Gentiles resonated very favorably to it:


What then shall we say? That the Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have obtained it, arighteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attainedit. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written: See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame (Rom. 9: 30-33  NIV)


Christ is the stone.

We must guard against religious practices in Salvation Army corps that lead to legalism-creep. The driving forces of this seem to be our judgmentalism stimulated by our fear.  Too many of us refuse to let God be God. We want to take over his role. The would-be “gods” impose man-made rules as laws of Christian practice—and many of them have a long list.

We fear the contagion of the values of the culture. We seek to protect ourselves from it with these “lists” rather than putting our faith in God.  Unintentionally, we communicate exclusivity. Too often we tend to practice “relative righteousness” where one sin is ranked worse than another.

Understanding God’s mind is clearly beyond us. John 9 might provide a clue.

As he (Jesus) went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”


Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.”


We seem to have a hard time with people who are in any way “different.” We categorize them and label them, over-value them or persecute them. Maybe God made them that way to give us an opportunity to “display” God’s love through the quality of our non-judgmental relationship.

In Romans 14 we get some idea of God’s view of required rules:


V 1-5 Accept him (and her) whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything,but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything should not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not should not condemn the man who does. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? One man considers one day more sacred than another, another man considers every day alike. Each man should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day special does so for the Lord.


V 7 None of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone. Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.


V 10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.


Don’t misunderstand me. I have no problem with rules per se. Civilization is held together with such rules. A culture is defined by its rules. They are regulations that allow society to function. However, when a church group makes rules that seem to restrict membership and require those who administer the rules to be judgmental and unloving, I criticize the nature of the rules.

All this is a “heart matter.” If we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. For with the heart (spiritual) we believe and are justified and with the mouth (human) we confess and are saved (Rom. 10:9-10).

It seems so simple, but when people are required to face a number of additional requirements, it gets very complicated.

The big problem with legalism is that it requires the legalist to “play god,”—that’s self-deification. I don’t think God likes that. Let’s try not to “stumble” over this one.


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