Reverse Legalism


Legalism means different things to different people, but, generally speaking, the first people that come to mind when we think of “legalists” in the Bible are the Pharisees. They are condemned by Jesus for binding the Law of Moses beyond where God had bound it. There’s nothing wrong with the Pharisees’ desire to know and keep the Law of Moses. The problem is that in their self-righteousness, they bound where God had not bound. If we’re not careful, we can do the same thing. We certainly want to take the Bible seriously, but we must not approach it with a self-righteous attitude that leads us to bind where God hasn’t bound.

There is such a thing as “reverse” legalism, as I refer to it, which is just as legalistic, yet in the opposite direction. It is the attempt to “get away with” whatever is not clearly binding on us. This thinking can ultimately end up rejecting wisdom. God doesn’t command his people to read a certain amount of His word every day or every week. Therefore, someone can justify that “I’m not going to go to hell for not reading my Bible.” Congratulations, you’re technically correct. Certainly, God is not going to do a legal review of our minutes reading the Bible to determine our eternal salvation. Of course, by this reasoning, you’ve talked yourself out of taking in the life-giving word of God. Does that sound like a wise thing?

There are other things that can be justified by “reverse legalism,” such as drinking alcohol (“As long as I’m not drunk…”), immodest clothing (there’s no specific “line” given), and assembling with the church more than once on Sunday (God doesn’t specifically command more than that). While many people have unfortunately attempted to bind certain views of these things in a Pharisaic, self-righteous way, just as unfortunate is the reaction of a “reverse” legalist, who can justify why indulging in those things is alright because they’re technically not bound.

Of course, either form of legalism misses the point. The traditional legalist looks down on his brethren for not having respect for God’s word. The “reverse” legalist looks down on his “legalist” brethren (ironically) who “just don’t get it.” Both forms appeal to our egos and set ourselves up against our “less understanding” brethren.

There are certain things that are not spelled out in scripture because God wants us to be wise readers, not computers. The object isn’t for us to find the right “program” for reading that will produce the right set of rules or non-rules. God didn’t send to us a “heavenly algorithm.” He sent a person. This isn’t to say that God’s ordering of the world is unimportant. God’s order is very important, but living and understanding that order can only come through the wisdom, love, and humility displayed in Jesus the Christ. Wisdom is perceptive in a way that logic is not. All wisdom makes sense, but not all logical conclusions are wise. Let us learn not to seek some abstract “heavenly logic,” that will lead us to bind or loose as our heart sees fit, but rather seek the wisdom of Jesus. “The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; and with all your acquiring, get understanding” (Prov. 4:7).

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The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. — Romans 13:9-10 (NIV)

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