By Dr. Ronnie W. Wolfe
Legalism originates, not from customs, not from practices, not from religious rites, but from the heart. Its execution is prompted by the mind and is based upon a false conception of Bible interpretation.
Therefore, we must be cautious about our judging others upon their actions, calling those actions legalism when they may not actually be a part of it. So many participate in religious acts and even rites that, because of their upbringing and their ignorance of the word of God, they understand them to be necessary, not having a reason why.
True legalism is practiced upon the human belief that the things practiced are not only proper but necessary for salvation. Legalism is set against grace and takes the place of grace in the teaching of those who follow legalism. Many of the teachers of legalism have literally “fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4), turning from the true meaning of grace, redefining it, and turning rather to their own doctrines and practices as the basis of their Soteriology, their teaching on salvation; and they teach others their false doctrine and turn others to their fallacies and drawing them away from God’s true grace.
This is made manifest many times in their practice of religion. These teachers put much emphasis on a strong free will and a necessity of works both for salvation and for the keeping of one’s soul, which gives no real assurance to those who practice legalism, for they do not know how many of these legal works they must do in order to know for sure that they are saved.
Many practice these things, however, without having a heart of legalism. They practice them as a result of coming up in life with these practices in their families and churches. For example, if a person practices foot washing, that in itself does not dictate that the person practicing it believes in legalism. If a person applies oil on another person’s head and prays for him for healing, that does not mean that he is practicing legalism. When a preacher preaches on a Christian’s having a sanctified, a separated, life, that in itself does not mean that he is preaching legalism. The belief in the heart is the determining factor.
That is why the Bible is very clear that we should not be judges of other men’s matters. We must, of course, be judges according to righteous judgment, but we must be very sure that the judgment is righteous and not personal or subjective. Note what Peter says in 1 Peter 4:17 For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?.
Peter is speaking of two types of judgment here. The first part of the verse speaks of the judgment that comes from the house of God and must begin there. We must judge as to the morality and the testimony of the members of the Lord’s church. Then Peter brings the matter to a more serious level in the last part of the verse in regarding the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God. This is the final determination of what legalism really is. It is a turning away from the gospel of God, his death, burial, and resurrection, and turning into one’s self for the salvation of the soul, leading to legalistic practices. It is not unreasonable to think that only God can know for sure whether a person is practicing legalism or whether he is simply ignorant of the freedom that he has in Christ Jesus. If that be the case, then we must not think that we can determine a person’s position before God by his actions. Remember that many of the believing Jews were continuing to practice much of Judaism after they were saved (See Gal. Chapter 3).
Let us not judge people by their actions alone but by their true and genuine faith in Christ Jesus as their Master and Lord and with some make a difference (Jude 1:22), giving them freedom to do as they feel pressed to do, but teaching them to observe all things that the Lord has commanded us. Then their actions that seem to be legalistic, if they are truly saved, they will turn away from and follow Christ. At first they do not know that they need to turn away from their idols to God (1 Thess. 1:9). Yes, some will continue to follow idols through their practices, even though they may not worship them. But when they learn more of the Savior and his word, they will turn from them and serve the living God.
There are three kinds of government: (1) Theonomy, (2) Heteronomy, and (3) Autonomy. In Theonomy God is the ruler and king. Only he directs the judicial judgments. Israel was under such a government, and the Kingdom of God is spiritually under this government.
A Heteronomy is “another” government, which means that one man or a few men (an oligarchy) rules men in both their actions and in their consciences.
The third is an Autonomy, which means that men have free consciences and should not be judged by other men in their beliefs and opinions. This is the government under which we live and which is taught, I believe, in God’s word for earthly societies. Therefore, we must leave men to their own consciences to believe as they want; but then it is our calling and work to teach men of the gospel and of the truths of God’s word. It is this truth that will make them free indeed (John 8:32), not our judgment of their actions.