Chuck Swindoll shared this story illustrating the foolishness of legalism in his book, ‘The Grace Awakening.’ He said, “I heard about a fellow who attended a legalistic college where students were to live according to very strict rules. They weren’t supposed to do any work on Sundays. None! Guess what? He spied on his wife and caught her hanging out a few articles of clothing she washed on Sunday afternoon. Are you ready? The guy turned in his wife to the authorities! I’ll bet she was fun to live with the next day or two.” 1 Legalism has no pity on people. Legalism makes my opinion your burden, makes my opinion your boundary, makes my opinion your obligation. 2
What is God’s Opinion of Legalist’s?
- In the New Testament, God calls legalists by several different unflattering names.
Philippians 3:2 (NKJV) 2 Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!
- In the majority of cases in the Bible, dogs are referred to in the negative sense.
- Gordon Fee writes these words in his commentary on Philippians.
This metaphor is full of “bite,” since dogs were zoological “low life,” scavengers that were generally detested by Greco-Roman society and considered unclean by Jews, who sometimes used “dog” to designate Gentiles. 3
- In scripture, dogs are seen as scavengers, not pets.
1 Kings 14:11 (NIV) 11 Dogs will eat those belonging to Jeroboam who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country. The LORD has spoken!’
- Scavengers feed on garbage and decaying matter.
- That’s what false doctrine is like.
- It’s all putrefying garbage.
- There’s no life in garbage.
- There’s only stink, disease, flies, and maggots.
- Jesus said His word is life.
John 6:63 (NIV) 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.
- Legalism is a terrible chain for the Spirit-led man in Christ.
- It weighs you down and fills you with fear.
- Fear that your life, your work, your very existence may be unacceptable to a holy God.
- It’s all a lie.
- It’s all deception.
- Jesus made you acceptable.
- He made you a son to His Father.
- His life was given as your substitute so that your life can testify to grace and not to works.
- Legalism is an insult to truth.
- In fact, in Bible times if you wanted to insult someone, dog is what you would call them.
1 Samuel 17:43 (NIV) 43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.
- In other places in scripture, dogs are seen licking blood (1 Kings 21:19), licking sores (Luke 16:21) and returning to their own vomit (Proverbs 26:11).
- All of these are pictures of nastiness.
- In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word ‘keleb’, was used to describe male prostitutes.
- The word literally translates as ‘dogs’.
Deuteronomy 23:18 (NKJV) 18 You shall not bring the wages of a harlot or the price of a dog to the house of the LORD your God for any vowed offering, for both of these are an abomination to the LORD your God.
- The NIV translation of the Bible shows the implied sense.
Deuteronomy 23:18 (NIV) 18 You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the LORD your God to pay any vow, because the LORD your God detests them both.
- You can know you’re in trouble when God likens your activity to prostitution.
- Prostitution, in scripture, was used as a metaphor to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.
- Ezekiel sixteen is a tremendous and long discourse along this line.
- Legalists are unfaithful, period.
- The are unfaithful to the Word of God and so unfaithful partners to God.
- Prostitutes make you pay for a service.
- Legalists make you pay for righteousness.
- Both are detestable in the sight of the Lord.
- The second term God uses to describe legalists is ‘evil workers.’
- The Greek word ‘evil’ means morally bad or flat out wrong.
- Legalism is morally bad.
- It’s flat out wrong.
- Lust is immoral, so is legalism.
- Lying is immoral, so is legalism.
- Lewdness is immoral, so is legalism.
- The legalist is in bad company, wouldn’t you say?
- The Greek word ‘workers’ means laborer or one engaged in work.
- It is the same word used to describe farmers in 1 Timothy 5:18, and Christians in Matthew 9:37-38, Luke 10:2 and 2 Timothy 2:15.
- Negatively, the idol image craftsmen for the Temple Diana were called laborers in Acts 19:25, as well as the false apostles of 2 Corinthians 11:13, along with the cheating employers of James 5:4.
- Legalists are workers of evil.
- They work hard at the craft of polluting the truth of the gospel.
- Jesus spoke of evil workers who were around the fringes of the Word but never had a personal relationship with Him.
Luke 13:26–27 (NIV) 26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’
- This is not to say all legalists are hell-bound.
- We mentioned in last week’s post there are some of the saved variety.
- They love Jesus but they’ve mixed in some wrong thinking to the truth of the Word by misinterpreted certain scriptures.
- The legalists who will be toast at the Judgment Seat are those who’ve never known God and purposefully labored to ‘add to the Word of God’ their own message and to promote their own agenda.
Revelation 22:18 (NIV) 18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll.
- The third term used by God in Philippians 3:2 to describe legalists is the term mutilator.
- The Greek word is a play on the word circumcision.
- The word means to cut in pieces.4
- Whereas the word circumcision means to cut around.
- The legalists who insisted on circumcision as a way of salvation, as a way of being acceptable to God, were, in fact, mutilating the gospel of the grace of God.
- Paul cinches the nail with his next statement in his letter to the Philippians.
Philippians 3:3 (NKJV) 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh,
- Those who believe in the gospel of the grace of God are the ‘real’ circumcision.
- They are saints, not dogs.
- They are workers of righteousness, not workers of evil.
Call to Action:
The verdict is in. God doesn’t think much of legalism. Your thoughts about it should be the same as His thoughts. That’s why Paul addressed it and that’s why we should be concerned about rooting it out of our lives.
Question: What is your opinion of legalism in the church? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
- Charles R. Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart and 1501 Other Stories (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016), 338. ↩
- Max Lucado, Up Words, May 1993 ↩
- Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 295. ↩
- William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 528. ↩