“Legalism” is an eight-letter word; the way you hear it spoken, you’d think it had four. But I’m concerned about the attitude that seems to say: “Law? That’s so Old Testament. Haven’t you heard? We live by grace.” We cherry-pick verses from Jesus and Paul, treat all Jews as if they were Pharisees, and treat all Pharisees as legalists who are clueless in matters of grace.
Then we come across texts like Psalm 119.
It’s the longest chapter in the Bible, a prayer composed as a love poem to God and God’s law. (Wait–a love poem to the law?) Here’s a sample:
I delight in your decrees… Your statutes are my delight… I run in the path of your commands… How I long for your precepts! … I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees. (Ps 119: 16a, 24a, 32a, 40a, 48, NIV).
This isn’t a mash note, but a carefully constructed work. Each line in a stanza begins with the same letter; there’s a separate stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. “Law,” or Torah, is the word the psalmist uses most, but synonyms abound, capturing every possible nuance. We’re meant to understand that the psalmist’s love for God’s law is complete and comprehensive, his devotion full, reflecting what we’ve already seen in Psalm 1: “Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night” (vss. 1-2, NIV). (And we think we’re doing well to squeeze in a little Bible reading here and there?)
What did the psalmist understand that we don’t?
Let’s begin by acknowledging that we wouldn’t want a world without law. Over the years, my wife and I have been the victims of theft, armed robbery, and vandalism. We want laws that draw boundaries between what is and isn’t right and acceptable. And when we call the police, it’s because we want the protection of those laws.
But when the psalmist says he loves “God’s law,” he doesn’t mean simply a rulebook of right versus wrong; he means everything God teaches about life as it should be. That’s not legalism. That’s wisdom.
It’s right to reject legalism, but we want to do it in a way that honors God’s law, as both Jesus and Paul did (e.g., Matt 5:17-18; Rom 7:12). Theologically, legalism means believing that one can be justified before a holy God by following his rules. To say “I can be good enough to earn my spot in heaven” is legalism. The gospel of grace proclaims this kind of justification to be a complete impossibility.
But ironically, that doesn’t mean that someone who says “I can never be good enough” necessarily believes in grace, at least not 100%. When we know we can’t earn heaven by good works, we gladly receive God’s grace. But having done so, we may let legalism in through the back door, trying hard to be “good Christians” as we think, Hey, you ingrate, God has done so much for you, can’t you just do this one little thing?
I need to tread carefully here. Gratitude to God for his mercy is wholly appropriate. So are the good works to which we are called (Eph 2:10).
But here’s the thing. Do you read the Bible because you think you have to, or because, like the psalmist, you crave God’s instruction? Or do you figure you don’t “have to” read the Bible, because you’re under grace instead of law?
I know: it’s not that simple. All three can be true on alternating days. Sometimes even the same day, when we get really creative.
But this is what makes regular Bible reading a spiritual discipline (there’s another word we hate). Discipline is the regimen of one who has already been chosen as a disciple; we have to train ourselves out of old habits to develop the new. At first, our motto might be, “No pain, no gain.” But “pain” is never an end in itself, and it confers no bragging rights. Rather, the gain is knowing God in Christ, and God’s way; over time, it becomes more compelling as the goal toward which we strive (e.g., Phil 3:7-14).
Truth be told, when we complain about legalism, we’re often complaining about judgmentalism, and sometimes rightly so (e.g., Rom 14:1-18). But the danger comes when we unconsciously mix this with personal experiences and cultural notions of freedom in which we reflexively resist having anybody tell us what to do. Thus, “Don’t be so legalistic!” may be an appropriate thing to say to someone who needs to understand more deeply the meaning of grace. But if it means “Get off my back and let me do what I want,” then we need to take a closer look.
We cannot stand justified before God by following the dead-end path of legalism, and we need to recognize the ways we continue to be legalists even when we say we believe in grace. But the way out of legalism is not in the insistence on our freedom from religious requirements, but in the cultivation of a love and longing for God’s word.
Then we can read Psalm 119 and not be puzzled or bored by it. And, just maybe, want to add a verse or two of our own.