I’m a 15-year-old Christian, and that naturally means I go to a church youth group. As with many youth groups, there’s kind of a rub (a term first used in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as I learned the other day) between lawlessness and legalism. In some youth groups, lawlessness reigns because no one wants to be called “legalistic” or “puritanical.” (And please, don’t knock the puritans, they were amazing people that were probably scores higher in spiritual maturity than any of us millennials, despite the foolish ideas of strict moralism that people often spread about them in pop culture. Here were a few amazing puritanical people: Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, and John Bunyan, writer of Pilgrim’s Progress. For more on how awesome and interesting many puritans were, go to the DesiringGod.com archives under the word ‘puritan’.)

Anyway. Not all youth groups have this idea, though. Other youth groups are very legalistic, which is also bad. They all read their Bible every day and pray with the most flowery language and only read the King James Version (or perhaps the NIV, if it’s from 1984).

Legalism and lawlessness are both horrible. Lawlessness will turn you into a worldly fool, and legalism will turn you into a proud ‘pharisee’.

But surely, there’s meant to be a balance. I mean, setting all these rules for yourself and turning Christianity into a religion can’t be a good idea, but neither is swearing, watching R-rated movies, or wearing immodest clothing, right?

First, a few explanations because some people feel the need to attack a few things I just said.

I know, I know, The Passion of the Christ is R-rated, and I should be clear: I’m not about the rating, I’m against the content of most R-rated movies, and I think we can all agree that type of content is biblically wrong. (1 Corinthians 6:18, Philippians 4:8)

Swearing: I’m not really against the words. Again, I’m against the content. Which means I’m also against people alluding to swear words. I just don’t think it’s right. Sorry. But if you’re more concerned with saying what you want to say and fitting in with others than acting like Christ, there might be something wrong. Again, see Philippians 4:8.

Now to dressing immodestly: try to imagine (if you don’t already know) what it’s like to be attracted to someone, and then see them wearing things that show more than you can “safely” see without thinking things that are sinful. I’m not just talking about girls. I’m talking about everyone. We should all wear things that don’t point out specific areas of our body or allude to things. Sure, it’s not your fault if someone sins in their mind. But if you can do anything to help, why don’t you? Another thing I should be clear on: I’m not saying all girls need to always wear skirts. My sisters  and my mother sure don’t always wear skirts. Do whatever you want! Just keep others in mind.

Wow, it took a while to “clear things up,” didn’t it? Now back to the topic at hand.

Yes, there is a balance. It’s called being Christ-like!

Jesus was surely not legalistic. Just read the story in John 8. When Jesus talked to the woman who had been caught in adultery, he didn’t say “You evil woman! You better shape up and pray the rosary fifteen times, or you can never expect me to let you into Heaven.” (Yeah, yeah, they didn’t have the rosary back then, it was invented later by legalistic paganistic Christians; more on that in future posts.) Obviously, He was super kind and cared about the woman a lot. And he knew that laws couldn’t save her. Only He could. But He did say “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

News flash! Jesus doesn’t want us to sin! He wants us to be like Him! And now the question is “how do we become like Christ?” This short post from DesiringGod.com quickly answers this question in the simplest way, but obviously,

are lots of things that Jesus did that we should do.

The sad thing is, if you believe in doing these things (spiritual disciplines) people will often call it legalism. Sure, if you are religious about it and don’t have any heart and tell everyone they’re not saved if they don’t do them, that’s legalism. But there is surely room for people to practice spiritual disciplines. They’re not evil! In fact, failing to practice them is sin if you know they’re right. And you can’t tell me it’s not worthwhile to read your Bible. You know it is, you just don’t want to, and so you criticize people you disagree with and say “they’re just being legalistic, they’re not good Christians.” That, by the way, is called lying to yourself, and we’re all guilty of this but we should watch out for it in our thinking.

And so, I will say, as so many others have said: don’t be legalistic, don’t be lawless. Do what you know what you ought to do, and don’t judge others for doing things or not doing things (also, don’t judge people for judging you!).

…And the word ‘judge’ fires off another line of thought, but here’s the gist of it: judging is fine if it’s in your heart and stated in opinions. It’s fine to say “I don’t think you should do that or watch that or read that or wear that.” It’s not fine to say “If you do that, you’ll go to Hell.” And that’s what judging is. Simply thinking something and stating your opinion is fine, it’s when you condemn others that you go wrong. Yes, I know, “get the log out of your own eye,” but the truth is, some people don’t have logs in their eye! And you should listen to them. Or maybe, they have a ‘log in their eye’ in one area of their life, but in the area they’re talking to you about, they’re great Christians. Listen to people. Don’t judge judgers. Recognize your own faults and find strengths in others. For more on the “don’t judge me” idea, see this. (I love DesiringGod.com)

Oh dear, I’m over 1,000 words and you’ve probably stopped reading now. Anyway, I hope this post cleared up some things in your mind. And if you did read to the end, thank you. I hope it was worth it.

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7 thoughts on “Legalism and Lawlessness (well, that’s a loaded topic!)

  1. Howdy Levi, Nice piece of work. Yep, I start at myself to hold me in check and then try to help others without being a superior attitude in my life. Thanks, Gramps

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  2. You weren’t kidding when you said it was a loaded topic!! This actually fits really well into my pastor’s sermon this last Sunday. We were going through Titus 2 in which Paul explains the responsibility of older and younger men and women. I loved what my pastor said, something along the lines of, “We aren’t doing these things so that we can be saved, but in response to the fact that Christ has already saved us.” Something people (including me) have a tendency to forget. Well, this comment ended up being longer than intended so I’m going to conclude with: thank you so much for writing about this. I needed to hear it today.

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    1. That’s interesting. I totally agree… Some of us want to be super good, others want to go “against the grain”… But neither are good. What’s good is faith through grace in Christ alone. Thank you for commenting 🙂

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