A Pepper Grinder Post

Legalism Blues

We lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for close to 20 years.  For any of you who don’t know, Lancaster is famous for its population of “plain people”—primarily Amish and Mennonites.  Especially with regard to the Amish, I think many people assume that they all live the same way.  We found that it wasn’t that simple.  Different groups of Amish have different rules about what is and isn’t allowed.  No Amish who have joined the church and are in good standing drive cars, but some Amish groups are allowed to use tractors.  I even read today that some Amish are permitted to have cell phones.

amish farmAmong the Mennonites, there is much MORE variety than among the Amish.  Different Mennonite groups range from ones who are more conservative than many Amish groups to ones who are indistinguishable from many other Protestant churches in their lifestyle.  I remember being struck by something a Mennonite woman we knew said about how Mennonites tended to think about other groups of Mennonites.  Groups that allow more freedom are seen as wildly liberal, while more conservative groups are seen as rigid and legalistic.  It didn’t matter where you were on the spectrum; you thought the same way about the groups to your right and to your left.

I don’t think it’s all that different with other evangelical Christians.  People who have fewer rules than we do tend to be seen as people who are lacking in true commitment to Christ.  People who follow more rules are seen as legalistic.

I can only think of one person I ever met who described herself as legalistic.  (She was not saying it was a good thing—just that it was her tendency.) Nobody wants to think of themselves as legalistic.

BibleIn light of this, a posting on legalism seems like a cheap shot. My mental caricature of a legalist is someone with a huge black King James Bible and a dour face, spouting off verses that purport to show that everyone who drinks any alcohol, or listens to rock music, or has the wrong length of hair (depending on his or her sex) is a sinner. What’s the point of showing, Biblically, that this type of person is on the wrong track? Nobody that I know would want to be that kind of person.

However, the situation when Paul was writing to the church in Galatia was quite different from ours, and I think the passage we’re going to look at today has something to say to all of us.  Here is my translation of Galatians 3:1-5.

You stupid Galatians!  Who has hypnotized you? You had the picture painted of Jesus being crucified before your very eyes.
I just want to hear one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?  Are you so stupid?  Having started with the Spirit are you going to finish under your own power?  Have you suffered so much for nothing (if it really was for nothing)?  Does the one who gives you the Spirit and does miracles among you do it because you do the works of the law, or because you believe what you heard?

The first thing we need to realize is that legalism had a much better reputation among the Jews of Paul’s day than it does to modern-day western Christians.  Think about it.  Why had the Jews lost all the good things that God had given them when he brought them into the Promised Land?  In large part because they had failed to obey the rules he had set out for them.  He had told them very explicitly about the bad things that would happen if they didn’t obey him, and then they had turned around and done the very things he warned them about.  This was not a fact that was lost on the Jews of New Testament times.  Their ancestors had not followed God, and the Jews, just as God had warned, lost the amazing blessings that he had given them.  Even though the Jews were now back in the land of Israel, they still did not have the kind of autonomy and glory that their ancestors had lost.  Is it any wonder that they were very concerned about carefully following the regulations given to Moses by God?

This is why the Pharisees were the good guys of that day.  There were the arrogant, impious, corrupt Sadducees, and then there were the Pharisees, who strove harder than anyone else to obey the law down to its minutest details.  We can see that they also had huge blind spots, since Jesus pointed them out so clearly, but I don’t think those would have been so obvious to someone living at that time.  The Pharisees were not going to make the mistakes of their fathers.  They were legalistic, and they were proud of it!

You might think the early Christian church would be separated from this legalism, since they followed Christ, who set himself up as an enemy of the Pharisees.  That’s not quite how it worked out.  We find the surprising news in Acts that some of the Pharisees had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. (Acts 15:5)  Even though they accepted that Jesus was who he claimed to be, they hadn’t left behind all their feelings about keeping the law.  They were still “zealous for the law.” (Acts 21:20)

Apparently some Jewish Christians with this type of outlook were preaching to the Galatians.  What really seemed to get to Paul was when Jews with this viewpoint started telling Gentile believers that they needed to obey Old Testament law.  Sure, it was great that they had come to believe in Jesus.  But now, it was time for them to graduate from kindergarten and start REALLY pleasing God.  It was time for them to start obeying the Law of Moses.

It is this teaching that makes Paul burst out with “You stupid Galatians!”  His argument in our passage is very simple.  Why have you abandoned the grace that saved you to follow the law that never saved anyone? 

runnerIt’s as if someone started running a marathon and pulled into first place.  Then, half-way through the race, with a solid lead, our runner decides that to REALLY be successful, he should stop running the way he has been and should finish the race walking on his hands.  Who would imagine that he could win doing this?

Okay, so those men who aren’t already circumcised shouldn’t get circumcised, and those of us from a non-Jewish background shouldn’t give up bacon, right?  Those were the kind of straightforward issues Paul was talking about, but I think that the real warning against legalism goes much deeper than these.

I am not someone who follows the Old Testament ceremonial law, but I see legalism at work in my life.  I know, at least intellectually, that Christ saved me from powers, both inside and outside myself, that I could not hope to defeat.  Yet I find a constant desire in me to do something NOW that will earn my salvation.  I do not want to appear before the judgment seat of God and have him say, “Pepper, you messed up a lot of things.  You hurt people, and you disobeyed me many times.  But, because I loved you, and chose you, and sent my righteous son to take the punishment that should have been yours, your name is written in the Book of Life.  Enter into the joy of your master.”  No, I want to hear him say something like, “Pepper, I chose you, and I made a good choice.  You were a good husband and father, and I really liked your blog.  Party on.”

I am not trying to prove myself righteous by the clothes I wear, or the way I cut my hair, or the music I listen to, but I am still longing to earn my salvation by being good or dutiful or whatever.  There is a word for this kind of attitude: pride.  There is no room for pride in a statement like, “I am a sinner who deserves God’s condemnation, but I have been rescued only because of God’s kindness.” But this is the true gospel. 

sunrisePerhaps you say, “Yes, yes.  I learned all that when I was first a Christian.  But now it is time to move on to something more grown up.”  To a certain extent, this is not bad.  The Bible does present the Christian life as something that should not be static.  We should be learning and growing.  We should be becoming more obedient to God.  We should have a desire to be used by God.  But the moment we start to think that our goodness is earning our salvation, we have messed up in a big way.  This is the point where Paul, if he were around, would jump in and say, “You stupid Pepper!”

In Romans, chapter eight, Paul makes the point that we are either controlled by God’s Spirit, or we are controlled by our own fallen human desires (“the flesh” in many English translations).  Paul makes the bald assertion that those who are controlled by those human desires CANNOT please God.  As often happens in the Bible, no room is left for a middle ground.  At every moment in your life, you are either being controlled by God’s Spirit, or you are being controlled by something else.  When I am doing anything in the hope of deserving God’s favor, I am NOT being controlled by God’s Spirit.  I am trying to exalt myself, which means that I am trying to diminish God.

Ask yourself, “Am I trying to earn God’s favor?”  Having started with the knowledge that you had no hope apart from God’s mercy, are you trying to end with the smug confidence that you have been good enough to please God?  Don’t be stupid.


Photo credits: runner silhouette by

Comments on this post:

You mentioned that Paul said you didn't have to give up bacon if you had been a non-Jew and converted. You are mixing up the kinds of laws in the Old Testament. There were ceremonial laws and feasts that pointed to Christ's first advent, and the judgment. But there were also health issues, and these had nothing whatsoever to do with the faith. Take a step back and ask yourself what was symbolic about not eating coneys? Or pigs? God was concerned with the health of His people, and He was telling them which meat was safest to eat. And He was very clear on the matter. None of the animals given for food were scavengers or copraphagic. There is a text about Peter's vision that is twisted to mean we can eat everything, but Peter himself provided the interpretation of that text. There are others that have appeared out of the blue - can't remember the reference of one that says something like, 'Thus he declared all foods clean' - or words to that effect. Even if that text was a genuine interpretation, not all animals were to be regarded as 'food'. There are many Protestants today following the health laws, and benefiting from them. The Seventh-day Adventists in California are the longest lived people on the planet, and they follow bible principles. Even the bible points out that the body is the temple of God. When Jesus talked about not defiling the body by not washing your hands, He wasn't referring to the fact that e-coli can be spread on the hands, as we know. He was talking about spiritual defilement. This is a study you should do, and read broadly about it. The original diet didn't include meat. In heaven there is no death, so meat would not be on the table. The carnage and cruelty to animals is not approved by God - 'The righteous man careth for his beast'. There was none of this industrial horror in the past. We cause this because we like the taste of animal flesh, not because we need to eat them for health. Even the numbers of animals taken onto the ark were two of each unclean and seven of each clean animal. The bible narrative is given as an example to us, and we need to think about it in practical and every day terms, too. So I suggest you do a full study - prayerfully - on the subject of the health laws as something separate from ritual law. I suggest you go into it with a completely open mind, asking God to make your heart receptive if He wants to point out something you have missed. Remember, there is always something in the pages of the bible for us to see in a new light. The depths are unimaginable, and the lessons are multi-faceted. It is His word, after all. If you are certain you know everything, you will drag out the few favored texts - the one about the weak man eats only vegetables is a very deep one, and must be understood in context. Read commentaries from a whole range of thinkers and see if they gel with the Holy Spirit's promptings. Consider that it might be time for you to gain a deeper understanding of things. God says he wants us to prosper and be in good health. Kind regards.
-Lisa   January 17, 2016

Hi Lisa.
Thanks for your reply. Let me say right at the outset that I firmly believe that the whole subject of how we should eat is not something on which our salvation depends. You and I may disagree on how some Old Testament laws should apply to us, but I think that is totally okay--it is all within the sphere of what Paul calls 'disputable matters' (Romans 14:1, NIV).
I've heard the argument before about some Old Testament laws being decreed for health reasons, rather than religious ones. I think this is an appealing position, because it makes some of the laws which sound more baffling to us be nice, common-sense proclamations, made for the Israelites' own good. My biggest problem with this position is that I see no hint of this in the Old Testament. For example, when I look at Leviticus 11, where a bunch of the Jewish dietary restrictions are spelled out, I don't ever see God saying, 'Don't eat these unclean animals; they'll make you sick.' Instead, here are the verses that seem to sum up that chapter:
Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. (Leviticus 11:43-45 NIV)
This sounds to me like God's primary concern in giving these laws is the holiness rather than the health of his people.
Another problem I have is that I don't see any clear distinction made between one type of minor Old Testament law and another. I can see distinguishing between the Ten Commandments and other OT laws, or between laws that were re-iterated in the New Testament and laws that weren't, but it is hard for me to see why a law not to eat pork is different than a law not to sow a field with two different crops, to name one example. To me, it seems like a case where people have elevated certain OT regulations above others because they like them better.
I completely agree with you that Peter's vision of the animals in the sheet was primarily giving a message about preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, rather than about diet. On the other hand, I do think when Mark adds the comment, In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean.' in Mark 7:19 (NIV) that it means exactly what it says.
This doesn't mean I think all foods are equally healthy. My wife was a vegetarian for seven years, and we both started our marriage as vegetarians. We still eat a pretty low amount of meat by American standards (and mostly just chicken and turkey). We also cook almost everything from scratch and try to avoid things with additives. But, I don't feel that I can put a religious stamp of approval on how I eat. I think that someone who eats fast food five days a week may not be treating his or her body with the honor that the temple of God deserves, but I also don't think God cares nearly as much about that as he does about our hearts.
I also agree that peoples' original diet didn't include meat. However, I haven't found anything in the Bible which implies that being a vegetarian is required now. In Genesis 9:3, God explicitly tells Noah that he is now (after the Flood) giving him animals as well as plants for food. I don't understand why God would say this if what he really wanted was for Noah NOT to eat meat.
I would not want to go too far with using Romans 14:2 to say that a vegetarian has 'weak faith.' (The phrase 'weak faith' sounds very negative to our western ears, but I really don't believe Paul's main point was to paint a picture of people who didn't eat meat as second-class Christians.) I think we see Paul's real point in the very next verse where he says, The one who eats everything must not despise the one who does not, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for God has accepted him. I just don't see how you can get from that to a point of view that says Christians should be vegetarians. All I am comfortable saying from this is that I shouldn't hassle vegetarians, and they shouldn't hassle me. We should both focus on pleasing the Lord.
Like you, I also doubt we'll be eating meat in heaven. On the other hand, I'm not sure we'll be eating anything at all. Whatever we do or don't do in heaven, I have doubts about how much we can use that as a pattern for how we should live now. Just to give one example, I don't believe I'll have a computer or a smart phone in heaven (I sure HOPE not!), but I don't think that means it's wrong for me to use those tools here on earth.
I am in the process of re-reading the Old Testament. I am praying that God will open my eyes to anything I may have missed previously (something I always try to do, and a prayer which God has answered MANY times). My prayer is that both of us will see whatever it is the God of the universe is communicating through the Bible.
Thanks again for writing!
-Pepper   January 18, 2016