If you’re anything like me, it gets confusing when people start throwing out “ism” and “ist” terms (i.e. realism, dispensationalist, existentialism, pragmatism, etc). Sometimes one of these confusing words is “Legalist.” Typically this word is used as an insult when one person thinks the other is being overly stern and unfair with the commands in the Bible. They use this insult to say that one is making laws where the Bible hasn’t. They may not realize it, but they are misusing and misunderstanding the word “legalist.”
To put it simply, a legalist is one who closely follows the law. In regards to the Bible, a legalist would be someone who closely, even strictly, follows the commands in the Bible (The Free Dictionary). So, this definition would make men like Paul, Peter, Moses, and even Christ legalists! These were all men who tried hard in their lives to follow and enforce the commands from God. Sometimes they even did so in a strict and firm fashion (Matthew 21:12).
We are living in a time when both culture and religion are becoming excessively relaxed and liberal with laws and morals. Think of it this way, a hungry and ferocious lion is chained up with an unbreakable leash. The leash represents our “laws and morals” and the lion represents the consequences of bad decisions. Strangely, what is happening in our society, and in congregations, is not only an attempt to lengthen the lion’s leash, but to get rid of the restraints altogether! The problem is, the more we let out the leash, the more the lion will attack. In other words, the more prevalent crimes, sins, and immoral activities will become. 1 Peter 5:8 talks about Satan being like a “roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” The way we are told to resist him is to “stand firm in our faith” (vs. 9). In a similar fashion, Ephesians 6:10-18 says to equip ourselves with the armor of God. One piece of this armor is “the shield of faith.” Having faith and being faithful requires one to be morally upstanding and a follower of God’s commands.
In 1 Timothy 1:8-11, Paul made some statements that would probably be very unpopular today. He says, “But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.”
Culture and religion are trying to let out the lion’s leash on some of the exact things God condemns in this Scripture. One of the causes of this leniency is a fear of being too strict or being a “legalist.” Even though legalism has gotten a bad reputation, what we desperately need today are more morally upright and law abiding people. We need people who are going to stand for what is biblically right, even in the midst of name-calling and disapproving glares. Let’s make the decision to be law-abiding, morally upstanding, and Bible obeying Christians–just like Christ.