I “played” basketball in high school. I wasn’t very good. I have bad eyes that are always worse in artificial lights that throw my depth perception off. I stunk.
The more I stunk the more self-conscious of my stinkiness I became. There must be something I can do to be better? It was hard to get better when I never got any playing time. How could I be better while bench-warming?
During this time Michael Jordan and Nike shoes were all the rage. I soon figured out that I needed Nike shoes. “It’s gotta be the shoes” is how Nike commercials summed up Jordan’s success.
I bought the shoes. I paid $100 for those shoes with my own hard-earned money. I looked good, man. I even stuck my tongue out while doing lay-ups like Jordan. “Like Mike, I want to be like Mike, Like Mike. I want to be like Mike” ran through my head.
Nike settled for a legalistic approach to my basketball career. “Want to be good at basketball? Buy our shoes and shorts and shirts and eat Wheaties and drink Gatorade and stick your tongue out like Jordan does.” They wanted to change the external while never truly addressing the issue.
Legalism is an excessive conformity to a law. If this excessiveness is demonstrated by interpreting laws to minute detail to see how the law should apply to every circumstance, problems arise. Rather than being told “dress modestly” we invent 437 laws to explain what that means.
This flesh-oriented legalism’s main point is to make sure you are keeping the law. That’s it. It has no other concern for you. Legalism relies upon several things in order to work:
1) Clear authority–someone has to make, interpret, and enforce the law
2) Fear and Torment–there is no other possible goad for obedience then penalties and fines
3) Guilt–there is never a time to rest, you are always failing at some law or another
4) Peer pressure–what will the neighbor’s say?
5) Judgment–how will you know you are wrong lest I tell you?
Flesh-oriented legalism must rely upon externals. Enforcement of laws depends upon suitable external punishments to keep you in line. Obedience to laws is only proved by external conformity. Legalism is not concerned with your attitude, merely whether you are fulfilling the letter of the law.
1) Legalism wants to conform you to a law
2) Legalism doesn’t want to conform you to Christ
3) Legalism’s conformity to a law does not require the Holy Spirit
4) Conformity to Christ requires the Holy Spirit
This legalism will never lead you to dependence upon the Spirit and will never result in Christ-likeness. Legalism’s best hope is that you become just like the one who is externally enforcing the law it gave you.
Legalism might make me wear baggy shorts and wear Nike shoes, it can turn me into a Nike salesman, but it will never make me Michael Jordan. To be Michael Jordan, I must be reborn!