Christians know we’re supposed to be different, but rather than wait around for the Spirit’s movement and the subtle changes of character gradually brought on to make huge differences, Christians have settled for external proofs of change.
In America, legalism targeted different foe through the years. Near the turn of the 20th Century, teetotalism was all the rage. Refraining from alcohol was a big deal. Legalists weren’t satisfied with keeping themselves not drunk, they insisted upon getting rid of all alcohol everywhere for everyone.
Christians soon gave that up and moved on to movies. Movie watching was akin to worshiping Baal. Setting foot in a movie theater meant you sold your soul.
Television came next. All the evils of movies were now in your home. The Devil has an invite to your children with the flip of a switch.
Then came Elvis Presley and his gyrating hips. Rock music and dancing were two peas in a pod and those peas need to be composted, brother.
Over the years legalism has targeted and then dropped one fad sin after the next. Obviously, in all these behaviors, there are dangers and evils lurking. My point is not that these things don’t have evil tendencies, they can, as there are evil tendencies with anything on this earth.
Legalism’s problem is that it makes people against these things apart from voluntary participation. You refrain because a guy made you feel guilty about it. Pride came in, obsessive concern with your self entered. You weren’t against sin for the sake of being against sin, you were against these sins so you’d fit in with your group.
Now, again, peer pressure is not the worst thing in the world. Legalism falters, however, when it chalks up spiritual worth to what was physically done. It’s the people of Israel bringing animals for sacrifice near the end. Yeah, they technically fulfilled the law but their heart wasn’t in it.
“Be not conformed to the world” is a tough phrase to digest. Legalism attempts to make you non-conformist to the world’s evil. But evil is shifty and hard to nail down. It’s not always external either.
Legalism settles for “be not conformed to the world” as its base principle. “As long as we’re different from those smoking, drinking, movie watching heathen scum, we must be good.”
But that’s not the whole phrase. “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Legalism doesn’t deal with the mind; it deals with the body, it deals with what can be measured and/or judged.
Legalism has its place. I said it, yup I did. All parents should be legalists to a certain degree. So too should teachers, bosses, governors, etc. But if legalism is our sole approach to God? We’re in big time trouble. God judges the heart.
Legalism is an obsession with conformity to law, which again isn’t all bad. What is bad is if external conformity to an external law is relied upon to prove a spiritual reality. In my mind, this is the danger of legalism.