As mentioned in previous posts, I am re-reading, “What’s so Amazing About Grace”? by Philip Yancey.  Yancey examines the function of grace and how it does or doesn’t tend to be applied in our lives, particularly in North American church cultures.

The book discusses many observations of legalism.  Meaning the application of ever-tightening rules and laws intended to manage behaviour in a way that presumes to please God.

The discussion of legalism has been bouncing around inside my head for weeks now, and have come to see how much I have been allergizing over it in reflection of my church-going experiences.

Why is it I wonder that we humans tend toward legalism?  Is it easier for us to understand and impose on others?  Why is it I wonder that the organized representation of the most famous man in all of history, whose message was centred around grace, is known largely by its reputation for legalism?

Why the repeated drift toward legalism?  How many times throughout history have there been enlightenments of the legalism we find ourselves in, then a reformation of some sort, only to drift back into legalism.

And this is certainly not limited to churches and the progression of church cultures.  I see it in other faith systems too.  And in AA.

We seem bent on penning ourselves in with legalism over and over again.

My journey continues to prompt me to wonder, why?





About Chaz

Husband, father, brother, son, friend. Sober member of AA. Grateful for the life God gave me and for the happy struggle of recovery.
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22 Responses to Legalism

  1. savedbygrace says:

    * Why is it I wonder that we humans tend toward legalism?
    We go all the way back to Adam.
    legalism can be traced back to “the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil”
    that tree is the representation of the Law.

    unless there is no more sin in this world,
    then there is a need for the Law – legalism
    – romans says “sin is manifested in Law. Law is the power of sin”

    unless, parents grows up children in love, rather that do’s and dont’s,
    then there is a need for obedience out of fear

    on thing also, our flesh tends to be flesh. hence legalism, law is empowered
    – galatians says “we walk in spirit not in flesh”

    grace and peace

    • Chaz says:

      Thanks for your reply. The bewildering thing to me is our continual return to legalism and away from grace. Enlightenment seems to be only temporary. And we overlook the central theme of what Jesus taught, particularly those who claim to represent and even “know” him? It is such a paradox.

      Thanks again for stopping in.

  2. Heidi says:

    Awesome post. I’m going to ponder this.

    It’s so nice to be able to have internet access again, Chaz. I’ve missed your wisdom and your challenging posts.

  3. Chaz says:

    Thanks Heidi…. glad you popped by and are connected again. I welcome hearing any thoughts you have on this or other topics.



  4. notaconvert says:

    Ohhh, great topic, and one I think on often. What it really comes down to is the condition of our hearts. That is the ultimate final factor that truly matters. I was recently asked something like ‘why do you have to do ‘xyz’ to get to heaven’. I believe that if we truely know and love Jesus Christ, that our heart truly changes in response to his sacrifice. That we develope a natural (or perhaps unnatural) response to do his will. Obediance becomes a form of worship. Doing his will becomes a form of worship, it becomes a response to his sacrifice. I think sometimes people ‘outside’ see obediance as ‘legalisim’. If we are strictly speaking of ‘legalisim’ as obeying ‘the law’ or works without faith than that is one thing that has been a tendancy since before the Savior. However I see a tendancy to judge works OF faith as ‘legalisim’ and I would like to delve more into this topic and why it exists…. You have given me something to think on. Thanks.

    • Chaz says:

      “Obedience becomes a form of worship”. This to me identifies the motive behind doing good works. I suppose it is kind of like the cart after the horse if we contrast it to legalistic thinking that may suggest putting the works first.

      Somehow, we as a species tend to gravitate toward the works and insistence upon them for us and others ahead of or in place of the responsive obedience as a form of worship that you reference in your reply.

      In numerous circles I have been in, I have experienced those who have seemingly isolated the actions from the meaning. Maybe the legalistic actions are simply more tangible and easier to do by force or habit … or just easier to do than maintain a relationship with God then serve with our actions.

      I guess I say this in hope that I don’t once again fall into this pattern. It appears to be easy and natural. In addition, perhaps the offense we feel when we see actions by others that we feel are wrong… so the reactionary response is to address the actions… thus imposing legalism.

      Somehow, its what we frequently do. Unawareness of the fact keeps us vulnerable to fall into legalism again.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking reply and contribution to the dialogue.


  5. I am not one for rules … When it comes to “Church.”
    The fear of damnation is the big thing that keeps people in the pews so to speak, At least that’s the way it was. People fear three things .. God, War and the unknown. And we all know that the bible is the law, set down by God to make sure we all do the right thing. (do we always do the right thing?) Some people swear by the law, they protest because of the law, and some say fuck the law. I am in the latter group. Rules in the OT were set because man was a sinner, and the God of the OT was a very angry God who punished people and set them apart. It is a running theme in the OT. We have these rules, as set down by the bible/church that say specific things. The all common To do/Not to do list.

    There are some who follow the rules to the letter, some who pick and choose which rules they want to follow, and those who spurn the rules. But you know, I haven’t heard from God about all these rules, we are speaking about. And Jesus was quite clear “Love God with all your heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.” Pretty clear rules that most Christians could not follow to save their own lives.

    The rules, legalism, is a construct, set forth to keep us living in fear of a God who may punish up on the last day because of what we did in our lives. Hell, the other construct, is a separation from God, but most Christians believe that it is a real place, and not that “thing in your head” that we have been taught is punishment for the transgressions of the rules set forth by God.

    I may not agree with all the rules set down by the church. But I try in my capacity to follow certain moral rules and truths about myself and my fellows. Even in AA, when I stand before a room and speak, as I did the other night, I speak about God, and I share my message and people usually get it. Alcoholics need some direction, except when it comes to God.

    We come to AA, and for some, they look for God, some find God and some don’t. For the most part at some point we all find God, one way or another, it may just take some time for some to locate him because of those god damned rules that keep us from really finding God in our lives. So you see, those rules we were taught, keep some from God because of fear and sorrow.

    Sooner or later, a Christian realizes that you can forget all the rules if you can’t follow the two rules Jesus asked of us, to love God and love our neighbor. If you can’t do do one, you can’t do the other either. It is a challenge in life for many people, how do I live with these rules and where is God in all the midst of this stuff?

    The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. That’s the only rule we need to know. The rest come with sobriety and finding the God of our understanding, aside from all those needless rules we were taught to follow.

    No one can follow all the rules written in the bible to the letter of the law. However some Christians like to toss those rules out to the rest of us for their edification, even the most holy bible thumper Christian could never follow all the rules down to the letter. However hard they try to convince themselves that they are true to God in the law. It just isn’t possible or feasible in today’s world of Christianity.

    People like to flaunt the rules as if to say “follow these and repent of your sins…” But if you ask them if they follow the same rules they flaunt to the rest of us, many would answer No… I like to toss out the golden rule to those thumpers myself just to see them balk.

    Show me the man who loves God with his whole heart and loves his neighbor as himself.

    Those are the only rules that matter to me.

    That’s what I know about the rules…


    • Chaz says:

      Fascinating points Jeremy.

      I can’t account for why God is recorded in the Old Testament as being angry, yet in the New Testament, “… so loved the world He gave his only begotten son”. Seems a contrast. Hope to have more understanding on this one day.

      I feel a little isolated in the culture I live in in my belief that there are still rights and wrongs. I think Jesus was clear on this in that he did tell people to “go and sin no more”. Yet I wonder if his message was not, as you point out, that all else pales in comparison to loving God and neighbour.

      A previous reply mentions obedience as a follow through or expression of love for God. This makes sense to me. Yet all the follow through and expression seems meaningless if we don’t have genuine love for God and neighbour.

      1 Cor 13:2 makes clear to me the importance of love and the fact that its absence trumps all great works…. “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing”.

      Love is a tough one… which perhaps is why so few people do it. It is just easier to impose a list of laws on self and others… especially others 🙂

      Maybe it is as simple as putting relationship ahead of rules. Maybe this is what Jesus was emphasizing?



  6. The God of the OT was a tough man to please. Because so many people were on the wrong side of God, hence the angry God. Many lessons had to be learned before God softened. It is curious, I think very few people read the OT but to quote the letter of the law when it serves them.

    Jesus on the other hand, God made incarnate, came down from heaven to be man. God gets a second chance to be understood in a better light. Jesus taught a great many things. Relationships and love are a mainstay in his ministry. If you love God, then you should love your neighbor, and you can’t say you love God and hate your neighbor. You can’t have one without the other. Jesus tells us that we should go and sin no more, where ever possible. Also the thought about obedience…. If you hear what Jesus is teaching and you ignore it, then so much for obedience. The outline of how to live is there, some in red print. I think for Jesus it isn’t so much about rules but about honor and respect of self, neighbor and of God. once you read the scriptures they reside within you, and if you do nothing with them, then it was a waste to read them in the first place.

    We learn this in the study of Religion. How many times in our lives do we get to be Jesus to others and we waste the opportunity? Ego, Righteousness and hatred. All those things which keep us apart from God. Yes, there are rules set out by the writers of the bible as a whole, written to a specific people, for a specific issue at a specific time. Today’s Christians seem to forget this little factoid. When they spout rule and passage. They are not practicing Love, they are, simply judging. Something Jesus warns us about.

    Jesus mission on earth is wasted if we cannot find love for God and neighbor. Those are the key features of the Gospels. Upon these two teachings come all the rest. If we are to become like God, then we will take to heart these things and do them. It is a tall order. And God knows that.

    In the program we learn how to live. And it is in that living “soberly” that we experience God of our understanding. And if we practice our faith in a communal setting with family, brothers and sisters, we get to peek behind the veil and see God. They say that religion is one of the most divisive subjects. That’s why broken drunks have such a hard time finding God in sobriety. And that is why there is so much strife in the world because of religion. And for some of us it is our job to break down the message into bite sized pieces and share them with others. And try to affect change in our communities.

    Blessed are the peacemakers … Blessed are the poor… And blessed is he/she who hears the word and lives it in their heart.

    • Chaz says:

      Hey Jeremy… thanks for your rich reply. There is much I would like to respond to but will keep it to a salient few points….

      “I think for Jesus it isn’t so much about rules but about honor and respect of self, neighbor and of God”. Agreed. It is in the honouring that I feel we should seek to obey.

      “Jesus mission on earth is wasted if we cannot find love for God and neighbor”. Agreed completely. Crazy that those who profess most loudly and vividly to be representatives and followers of Jesus often seem to be those who miss this point most loudly and vividly. Instead, they (we) are known as moral legalists, not lovers of our neighbours.

      This is my point… humanity seems to migrate back to legalism. Not just in church, but in most endeavors…. including AA.

      “They say that religion is one of the most divisive subjects. That’s why broken drunks have such a hard time finding God in sobriety”. Imposing a rule-based message of recovery does not appear to be effective. Even though we do need to follow rules and practices in order to stay sober. It appears we need a love-centred approach. I know I did…. I needed to feel people understood. This sounds pretty high-maintenance and immature as I re-read what I just typed. But it is what it is. I tried rule-based sobriety, it didnt work. But when I felt connected and reached by someone like me who had travelled a similar path of pain and dysfunction, then had turned it around, and loved me enough to walk the journey with me, I found relevance.

      I agree completely that Jesus was not about the rules. The law-makers and rule-keepers were in fact the only people he angrily opposed. The “sinners” were the people he connected with and helped. The law-makers and rule-keepers, not the sinners, ordered his brutal execution.

      Again, 1 Cor 13:2 “… but have not love, I am nothing”.

      Thanks for your very thought-provoking reply.



  7. Debbie says:

    Short answer is that it’s easy, Chaz. No wisdom or discernment or compassion required. It’s like a True/False test – it can only be one or the other so just check the box.

    • Chaz says:

      Thanks Debbie…. I suppose in absence of recognition of the pain and calamity of legalism, it is indeed easier. Easier in the moment I suppose is the best way I can say it.

      Given that we humans do tend to default to the path of least (perceived) resistance, then ‘easy’ would explain a lot of it.

      Grace is a tough zone to live in… particularly at first. For any of us to be gracious in a culture of ‘ungrace’ as Yancey terms it, is really counter intuitive. Grace takes patience and in my experience…. it takes practice. In fact, one of the things I have experienced grace to be is a skill that we need to train ouselves in to become any good at.

      I agree, legalistic right/wrong is way simpler. It appears to be the pole to which we as a species are magnetically attracted.

      Thanks for adding your concise wisdom to the dialogue.



  8. Piper Bayard says:

    I believe we drift toward legalism in an effort to make our world small enough to handle. Our parents put us in a box of one type or another. Most of us grow and leave home, only to find out that our box is an illusion. That the world is so enormous that if we don’t create some structure for ourselves, we will be overwhelmed. Religions and legalism help us make sense of this morass of incomprehensibility so that we can function on this three dimensional plane of existence while we are called to do so.

    Thanks for your blog, Chaz. Are you on Twitter?

    • Chaz says:

      Wow Piper… fascinating analogy.

      I agree that to try to take the entire world and existence in at once would be far too overwhelming… especially when we are learning about life for the first time. So in this sense, and many others, there is a place for a level of legalism. In this respect, it protects us as we are learning.

      Unfortunately legalism then appears to become a template with which we then model much of our lives… including, and especially, our interactions with others. Obviously on a marcro scale, legalism that defines right and wrong in respect to saftey of others is relevant. Murderers need to be stopped. Period.

      Yet bring it down to a family relationship, and in my experience, grace is essential. We will all invariably hurt and wrong one another. Grace can get us through these imperfections in our treatment of one another. Especially in a marriage. Yet the freedom of grace does not mean we can abuse one another or cheat on one another. Yancey in his book refers to this as “Grace abuse”. In other words wronging someone because you know you can get away with it.

      Perhaps this complexity of grace and legalism is another reason we fumble with the balance between the two, and then migrate to the relative and familiar safety of legalism.

      Thanks for adding a perspective as always Piper!



      (PS… not on twitter for my blogging… which I still keep somewhat anonymous… but will look into adding it)

  9. Pingback: The End is Near (and we deserve it). . . . Michael Jackson’s Hair to be Made into Roulette Ball « Author Piper Bayard

  10. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

    • Chaz says:

      Thanks Jennifer…. nothing makes the point as plainly as this scripture, does it? No ambiguity here. Love is clearly God’s wish and instruction to us. More important than works or conduct.


  11. Fascinating…would only add this: before one can love another, one must first love oneself….and in my limited experience, I found two things about alcoholics on their way to recovery: 1) they did not like/love themselves…an observation; 2) they were perfectionist…researched and proven by utilization of The Tennessee Concept Scale by Dr. Fitts in Nashville, TN.

    I worked with him in trying to standardize a test for alcoholics; we found only two distinct concepts at the time: the tendency to be a perfectionist; and the fact that in the background of the alcoholics we tested, there were many first degree relatives who were/had “a drinking problem.” therefore causing us to look at the possibility that one can inherit the tendency to be an alcoholic.

    • Chaz says:

      Thanks Linda…

      I concur. In my less scientific observation, the propensity to self-loath and strive for perfectionism are quite consistent as well.

      It is my non-clinical opinion that the act of perfectionism is an endeavor to create super-order in a world we alcoholics and ACOAs experienced to be full of chaos. Much of it self-generated.

      I also believe we strive to perfection as a way to appease our self-loathing. We often try to sell ourselves on the idea that if we do things perfectly, it will appease the pain that we feel inside.

      And agreed…. we cannot love another unless we love ourselves first. Jesus taught this a couple thousand years ago and it remains true today. I think where we alcoholics and other often mess this up is by loving others instead of ourselves.

      Thanks for adding to the dialogue.



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  13. Caddo Veil says:

    Excellent post, Chaz–and if I may be so bold, I’d like to recommend someone I think you’ll love: Joseph Prince. He’s the senior pastor of a large church in Singapore, “New Creation Church”. His sole message, aside from salvation through Christ, is about GRACE. He has a website–Joseph Prince Ministries dot org or something, so you could go there. Or, he has 2 books–I think one is called “Unmerited Favor”, and the other slips my mind for now. And he’s on TV, as well. He’s young and very engaging, in style–I’ve been blessed by him since last Easter (2011). His explanation of the original, Biblical, purpose of “the law” is easy to understand–and he’s pointedly vocal about how destructive legalism is to the Body of Christ, the sincere believers who are pounding themselves into the ground for lack of Grace. And you might also want to read my recent post, “Today’s Disciple”–a short, humorous couplet on “Condemnation”–with generous humor and truth. Have a blessed day!

    • Chaz says:

      Hi Caddo…. I have checked out both. Joseph Prince is certainly dynamic. You poem is right on the mark for an endeavor I am stepping out into. Thanks for the encouragement and adding to the dialogue.



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