The Graceless Face Behind the Two Masks of Legalism

Legalism takes two forms. Some are legalistically restrained, others legalistically free. Both demand guilt-shaped conformity to their expectations. Both miss grace.

When we hear the term “legalism” we usually think of those who are restrained. The uptight, irritable fundamentalist holding on to the past and looking down their hard nose at anyone who dares cross their lines. You know the type.

Of equal concern is the tendency to turn genuine Christian liberty into its own form of guilt-motivated conformity. It’s often characteristic of people who are reacting to a background in the more restrictive form of legalism (or what they identify as legalism). It manifests in a tendency to categorically identify anyone who holds to behavioral standards more strict than their own as legalistic. Any form of restraint, particularly those they found personally confining, are regularly mocked, and they take pleasure in flaunting their freedom to those with whom they formerly identified. The pressure to conform may be more subtle but is just as guilt-driven and can be just as demanding as that of the “legalistically restrained.”

Some are so anti-legalism that they actually become very legalistic about it. It’s not enough that you refrain from criticizing the things in which they indulge, they’re not happy until you affirm, and ultimately participate in their actions. Anyone who does not is branded a “legalist” (the Christianese equivalent of “bigot”).

It’s been of interest to observe Christians on social media who not only flaunt their “liberty” but attack those who choose to abstain from some action they find acceptable. If it’s truly liberty a believer should be affirmed in their restraint, not abused about it.

Just a thought, but if you leave an ungracious, legalistic environment only to become equally ungracious and legalistic in your freedom, it may not have just been the environment that was toxic.

Be wary of all who motivate by guilt. Whether restrained or free, seek to be motivated only by grace. Legalism and license are simply two sides of the same counterfeit, grace-less coin.

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