Thursday, May 26, 2016


The Blessing of Life in a Culture of Pure Legalism

I have had the privilege of having significant relationships with Christians from various traditions. Because of our Mormon culture, Christians here are sensitive to the issue of legalism and discuss it often. Mormons specialize in legalism because their religion is all about legalism from beginning to end. They talk much about the importance of doing good things. We agree with them that it is good to do good things. But when we Christians explain how grace is unmerited favor, they object and declare that obedience to commandments is necessary to please God and be accepted by Him. One can't get forgiveness free they tell us because that would make people lazy. They do use the word grace and are doing so more and more, but don't be fooled. If you listen closely and ask questions you will discover that what they mean by grace is usually some form of kind or gentle legalism--another chance to keep the rules. Grace doesn't free you from the rules, but gives you help and more time to keep them. Rules must eventually be kept. So living in this overwhelmingly dominant culture of Mormonism of pure legalism forces us to stay alert. Without alertness here one can easily get sucked into the lies of legalism.

What is legalism?

This simple question is not simple to answer. I have thought about it for many years and been dissatisfied with my own study, with my own understanding, and with what I have heard others say or write about it. A few years ago I sought to avoid using the word because, even here, we tend to be sensitive to legalism in other people but not in ourselves. Why is it that when we Christians use the word legalism we are almost always pointing the finger at other people and not at ourselves--at other denominations and not at our own? Why do I never point the finger at myself and say something like: "Wow, I am really having legalistic thoughts. or I am having a legalistic day. or Please forgive me for being so legalistic"? Do you notice any legalism in others? Some likely notice it in you. When is the last time you noticed it in yourself? Isn't this an interesting dilemma?

The Key Word: Manageable

Just recently a word or thought came to me that may be helpful: manageable. Mormonism is all about making God's expectations manageable. Does God really want us Christians to do that? To think or speak of God's law or commandments in a manageable way is legalism. To think or speak of my (or your) obedience in a manageable way is legalism. Now that seems to have enough clarity so that I can begin to notice legalism in myself and you can notice it in yourself. Am I making the law, commandments, or my obedience manageable? Likely we all have an intuitive sense about it, and thus we can notice it somewhat when we see it in others, but without clear thinking can't see it in ourselves. 

It is like judgmentalism. A huge number of Mormons have told me that what they really don't like about other Mormons is that they are so judgmental. I generally ask those people if it is easy for them to resist the temptation to judge judgmental people. That question gently asked always wins the lottery. Every time the person has responded in embarrassment admitting to being just like the people being criticized. It is good to judge if we judge by perfection as God does, otherwise we are judging unrighteously. What authority do we have to do that? Righteous judgment--judgment by the standard of perfection--reveals that we are all in the same boat together as failures and makes it impossible to look down on another person--truly impossible. When we judge by some lowered manageable standards, we have entered the arena of competition where some of us succeed and others fail. Judgmentalism then is unavoidable. You may think highly of yourself that you are able to have manageable standards without being judgmental, but by doing so you are just proving my point that you think that you can succeed where others fail. You are fooling yourself. In the same way, God's law and obedience to God are good. Could it be that legalism is simply the natural result of shrinking either of these in such a way as to make them manageable? 

Isaiah's Experience

Notice the following beautiful verse in a Messianic chapter in the Gospel of Isaiah. I call it the Gospel of Isaiah because it is filled with grace--unmerited favor poured out on God's people--righteousness as a gift--God's delight in His Son and in His people.

"The Lord is well pleased for His righteousness sake; He will exalt the law and make it glorious." -Isaiah 42:21

Does this verse convey a sense of awe and glory, or of manageability? Exaltation is the opposite of manageability. But God can manage the exaltation of the law, where as we can't. Read Isaiah 6:1-7 and notice his experience.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the traina of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

Whatever Isaiah saw crushed his pride. He realized and cried out that he was a spiritually ruined man. What he saw was so big that it made him realize that all the people of Israel were spiritually ruined, too. The result was that Isaiah was spiritually healed and transformed. What did he see? I suggest that he saw the perfect righteousness of God and the surprise of unmerited favor that flows from that righteousness. In John 12:38-41, the Apostle John declares that what Isaiah saw in his vision was Isaiah chapter 53--"by his knowledge the righteous servant will make many righteous, for he will bear their iniquities." I have been greatly blessed to notice this connection and meditate much on it. See if such meditation might bless you.

How to do Legalism Well

I would like to give a humorous exhortation of how to do legalism well. If you live in Mormon culture you likely will hear an echo of this culture. That is the point. Manageability is the name of the game in Mormonism. Satan is alive and well and seeking to get us Christians to believe his lies and to think like Mormons, who are expert legalists or managers of God's expectations. They use religious words with unbiblical definitions which sound so convincing. Thus in the following, most religious words will be used with enticing Mormon definitions: worldliness, godliness, flesh, walking in the Spirit, laziness, obedience, and more. Remember that Satan masquerades as an angel of light and so his advice will be subtle counterfeits of truth. Here is my version of some of his advice to Christians as to how to obey God. See if you can detect the lies in the words and how manageability is ever present. Especially deceitful is the word flesh. Let's learn to laugh at ourselves in our failures so that we might better notice when we have bought into the lies. So here goes. What follows is Satan's advice for how to obey God.

Satan says:
  • The first step in obedience to God is to realize that obedience is very important and that it is wrong and sinful to not obey God. 
  • Second, it is important to realize that there are two serious errors to avoid in seeking to obey God. Just as one can go in the ditch on the left or right side of the road when driving, so it is possible to be a lazy Christian or a legalist. Laziness is obvious. There are a lot of people who don't want to take seriously living the Christian life well--growing in the lord and living a holy life. This is a big problem, but the other problem can sneak up on a person who is taking obedience seriously. In seeking to avoid laziness it is possible to over correct and end up off the other side of the road in the ditch of legalism. Legalism is about using the law in a wrong way. The law is good but some people get way too pushy with it. That is legalism. So be careful to avoid being lazy, but also avoid being too pushy with the law.  
  • Third, let's clarify and solidify our understanding. Make no mistake: God wants us to do good to our families, fellow saints, and unsaved neighbors. The Good Samaritan was one of Jesus' most popular parables. That Samaritan went out of his way to help a man who likely hated Samaritans. Use this parable as a reminder that no one is too bad for you to help. So be a good Samaritan to the people in your life. As you go through your days visualize others as hurt and in the ditch and in need of some kind of compassion from you.
  • Fourth, you likely already notice that we all sometimes forget to do good and fail. It is important to not condemn yourself for that. Remember that Jesus is everything you need. And as long as you aren't a lazy Christian, you can look at your past and see that you have come a long way. That should be a big comfort. When you fail, thank God for Jesus. Remember that He doesn't expect for you to be perfect in your obedience but only  to make progress in becoming a more obedient Christian day by day.
  • Fifth, keep in mind that the key to winning the spiritual battle is to know your enemy. It may be that the flesh is the greatest enemy in the Christian life. The flesh is your weakness and tendency to sin. So watch out for those in every situation. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Don't let your weaknesses and sins rule you. 
  • Sixth, another enemy to watch out for is worldliness. This is a deceitful trap. Many men get trapped in watching too much sports and some women get trapped in following the latest fashions. Many young people get hooked on cell phones. These are just three obvious examples, but there are many more. Use self-control or you will find yourself getting pulled into sins of various kinds. There are many ways to sin; so be alert for temptation.
  • Seventh, the third thing to watch our for is ungodliness. We can approach this topic from a positive direction. Live a godly life and ungodliness will not be a problem for you. Choose to fill your life with prayer, Bible reading, evangelism, helping the poor, and visiting the shut-ins in your church. These days there are so many children from broken homes. Seek to speak blessing to those people at church because they have it real rough. All these things are good and so when you focus on them you won't have time for ungodly things like greed, selfishness, anger, laziness, and more.
  • Eighth, remember that you are a new creation in Christ. This means that you have a new nature and thus sin can now really be a thing of the past for you. The Holy Spirit has power. Don't get tricked into thinking that the Spirit isn't strong enough to help you resist sin. 
  • Ninth, remember that you are not a lone-ranger Christian. You are part of God's people. Therefore apply all the above principles to the Christians you know. Remind them of these principles and exhort them to apply them.  
  • Last, walk in the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. The Spirit always leads you to its fruit: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, etc. The Spirit never points you to immorality, impurity, envy, idolatry, strife, anger, drunkenness, and such like. The flesh does that. Keep these two lists in mind as you seek to be led by the Spirit. The Spirit will never lead you to sin.
  • Now you are ready to obey God. The sky is the limit when you have the Spirit to empower you to do God's will.

Legalism is seeing God's expectations--His commandments and our obedience--in some manageable form. Only Jesus can manage perfect expectations. This applies when thinking of Christians and non-Christians. 


  1. These 10 are a tender trap. My thoughts automatically move toward fixing the problem, but how to fix one without tripping on another? Could Jesus be the only fixer! Thanks for these good eye openers, J.S.

  2. Brad,
    on what do you base your definition of legalism?

    1. Jonathan,
      James declares that a person who keeps the whole law and breaks one point is guilty of all. Paul declares that the law is good if a person uses it lawfully. I conclude from these among others and the lack of contrary scriptures that God wants the moral law to be used in a good way and that that way requires the wholeness of obedience--perfect love. Legalism and license are commonly seen as opposites. Legalism is commonly charged of those who are being overly pushy with rules and license of those being overly lax. These labels are deceptive as they are subjectively dependent on the one making the observation. Eldon says that he has received these labels from different people for the same action--some thought he was too loose and some thought he was too tight. I suggest that his experience reveals both labels to be a mis-diagnosis because: 1) It is rationally impossible to have standards higher than perfect love; 2) Licentious standards are simply more obviously compromised than are legalistic ones, but both are compromises and not good. The remedy for both parties is identical: to purify their thinking by raising their manageable standards all the way to perfect love, which is revealed in Christ. Then motivation will be by a vision of the love of Christ. I see that motivation as infinitely powerful and hidden in James 1:25, "a person who keeps gazing into perfect law will not be a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work and be blessed in what he does." I suggest that the spiritual battle is ever the same with nuances of application dependent on circumstances: God commands perfect love and provides that in the substitionary death of Christ and imputed righteousness, while the adversary always preaches manageability to get us to look away from Christ and seek to find some hope in human performance--ours or other's. I find this true in my experience and in that of the saints and sinners I discuss this matter with.

  3. I'm curious why you think it's a bad idea to emulate the good samaritan and have compassion on people. Could you explain that? I was looking for the trick phrase or trap door and you simply hid it too well :) Thanks. Joe Stewart.

    1. Joe,
      I encourage people to do good to others, to help the downtrodden, and to go out of their way to help others. And I encourage them to do it perfectly and all the time, not just partially or when it is convenient. If a person wants to follow the Good Samaritan's example, I would affirm the person but caution him to do so without dishonoring perfect love. Jesus call him to love the man in the ditch perfectly.

      My understanding is that both Satan and Jesus imitate the Father. Jesus does so to honor the pleasure of the Father, while Satan does so competitively. Satan appears as an angel of light. He seeks to deceive people and to pervert God's goodness. I suggest that this means that Satan mimics Jesus on all points but one. Jesus always views life through perfect love and always wants perfect love to be honored. Satan hates perfect love and thus twists, obfuscates and suppresses the truth to get people focused on doing good with "all their own energy" rather than "with all Christ's energy" as Paul did. Satan wants people to good WITHOUT a vision of honoring perfect love.

      My principle is to always think perfect love and to encourage others to do the same. Here are three examples that I commonly use to teach myself and others. 1. I encourage saints to maximize the sins of self and all others, so that when wrong occurs we tell ourselves that each sin deserves death. 2. To a saint upset about being wronged, I say something like: "What that person did to you is evil. Is he a Christian? Is he forgiven by God? Is he righteous before God? Is God counting his sins? Then why are you upset?" This line of reasoning helps the upset Christian see from God's point of view, and relax, and realize his sinful reaction. Confessions nearly always result. 3. I tell people that when they are sinned against to pray something like, "Hey God what she did is wrong. She shouldn't have done that, she should have been perfect."

      I am in no way against urging saints and even sinners to do what is good. But I will stand with all my being against making perfect love manageable.

      Manageability is the enemy of perfect love and I am convinced that it is the only card the enemy has in his hand. The fruit of manageability is what is called the works of the flesh in Galatians 5.

      "The Lord is well-pleased for His righteousness' sake; He will exalt the law and make it glorious." -Isaiah 42:21

    2. Thanks Brad,

      "I would affirm the person but caution him to do so without dishonoring perfect love. Jesus call him to love the man in the ditch perfectly."

      Can you expand on this statement? In what manner can people love the man in the ditch perfectly, and in how could they love him imperfectly? I am trying to distinguish between them and two clear examples would help my understanding greatly. Thanks!

    3. Hello Joe,

      I am persuaded that love is a way of seeing: "To love a person means to see him as God intended him to be." (Fyodor Dostoevsky) Seeing this way draws us into action and feeling. Seeing this way also frees me from all self-focused thoughts, such as: pride, self-justification, or that I am being obedient. It is not about me; it is about God and His goodness. I am persuaded that it is good to have confidence that God calls me to see this way, but not that I am obeying that call. The former is a good confidence and that latter a false confidence which bears ugly fruit. Thus perfect love is a way of seeing not a way of acting. Fitting actions do follow fitting thinking but vary much with circumstances.

      The key is to maintain focus that moral perfection is the only good way of life and that God always evaluates based on moral perfection. I suggest that we can think this in principle but can't see moral perfection directly--only its lack via flaws.

      Here are two examples of helping a man I see in the ditch.
      1. "Oh there is a man in the ditch. Last time I saw someone in the ditch I did a good job helping him. This will be easy too." I help the guy and it works out fine. Commentary: Notice my mindset on me and my performance.

      2. "Oh, that guy in the ditch needs help. Lord, help me not get stuck going in there." I help the guy and it works out fine. Commentary: Notice that my focus is free from self affirmation or self-justification.

      In both cases I am in the story, I help the guy, and it works out fine. There is no difference in action. The difference is in my mindset. In the first case I was seeing him as a person in need, but I was not seeing him through eyes of perfect love. I was thinking that the situation was manageable and affirmed my strength and my goodness. In the second case I saw the need, my weakness, and God's strength. I was lost in good thoughts about the other person and God. Isn't this true humility--self-forgetfulness rather than belittlement of self?

      In my worldview the alternative to perfect love is not imperfect love but rather manageability.

      I hope that this is helpful.

    4. Yes, that helps. Now could you define "manageability"? Is this this same as self-reliance, e.g. relying on the strength of one's own arm so to speak? -Joe

  4. Hello Joe. Manageability encompasses self-effort, moralism, legalism, etc. but is more easily defined. Manageability is the opposite of moral perfection and we understand it best by that contrast. If I am explaining the importance of love or humility and don't have in mind that only perfect love and humility are good, then I am thinking in a manageable way. This gives room for human effort and glory. If God always evaluates based on perfection, then manageability denies the fear of God.

  5. Can you explain the part about seeking to walk in the Spirit and you won't obey the flesh. That part is in the Bible. Is the error the human part of trying to follow the Spirit with human effort rather than by faith? Thanks, Rachel

    1. Hello Rachel,
      Flesh is all about human strength and law. Flesh says to love because one has to. Flesh tells us to resist sinning because sinning is bad. Flesh says to do your best. Spirit tells us that only perfection is good and that Jesus gives perfection as a gift. Spirit says to see people in light of perfection (Jesus). Perfect love is in the heart of every Christian (Rom 5:5). Seeing life through the lens of perfection releases that love to overflow from us to bless others, and the fruit of the Spirit flows like a mighty river. Seeing life through the lens that imperfect human effort is important, results in the list of sin in Gal 5:19-21. We don't sin when we focus on perfection. We do sin when we focus on imperfect human striving.

      Try this exercise. The next time you get upset with your husband, ask yourself what you are thinking about? Are you thinking about how much God loves him and how forgiven he is? No. I guarantee that you will notice that you are thinking about his poor performance.

      While you are seeing your husband in his identity in Christ your heart and words will always be tender toward him, even while he is failing.

      Summary: Walking in the Spirit is seeing life through eyes of perfection (only perfection is good and Jesus gives perfection as a gift at the cross).

  6. "Last, walk in the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. The Spirit always leads you to its fruit: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, etc. The Spirit never points you to immorality, impurity, envy, idolatry, strife, anger, drunkenness, and such like. The flesh does that. Keep these two lists in mind as you seek to be led by the Spirit. The Spirit will never lead you to sin."

    I sort of understand your explanation, but I am still not exactly sure of the lie in the quote above. It sounds like Romans 8 to me. I want to clarify to see if I'm understanding correctly: is the lie that the focus of the flesh is on the sinful nature rather than human nature and ability? Or is it the concept that we, in and of ourselves, are capable of steering ourselves between flesh and Spirit, and therefore it is up to us to do so in our own effort?

    Thanks for helping me to understand.

    1. Hello Rachel,

      Understanding the flesh is like peeling back the layers of an onion. There are nuances (layers) of application. It seems that you rightly understand that the flesh is about the positive things of what it means to be human. God created our flesh in a good way to be dependent on Him for our satisfaction and goodness; but our first parents went independent. They abandoned confidence in His goodness and moved their confidence to their own flesh (positive abilities). Positive abilities are not bad. Confidence in these positive things is the problem that bears the ugly works of the flesh.

      Your first point seems to accurately describe the heart of the lie. But there are many nuances of the lie, including your second point. Many Christians would reject the words of your second example while still being trapped in the heart of the lie--that flesh is about human weakness and tendency to do bad things. Thus they think that they hear the Spirit calling them to resist their weaknesses and resist their tendency to do bad things. This actually is the voice of the world shouting that it is wrong to do bad things.

      One of the most horrible nuances and greatest negative consequences of the lie is to think that I can resist sin directly. But that would be to use the flesh to resist the flesh. My old mind--the spirit of the world--tells me what is right and wrong, and to do the right things and to not do the wrong things. The Holy Spirit is not a repeat of this. The Holy Spirit leads me to resist indirectly doing bad things by leading me to Jesus. The Spirit cries out for me to see my immediate situation and all the people involved in it through the lens of Jesus' perfection and work on the cross. When I do this I rest as I see that the sin I observe deserves death and that Jesus' death is the only resolution for the situation. Jesus has done all the work and peace is mine!

      As I see the cross, admissions of failure flow freely as part of the testimony of Jesus' beautiful work for me and for all who mistreat me.

      Let me deal with your second example. Without the mind of Christ--the mind of the Spirit--I can't steer between the flesh and spirit. Every Christian has the new mind of Christ, which always steers us to the Spirit. But we also have our old worldly mind, which still seeks to always steer us to the flesh-not toward sinning but toward personal righteousness void of any mention of perfection. The war between these two minds is the war between identity and behavior. The key to clarity is the experience and understanding of perfection, which is Jesus, including the experience of Him. The flesh minimizes sin and tells us to manage it for ourselves and others. The Spirit maximizes sin in declaring that only perfection is good. When we think perfection the mind is led naturally to see Jesus.

      Without this key and with the traditional view of the flesh, Christians can easily walk in the flesh all the while they think that they are walking in the Spirit. When Christians sin they don't need reminders of what they should have done but of their identity in Jesus. This identity is real experience now, not just a check mark in heaven for later.

      Transformation is by renewal of the mind, and this is a process. Let's anticipate more surprises as we grow in wisdom in seeing Jesus as our everything. It is not good for me to think that I don't need more renewal.

      I hopes this helps a little.