Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “There are two ways we can fall off on this.” The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is a narrow path that leads to pleasing God in all things, but there are deep ditches on both sides. These ditches are the detours to sin and death. On one side is the ditch of rebellion, on the other side the ditch of legalism.
I believe the ditch of rebellion is easier to see. Do you remember the warnings from Deuteronomy and from Jesus not to “take away” any words of the Bible? This is a warning against rebellion. God has said do A, but I am going to do B. God has said not to do C, but I am going to do C. We can rebel in both our thoughts and our actions. When we deliberately think or act contrary to God’s revealed will in the Bible, t, that is rebellion. When we disregard any portion of Scripture, we have begun sliding down the steep slopes of rebellion.
One of the most surprising things I have learned as I have explored the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is that there are more warnings in the Bible against adding to what God has said compared to the warnings against taking away. For whatever reason, the ditch of rebellion seemed like the big, scary one, with the sharp rocks and wolves waiting at the bottom. The other side, the ditch of legalism, was bad, sure, but certainly not as bad as rebellion…Right? Not according to God.
In the Bible God repeatedly warns us not to ADD to the words He has revealed to us in the Bible. This dire warning is repeated in the last chapter of the Bible.
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.” —Revelation 22:18
When we take away from God’s Word that is rebellion. When we add to God’s Word that is legalism. I am convinced that many churches today are filled with legalism, and they don’t even know it!
Simply defined, legalism is creating human rules for righteous living, which are not in the Bible, and judging yourself and others by those human rules.[i] One of Satan’s greatest victories in the modern church is his success in causing us to believe a false definition of legalism. Satan’s definition of legalism is, “Taking the Bible seriously on every subject and trying to obey the Bible in every area.”
Imagine meeting a Christian who says, “I am trying to obey God’s Word in every area of my life. I want to rightly apply every moral principle and command I find to my life at home, my life at church, and my life at work…I want the Bible to direct my every thought and every action!
Many Christians today would say that sounds “legalistic.” The reality is there is not a single shred of legalism in the paragraph above. Legalism is not seeking to follow the Bible in every area of thought and life. Legalism is adding human rules and regulations on top of the Bible.[ii]
The other great “success” Satan has had in this battle is causing the word “legalist” to become one of the worst insults in the Christian church. To be called a “legalist” is to be dismissed, demeaned, and discarded. So look at how crafty the devil is! First, he redefines “legalist” to mean “anyone who takes the Bible really seriously,” and then he causes the word to become a powerful insult.
Forgive me as I reiterate this point, because we can’t move forward without reclaiming this word from the devil’s deception. A legalist is not someone who seeks to rightly obey and apply every word of the Bible to his or her life. A legalist is someone who disobeys the Bible by adding to the Bible human rules and regulations for thought, life, and morality, and proceeds to judge themselves and others by these rules. A legalist is not someone who places divine law above all else. A legalist is someone who places human law above all else.[iii]
The early church continually had to beat back the subtle deceptions of legalism. A spirit of legalism attacked the church in the area of doctrine, worship practices, church structure, and ministry methodology. When the early church did things their way, when they did what was right in their own eyes, churches were filled with conflict and ministry was hindered. However, when they did things God’s way, by following the commands and patterns for ministry He had given to them in His Word, that ministry flourished and the Gospel message accelerated.
This was at the heart of Paul’s warning to the church at Corinth.
“I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” —1 Corinthians 4:6-7
Paul is pleading with them to give their full and undivided attention to God’s revelation[iv], as a final and sufficient guide for every area of Christian life, at church, at home, and in the marketplace. When legalism infects a church, the results are predictable. Leaders become prideful and divisions grow. This is the inevitable result when church decisions are made based on human wisdom, human creativity, and human innovation rather than the revealed Word of God.
Learn more about how to combat legalism in your church and build your ministry on Scripture alone in Limited Church: Unlimited Kingdom – Uniting Church and Family in the Great Commission
[i] The term legalism is also sometimes used to refer to the doctrine of “works righteousness” or the belief that we can earn or merit our salvation through good deeds.
[ii] There are two fundamental definitions of the word legalism. The first has to do with “works righteousness” or seeking to merit salvation with our good deeds. The second the focus of our discussion, which is the adding of human rules and regulations to the Bible, and judging oneself and others by those additional human rules.
[iii] Jesus did not confront the Pharisees for seeking to be obedient to the Bible, but rather for adding human rules and regulations (legalism) on top of what God had said in His Word.
[iv] At this point the church in Corinth had the Old Testament, and most likely some of the early writings of the New Testament. Clearly, they had the apostolic instruction from Paul contained in his letter.