GCMers are confused over what constitutes spiritual abuse. If you try to gently restore them who are caught in sin as Galatians 6:1-2 says to do, GCMers will accuse you of being a legalist and an abuser.
Below are excerpts from Shooing Away the Legalism Boogeyman by Eric Davis. My comments are in maroon.
More and more I’ve interacted with Christians humbly and faithfully working out their salvation with fear and trembling, only to have the legalism card slapped on them. As such, they’re being fallaciously warned about legalism boogeymen. There are many I’ve heard of lurking in Christendom.
Here are 5 all-too-common legalism boogeymen we need to shoo away:
1. Encouraging others to turn from sin and obey Christ’s commands.
This too-frequent error typically goes something like this: “You know, I hear what you are saying about _____ in my life, but honestly, Romans says I’m free and forgiven, so stop laying up legalistic burdens on me. Nobody is perfect.” But this is far from legalism. In Galatians, Paul says, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1-2). (Unfortunately, many GCMers sin and don’t care. They use the grace excuse, but that is not grace. They have perverted God’s grace into a license for immorality according to Jude 4. Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound? Romans 6:1-2 answers that with a big NO!)
Notice, that gently helping others to repent of sin and obey Christ, so far from being legalism, is instead fulfilling “the law of Christ.” It’s loving. You are laying aside your comfort, your time, and, potentially, that person considering you their friend, for something greater: love.
How could that be love? Encouraging repentance is like encouraging someone to put in the effort to take their winning lottery ticket and drive the few hours to the state capital to get the winnings. Yeah, it’s a little bit of a pain to get there (confess and turn from sin), but the rewards of arriving at the capital (restoration, God’s forgiving, unchanging love in Christ) far outweigh the inconvenience.
Obedience is God’s best for us. We get to obey. We have to turn from thinking that repentance and turning to greater obedience is some kind of drudgery. Repentance and obedience are not “just grin and bear” it living, like slamming that delicious raw kale and wheat grass smoothie our doctor recommended. But by the power of the Spirit, repentance and walking in obedience is merely travelling the variegated avenues of grace, assurance, and intimacy with our good God. (What a great burden it is to try to obey God when we are still dead in trespasses and sins. But when God makes us alive, though that sinful nature is still with us until we leave this earth, it becomes a joy to obey our great God who lovingly saved us (see 1 John 5:3). Matthew 29:19-20 says to teach other disciples to observe all that Christ commanded. Teaching Christians to obey Christ is NOT legalism, otherwise Jesus Himself is a legalist. If there are any GCMers reading this who approach obedience in a “just grin and bear” it way, please know that keeping the law does not save you. You are saved by Christ’s work on the cross alone. Find out why God’s laws are a burden to you. We should all examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor 15:5). Read Psalm 119. It is about God’s commandments, precepts, and statutes being a delight.)
2. Being discouraged over our failure to obey God’s commands.
This boogeyman comes in the form of, “Ah, come on, don’t be down about your sin. You’re being too hard on yourself, you legalist.” This boogeyman has an aversion to being broken over our sin and mourning our disobedience. But is that legalism?
“For My hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD. “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa 66:2). To be “contrite of spirit” has the idea of lame or broken in spirit, similar to those at Pentecost (Acts 2:37) who were shattered over their sin. God looks favorably to such a demeanor.
Stuart Scott has rightly said, “We never find the Scriptures saying, ‘Come on now, you’re thinking too poorly of yourself’ or ‘What you need is to consider yourself more’” (The Exemplary Husband, 177).
In a similar vein, Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:3-4). So far from a legalistic mindset, discouragement over sin is a demeanor that is pleasing to God. You are blessed, in that it evidences you’re of the kingdom of heaven and under the grace of divine favor.
3. A feeling of guilt.
Guilt, or a sense of one’s violation of God’s commands is not inherently legalistic. This boogeyman protests, “You made me feel guilty. That’s so legalistic of you.”
It presupposes that a feeling of guilt means something wrong is happening, and is legalistic. But guilt can be a good thing. It’s like the sounding smoke alarm of the soul. Certainly it’s possible to feel guilty for wrong reasons, for example, if I have a misinformed conscience. But I could feel guilty for sin. So when the guilt comes, instead of playing the legalism card, I need to investigate what triggered the smoke alarm.
Plus, crying legalism in response to guilt is to put subjective feeling as the end-all determination on the matter. But legalism needs to be evaluated, not by feelings, but biblical truth. Was this person actually placing legalistic standards on me? Is what they said really insisting that certain works are necessary for me to merit right standing with God? Or might I be shooing away the Spirit’s work of conviction with the legalism label? (Please don’t change God’s word so that your sin is no longer sin. Different sins are mentioned in the Bible (1 Cor 6:9,18-20; Gal 5:19-21; Mt 5:28; Rev 21:8; Mk 7:20-23; 1 Thes 4:3-4 for just a few examples). If a church or family member tells you to repent because you are fornicating, getting drunk, lying, etc. don’t accuse them of being legalists. They probably want to see you growing in your sanctification. If you feel guilty, it is not the other persons fault. Remember the job of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of our sins so that we may repent (John 16:8). We are not to walk in the ways of evil any longer. If you feel guilty, confess your sins to God. But if you feel guilty, refuse to acknowledge your sinful behavior as sin, blame it on your church instead; be very afraid. God says that you deceive yourselves and the truth is not in you (1 John 1:8-10). Plus you are calling God a liar.)
Guilt is often God’s good gift to us to trigger repentance from error in belief or living. Like in Luke 18:13, the tax collector was crushed with guilt, and it was not due to a legalistic demeanor but the convicting power of God. His guilt was a gift of grace from God to generate repentance unto salvation. And Jesus commends him for his shattered demeanor. Richard Greenham wrote, “Never any of God’s children were comforted thoroughly, but they were first humbled for their sins.” The presence of guilt is not an automatic indicator of legalism.
4. Great desire for increasing spiritual maturity.
This boogeyman typically says: “You know, you’re so focused on wanting to mature and grow. You’re putting legalistic standards on yourself. It’s legalism to think on growing so much.”
We need not meditate all day long on, “I need to grow, I need to grow.” However, an inner desire to have Christ increasingly formed in us is a sign of spiritual health. It’s an attitude akin to when Christ said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6). Like a baby with a voracious appetite, a consistent longing to grow in Christ is a sign of the Spirit’s life and health in us.
We’re saved to grow. Like a baby born, we’re born from the Spirit to mature into spiritual adulthood. NT writers rebuke professing Christians for not having progressed in spiritual maturity (1 Cor 3:1-2, Heb 5:11-14). And the Apostle of grace greatly desired to increase in spiritual maturity while in no way being legalistic (Phil 3:12-14).
5. Trying hard to obey Christ’s commands.
Being one of the more tragic errors, this boogeyman comes in the form of, “Mellow out on trying hard to obey. You’re free in Christ to let go and let God,” and chides humble saints from giving efforted consideration of obedience to their Lord. Ironically, this “legalism” label is sometimes slapped on someone as a solution to the conviction solicited by the other person’s godly life.
GCMers, I want to encourage you to get back to God’s word. Don’t just believe what other GCMers tell you. Read God’s word everyday in its entirety. Why not start with Ephesians? Here is just a portion of Ephesians 4.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24, ESV, emphasis added)