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The Chains of Legalism


By Caroline Kraft

Legalism keeps you safe. Then again, so does prison.

Like a convict willingly strolling into a cell, I find myself falling into the trap of legalism time and again. To be honest, legalism is an easy default for a girl who has grown up in the church. Instead of relying on discernment or wisdom, I can simply create a list of rules and vow to never break them. This is the ultimate protection from sin, right?

Of course, this plan has pitfalls too. For one, I inevitably end up breaking my own rules. I also tend to apply my rules to others. I set myself up for failure and judgment in every area of my life…even chocolate!

Anyone who knows me well knows how I feel about chocolate. It isn’t just that I find the taste of chocolate perfectly delightful, but that I have very strong convictions about what kind of chocolate I buy. For years now I have tried to purchase only fair trade chocolate in an attempt to alleviate the demand for cocoa harvested by child slaves in Africa. The only problem with these convictions (besides the fact that I have to go without many of my formerly favorite snacks) is that they tend to make other people uncomfortable. You see, it’s hard for people to believe that I’m not judging them while I watch them feast on Hershey’s bars because they know I’d never eat one myself. The same goes for those with convictions pertaining to eating meat or drinking alcohol.

This issue is addressed in Romans 14 where Paul writes:

“Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”

It’s pretty clear isn’t it? (Read the whole chapter for so much more wisdom on this subject.) There is nothing wrong with personal convictions until they become impersonal. The moment I’ve placed my personal convictions on anyone else, I’ve passed judgment. Legalism directly fosters pride, and pride is the number one cause of spiritual deafness.

We need to remind ourselves often of the fact that the Bible only states so many things in black and white terms. The rest is left to The Spirit. He will convict and lead us individually through wisdom and discernment. Is one blood-bought soul really holier than another? Or have we simply taken our opinions and labeled them as doctrine?

Later in Romans 14, Paul wisely states: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (vs. 17-19)

Seek righteousness, but run from the chains of legalism like a slave who’s just been set free! Jesus came that we might have freedom and only a free man can unbind another.

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