When I was a sophomore in high school a friend told me he had caught a bullhead in a trout stream in Montana. I asked him to describe the bullhead. He did. Then I informed him that he had caught a sculpin (from the genus Cottus), not a bullhead (genus Ameirus). He scoffed and mocked. “Everyone knows that’s a bullhead.” I responded that while it may be commonly called a bullhead, it was actually a sculpin, and unrelated to bullheads. But facts be hanged—he wouldn’t budge. It was convenient to drift with common misconception and inconvenient to investigate and think. Not to mention…as is so often the case…pride willfully closed its eyes to knowable facts.
But this kind of bullheadedness infects the discussion of matters far more important than the identification of the fish we catch while wetting a line. It colors many of the talking points of Christian doctrine and practice. For instance, the question of “legalism.” Many plead “legalism” every time someone questions the time and money they lavish on hobbies, entertainment, or recreation. Or questions whether their choice of entertainment is morally fit for a citizen of heaven. Or challenges them to get serious about the Bible—reading, Bible-studying, and Bible-obeying.
This conception of legalism is fundamentally flawed. When Paul addressed the error of legalism in Galations, Romans, etc., he was not addressing the problem of Christians taking discipleship too seriously. He was not reproving them for being too separated from the world or too frugal with their time and money. He was reproving them for leaning on religious ceremonies and religious laws as the means of salvation.
Devotedness must not be confused with the error of legalism. Obeying the hard sayings of the New Testament never has been and never will be legalism. Nor does loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength take you down this road. Losing your life for Christ’s sake and the sake of the gospel is the path of faith, not the path of legalism. Ditto for keeping yourself unentangled from the affairs of life.
What is really happening in this debate is that those who don’t want serious discipleship are slamming discipleship as legalism, and this line of thought influences believers who aren’t intentionally compromising their walk with Jesus. I want to encourage you to not fear the boogeyman of legalism. Not one in a hundred devoted Christians are in danger of this error. In thirty-eight years I have only met a tiny handful of Christians who were really struggling with legalistic bondage. The real problem in our day is religious lukewarmness that justifies a less than devoted walk by painting devotedness as the sin of legalism.
May you have an amazing week in the service of our amazing Saviour.
“Eyes wide open, brain engaged, heart on fire.”
Lee W. Brainard