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Legalism or Standards?

This article was originally published July 13, 2016. After reading through it a couple of times since it got reposted to our Facebook page, I have since updated it to reflect my growth in Christ.

Over the last year, I have had many, many personal situations happen that have resulted in my spiritual and mental growth. Therefore, my opinions and thoughts have changed toward some of the things discussed, and I am not afraid to say that I was wrong on some of the things that were in the original, “When Legalism Becomes an Idol”. So, without further ado, here is the response to and the updated version of that post. Thanks for reading!

You would think in a world that is so dark and troubled that Christianity would have “evolved” past the point of legalism so that we could unite over the Gospel and reach the lost. People are seeking something to fill the thirst and hunger for their souls. That answer is the Holy Ghost.

First, some background on me: Growing up in the church was amazing, I did it all – church camp, national conventions and the carwashes that go with it. I wouldn’t be where I am without those things. I am called to preach. I have felt like mentioning God’s love and His grand plans should be left to the TV preachers; that it was not the full gospel. I have felt like I needed rules and standards to teach me how to get God’s love and to keep it. Over the course of the last year or so I have been on a journey, not of rules and standards but to seek after God’s love. I wanted to understand the completeness of God’s love. I longed to be closer to God. I love the doctrine that has been handed down to me from great, godly men and women.

I’ve continuously heard God’s love taught right beside the standards. It created a fissure in me. I, for one, was tired of it. We can’t earn God’s love. There’s no “points system” with God. Dressing a certain way doesn’t make anyone better than the person that doesn’t dress that way. It’s not of God for us take hours getting ready for church – or anything for that matter. At that point who are we REALLY dressing up for? No, if we’re children of God we shouldn’t be walking around with cleavage hanging out and our clothes literally skin tight, but come on… WE (the church) ARE BETTER THAN THIS. We should know this stuff by now.

I applaud those who genuinely search out God and find the way they should properly dress. I think it’s awesome! I love when God reveals things like that to people! A year ago, I found myself in a situation where my stance and feelings about rules and standards were challenged. I saw some things that I did not like about people’s attitudes about standards. This time last year, I applauded lax standards.

There are many people who genuinely know why they dress a certain way beyond a scripture in Deuteronomy. They felt the conviction from God. It wasn’t a man or woman that came to them. I applaud and respect that. I know many women and men who are powerful through God who adhere to a strict dress code. I also know many men and women who are powerful through God and don’t adhere to those standards. They dress modestly, but maybe the man wears shorts and the woman wears pants. Maybe they have tattoos all over them, but they’re winning souls. I am not speaking against standards. I am speaking against legalism. 

There’s a clear distinction between the two, and I want to share some quick history that speaks to this idea. Approximately 400 years before the birth of Christ the people and the priests became scared to say the name of God (YHWH or Yahweh). They passed a law that only the priests could say the name of God. Eventually, the use of the name of God became reserved for only the Day of Atonement when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies. The last recorded High Priest, whose name was Simon, to say the name of God aloud was about 300 years before the birth of Christ.

What happened for those 400 years when the use of the name of God was banned? There was silence. There was no open vision to the people. This is the difference between legalism and standards. Legalism always hinders God’s movement whether people realize it or not. The law passed prohibiting the use of the name of God was done out of fear with good intentions, but it actually hurt the people.

Legalism’s dictionary definition is excessive adherence to law or formula. In regards to theology, the definition is dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith. The priests formed this law because of Leviticus 24:16. They became so afraid of misusing the name of God that they decided that it was best not to say His name at all. The Law never said to not use the Lord’s name. It said not to blaspheme the Lord’s name or use it wrong. If someone did speak the name of God, they were put to death. This action was done out of fear.

Standards’ dictionary definition is a level of quality or attainment or a required or agreed level of quality or attainment.

Standards, however, are not done out of fear. They are done out of love and respect toward God and ourselves. Perfect love drives out fear. When Jesus came on the scene, He was using the name of God and directly using the “I AM” name of God to refer to Himself. This angered the priests because the priests weren’t allowed to use this name. Why was a man from Galilee allowed to use it? Because the Law was embodied in Christ. He had perfected the entirety of it in His lifestyle and walk. The level of quality and attainment had been met, and it was required by God. He was/is God manifested in the flesh.

Peter speaks to this level of quality or attainment in 1 Peter 1:15-20. The apostle says to be holy; for God is holy because we were redeemed with the blood of Christ. The entire chapter speaks about living a life that is pleasing to God and loving people. So, there is a level of quality (standard) that we are required to live if we walk with Christ.

When Peter echoed the Old Testament commandment to “be Holy for He is Holy,” he said to “be holy in all manner of conversation.” Conversation (anastrophe in Greek) refers to behavior, conduct toward others, and life. Meaning that there is a change in outward behavior from an “up-turn” of religious beliefs.

“Legalists” is how many people view those of us who adhere to standards because we do not approach standards in the right way. We do not live the way we live to get saved; we live this way because we are saved. And salvation is not a work that is done by us; it is the gift of God that was given to us through the work of the cross. This echoes back to Paul in Ephesians 2:10 states that we are God’s workmanship, created in Jesus Christ unto good works. We are not saved by works, but we are saved to do works; which is where James said in James 2 that faith without works is dead because it was by Abraham’s and Rahab’s works that their faith was made perfect.

I will not write here that you must do something. That is for your pastor and yourself to handle. Living a life with standards is not legalism because it is not done out of fear. It does not exalt itself against others (because in measuring ourselves by ourselves and others; we are not wise – 2 Corinthians 10:12). Legalism exalts itself against others and measures itself by others. Think of it as that Pharisee that thanked God that he was not like the sinners, but the publican asked God to have mercy upon him. Legalism is flesh-centered because it is not about doing what is right or good; it’s either about fear, not in the respectful way, or exaltation of ourselves.

James 2 laid out the dividing line of legalism and a standard – it has to do with realizing that there is no good outside of God; that we are sinful and in need of a savior. Nothing we do can save us, but how we choose to live, dress and act are a perfecting of our faith; or sanctification – that is the constant progression of a Christian’s lifestyle and behavior toward the perfection and standard of Christ.

Standards are not done so that we can get God’s love. Jesus loved us while we were still sinners, and He still died for us. Onward to the Deuteronomy 22:5 argument.

‭‭Deuteronomy‬ ‭22:5‬ ‭NKJV‬‬ A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the LORD your God.

Now, I’ve heard the whole spiel about the ceremonial law, religious law, and civil law. Truth is, that was made up by scholars. At the time this was given it was “The Law.” It was all one thing. But the problem with following this line of thought is when you bring up the next few verses about wearing mixed fabrics.

‭‭Deuteronomy‬ ‭22:11‬ ‭NKJV‬‬ You shall not wear a garment of different sorts, such as wool and linen mixed together.

I’m sorry to inform you, but if you’re going to use verse 5 for your argument please follow verse 11. It’s all one law. These were rules for Israel’s conduct toward themselves, each other, worship, and God. I do not believe Deuteronomy 22 is an adequate explanation of standards, especially referencing “why” we do it.

It’s crucial to remember that the knowledge of sin came by the Law. Salvation never came by the Law.

Personally, I live this way because I love Jesus. I’m not living for or doing this for anyone else besides Him. This is the lifestyle that best glorifies God in my life and conduct.