Obsessed with the Law


Legalism rarely leads to inner peace. Philip Yancey explains why legalism is a dangerous way of life.

Q: You have some harsh things to say about legalistic churches in your books. What’s so bad about legalism?

It can’t guarantee us God’s approval, for one thing. When you read the letters of the Apostle Paul, or the accounts of a monk like Martin Luther, you can see how torturous it can be to try to keep every single rule. Luther used to spend hours each day probing every possible sin he may have committed. The Jews of Jesus’ day had identified 613 major laws from the Old Testament and accepted more than a thousand governing behavior just on the Sabbath.

What is the result of that kind of obsession with law-keeping? I see two possible outcomes, neither being healthy. Some, like the Pharisees, took pride in their ability to keep those laws and looked down on others who could not. Others, however, felt like miserable failures.

Legalism rarely leads to inner peace.  As Paul said, it may even stir up evil thoughts that would not have come to mind apart from the law!

I attended a Christian college, and saw both of these patterns. Some students developed a kind of spiritual class system: there were the “super-spiritual” Christians and then there were all the rest. Others simply went around feeling guilty. They lacked the overwhelming sense that the Gospel is good news and that God loves me “Just as I am,” in the words of the old hymn.

As I read the Book of Acts, the church is primarily about community. A minority of people living in a Jewish culture in the broader Roman empire decide that a first-century prophet named Jesus has the answer to life’s problems.  They band together to encourage each other and meet each other’s needs.  It’s that simple, and that complicated.  The church begins as a kind of counter-culture, a coming together of like-minded people who commit to each other and in doing so become a model to the culture around them. Any movement has great difficulty sustaining itself apart from community.

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