Call Me Legalistic and Joyless!

“I could not go to your church.  It is too legalistic and joyless.”  

A good friend of mine, who is a sincere Christian, said this to me.  Naturally I was offended – but, I asked God for patience! When I asked my friend to explain what he meant, he said that we all wear suits, our services are too structured, and we sing old tunes.  I actually laughed when he said this. Statements like this are very common today.  I have also been charged with being legalistic because I won’t go to Sunday Brunch at the local restaurant, or I won’t work on Sunday, yet my accusers have no idea what the term “legalism” really means.  It has become commonplace to accuse any church that is “traditional” or “liturgical” or concerned with maintaining doctrinal soundness with being legalistic.  Likewise we “joyless” Christians, who attempt to obey the law of God out of thankfulness for the free gift of salvation, are also charged with legalism. So, what is legalism?

Churches like mine which are “traditional” and “liturgical” are typically characterized by people outside the church as joyless and legalistic.  My friend has essentially equated liturgy with legalism, and respect with joyless. In his church, the worship services are exceedingly casual and upbeat; church goers bring in Tim Horton’s coffees to the worship service, while the worship team plays the latest Chris Tomlin song, and they dress in shorts and t-shirts as if Christian freedom is to be equated with being relaxed and laid-back before God.

Legalism is wrongfully charged against churches and Christians who are sincerely trying to honor the law of God out of thankfulness.  The issue of the 4th commandment keeps arising between my friends and me.  For myself, I want to respect the fourth commandment and keep our day of rest holy.  Is this legalistic?  It is, after all, a law of God. If I choose not to steal, or murder or commit adultery does that make me legalistic?

I think the underlying issue here is the issue of how we view our Christian Freedom.  In today’s western culture, Christian Freedom always has to be on “our” terms.  If it fits with the way “I” want to worship, or how “I” want to live my life, then I will do it – this is the society we live in after all.  It is my belief that we as Christians are to honor the law of God not as a way to earn salvation, but as a way of expressing our gratitude for the salvation we have freely received.

RC. Sproul states the following about the modern church:

I would say that one of the greatest problems that we have in evangelical Christianity today is the pervasive influence of what we call antinomianism, the spirit of antinomianism that says, “I am saved by faith.  I am justified by faith.  I am saved by grace.  Therefore I never have to be concerned in the slightest about obeying the law, or of doing righteousness, that the pursuit of righteousness is something Pharisees do because they are legalists and they seek to be justified by their works.  But we’re delivered from that by Christ.  We’re free from the law.  We’re free from requirements like that.  We don’t have to worry about obedience.” R.C. Sproul, Sermon on Romans

The modern church appears to be guilty of antinomianism (anti law – the polar opposite of legalism), which is just as sinful as legalism. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in Christian Freedom.  But that freedom that we have is freedom within the boundaries of the law of God to honor God out of gratitude.  I try to honour the 4th commandment out of gratitude, by going to church and not working or shopping on Sunday, but I will go to the park for a picnic and play soccer after church. Some of my brothers and sisters won’t even change out of their Sunday best, let alone play soccer; should I then charge them with legalism?  Or should they charge me with antinomianism?  I think not.

I asked a question earlier, “What is legalism?”  I guess it is time for us to define legalism. Legalism is the view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.

Yes, legalism is a problem, and it is wrong. Yes there are probably those people in our churches who are legalistic. But this does not rule out the fact that we should be living a life of obedience to God’s law out of gratitude for the grace we have freely received in Jesus Christ.

On the accusation that we are joyless…My church is not joyless and neither am I. In fact I would say that we are quite joyful!  Just because our worship services follow a liturgy and we use an organ instead of being casual with a rock band does not make us joyless!! There is energy within the membership of my church, particularly amongst the young people and the young adults. That energy is the Spirit of God.  We have a large group of people who are active in bible study, active in prayer, people who struggle against their sins and shortcomings and go before the throne of grace to freely receive forgiveness throught the blood of Christ, they are active in sharing the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected, they are active in the community in outreach to the poor, in political activism, in foreign missions, in the communion of the saints, and so on.  If this is legalistic and joyless then call me legalistic and joyless!

So to sum up.  Legalism is a serious accusation. So is the charge of antinomianism. Both are sinful, both are wrong. We should ask our Gracious Lord and savior for the wisdom to walk in our Christian Freedom within the bounds of his law out of gratitude for the free grace and favour he has shown us. And before we accuse each other, let’s take the planks out of our own eyes 🙂

And…Someone really needs to come up with an easier word for “antinomianism!”

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

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  1. Excellent post, my friend! You did a great job pointing out the error in both polar opposites. Both legalism and antinomianism are sinful and wrong. “It is my belief that we as Christians are to honor the law of God not as a way to earn salvation, but as a way of expressing our gratitude for the salvation we have freely received.” Well said. I couldn’t agree more!

  2. MyRedeemerLives says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Well thought out and to the point!

  3. Marilyn VanderDeen says:

    “My friend has essentially equated liturgy with legalism, and respect with joyless.” How about viewing this statement in reverse? WHO decided that respect to God requires formal attire, structured liturgy, and a less-participatory-than-even-a-classroom-style worship? Formerly, Canadian Reformed

    • One Christian Dad says:

      Hi Marilyn, Thanks for your comment. To be honest I have no idea WHO came up with a structured liturgy – it has been that way since at least the time of Augustine. I came from an inter-denominational, charismatic church, like my friend that I mention in the post, so I have been on both sides. As for when Christians started to move away from the structured worship it began with the Quakers in the 1700’s, then gained momentum in the Pentecostal movement with the Asuza street revival of 1906, ( I might have the date wrong). The charismatic movement of the 1960’s is when worship services really became more “participatory” on a large scale in various denominations. I was quite involved with my charismatic church, so I know a little about it and to be honest, I have had my issues with the formal structured worship of the Canrc,because I was used to the “free” style I grew up in. We even went through a period where we went “church shopping” because we were unhappy with the canrc – but I later learned that discontent is rooted in us – not in our church or in our situation or in anything external. If Paul can be content in a prison – i can be content in a structured worship service in a true Church- and no I am not equating the Canrc to prison 🙂

      However, I see the positive side of the structured worship service. I admit that the Canrc has been “exclusivist” – even synod recognized that and has it posted on the federation website for the whole world to read – and they are trying to change by the grace of God. We do have our share of legalistic members – I had a member tell me off when I was ushering and not wearing a tie! With all that said, the structure of liturgy, is really very beautiful. I have a love for the doctrine taught here and the communion of the saints I am a part of. Could we use more upbeat tunes? To be honest I miss singing accompanied by a piano or a guitar- but that is not the reason I go to Church. Could we use more up to date songs? Sure we could. But I am not going to push for that, that is very minor. At the end of the day what is of utmost importance in a congregation is the pure preaching of the Word, sacraments and discipline. And in our own lives we need to ask, how is our walk with Jesus? How is our prayer life? How is our relationship with God and our neighbour? Are we involved with others or are we stuck in our own little world? Are we discontent because of what is in our own hearts? I was. Anyway I hope you keep reading 🙂