Legalism and Smoking.

“Aren’t you being legalistic by saying that smoking is a sin for you? “

This is an interesting question to an article that I posted quite a while ago.  You can read that article here. Before I answer this, first we need to define what legalism is. There are 2 ways that a Christian can be guilty of legalism. Legalism is the excessive and improper use of the law.  The first way we can be guilty of legalism is where a person tries to keep the Law in order to achieve salvation.  A variation on this is where a person keeps the law in order to maintain this salvation, or in addition to salvation.  I assume that these first 2 are not what my questioner is getting at.  The third kind of legalism, and the kind I think I am being  alleged of committing, is when a Christian judges other Christians for not keeping certain codes of conduct that he thinks need to be observed.

To answer the question; by holding myself to a high moral standard I am not being legalistic.  I smoked for years, but somewhere during my walk with Christ, and after bible study and prayer, it became clear to me that smoking is a sin for me.  This is a by-product of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in my life. But if I were to regard other Christians who smoked as sinners, and judged them for it, then I would be guilty of legalism.  Essentially what that would be like, is making up extra-biblical rules and then viewing with contempt those Christians who do not adhere to my level of holiness. This is a problem in the church today, and I am guilty of it to an extent.  I recently judged a person for not praying before a meeting.  While it is good to ask God’s blessing before a meeting, it is not part of the law. Prayer is, as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, the most important part of the thankfulness that God requires of us, but it is not stated in law that we must pray before a meeting.   I bet you are guilty of similar legalistic attitudes as well..  Who has not thought to themselves, “I cannot believe that He watched that movie, or bought gas on Sunday, or skipped church to watch the big game, or went to the pub, or had a drink?”  There are those Christians who judge others for eating junk food or fast food as well.

stop smoking 1Now, I want to clarify that we should admonish another Christian if we see him blatantly disregarding the law by partaking of such sinful things as fornication, adultery, pornography, gossip, slander, stealing, chronic skipping of church, being given to drunkenness, etc.  We do have a right, and an obligation, to judge the spirituality of other Christians in these areas where the Bible clearly speaks.  But, in the debatable areas we need to be more careful, and this is where legalism is much more difficult to define.  Romans 14 say that we are not to judge our brothers on debatable issues.  One person may eat certain kinds of foods where another would not.  One person might worship on a particular day where another might not.  We are told to let each person be convinced in his own mind.  It was for freedom that we have been set free…as long as our freedom does not violate the Scriptures and as long we do not view our freedom as a means to commit further sin so that grace may abound even more.

RC Sproul states about this kind of legalism:

… legalism happens when we add legislation to God’s law and treat the addition as if it were divine law. This perilous danger has afflicted the church from the time of Cain and Abel. Jesus was in constant conflict with the Pharisees over this issue because they were teaching human traditions as the Word of God (Mark 7:1-13). When this happens, people presumptuously and arrogantly usurp the authority of God.

Obviously the church may set up policies, but when rules made by people are set up on the same level as God’s law and are made the test of Christianity, then a serious distortion has come upon the gospel of Christ. Because of this sinful legalism, many think that we define a Christian as someone who doesn’t dance, smoke, drink, wear lipstick, go to movies, or play cards.

We come perilously close to blasphemy when we project this distorted view of Christianity, because it draws our eyes to a set of rules and away from Jesus’ sacrifice. Obedience must be part of the Christian life, but it is a fruit of salvation not the root of it. Sanctification is that life-long process whereby obedience to Scripture leads us into conformity to Christ.

R.C. Sproul, Before the Face of God: A Daily Guide for Living from the Book of Romans [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1992], excerpted from pgs. 458-459)

Our holiness, our obedience to the law of God, should be a natural response, a by-product of our thankfulness for the free gift of salvation that God in his grace has given to us.  That is why I pray. That is why do not go to restaurants on the Lord’s Day.  That is why I do not smoke.  That is why I don’t watch much TV.   The more I mature spiritually, the more I become aware of my sinfulness, the more I become aware of how much has been forgiven and the less I want to sin and partake of questionable things.  That does not mean that I never sin, far from it. (Just ask Teresa) What about you? Do you know how much has been forgiven you?  When I talk to someone about their smoking, or other such things, it is not out of a sense of legalism, or of superiority, but out of love for my neighbour.  I place far more emphasis on prayer and devotions than on quitting smoking…if I asked you about your prayer life would you accuse me of being legalistic?  I doubt it….  But if I said you should pray when you awake, before each meal, and before bed, and I judged you for not doing it, then I would be guilty of legalism.

imagesI find that I am much harder on myself than on other Christians when it comes to these things.  So, if you feel that I am judging you by what I write, perhaps you should take a look at what you are doing in light of the scriptures, and pray about it.  Perhaps you are feeling that way because you are growing in your discipleship. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is working in you to sanctify you.  I don’t know, but it could be a possibility.  Why not read the bible pray about it?

I’ll ask in the morning how it went 🙂

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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  1. No comments??? Wow. 🙂
    I wonder if the thought about smoking aught to be phrased in another way, to give it perspective. I like to have a smoke from time to time Maybe 8 – 10 packs in a year), I am not enslaved to it, I can do without. Is that different from someone who can’t go without a cigarette? I have a few friends, and family members, who “need” a smoke quite often, they would seem to be enslaved by it. I think there is a difference.
    Not praying (and I am guilty here) as often or at given times, begs the question, why am I not praying at those times? Forgot? Hardly a good answer, No time? Not much better. Too tired? Not cutting it either. Not disciplined enough? Good question. Just don’t think of it? That’s telling me something about myself.
    Getting gas, food or other things, might also be telling me something about myself, and perhaps about others. The thing I would like to have done, should this be perceived by someone, it have a tap on the shoulder, and a posing of a question. Maybe, just maybe, I can justify what I’m doing, but I suspect it might be very difficult. 🙂
    I think that you’ve again touched on subjects we like to talk about with others, just not with those who might be the focus of the discussion.
    Don’t read this until the morning. 🙂

  2. Wim says:

    Esteemed br. Ryan
    As this is my first foray into the comment section, first things first: a “tip of the hat” for your insightful, often thought-provoking articles and reminders for all of us to take seriously the call to holy living, Coram Deo.

    I’ve read your recent blog about smoking as well as the prior ones from last year, and am left wondering why we often struggle with that concept of “legalism” as to where and when either we ourselves or our brother/sister may be “judged” to have stepped over the -indefineable?- line. This issue of “legalism” reminds me of a book I just re-read recently (Michener, The Source) where many Jews were so entrenched into defining and detailing the Torah (Law) into its very minutiae for everyday living, resulting in the Talmud and other works. Talk about “legalism” as an art refined…

    The poetic contribution by John Piper of “What is Sin” (quoted in an earlier article) pretty much echos the basic principle of Scripture, as found in 1Cor. 10:31 “… Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” This speaks on a much higher level than just defining whether smoking/speeding/drinking/ etc. (easy to fill in many more blanks) is sin to a person or not. Instead it puts the whole “law” in perspective of God’s purpose for creating us. Do we live our lives to His honour, or do we seek to please ourselves? First and foremost, that’s a question that each one has to answer for him-or-herself.

    Just a few chapters later we read of that “most excellent way” of building up the body of Christ, i.e., through love. “Love does not delight in evil… always protects… keeps no record of wrongs…” If to me or you smoking -or fill in any other [potentially] harmful habit- is part of “recklessly endangering myself” (HC QA 105), how do or can we then explain it in light of “everything to His glory” ??

    • Esteemed Br. Wim. Thank you for officially joining the fray!

      I think, as Darren mentioned in his comment below, that we are very skilled at justifying our sinfulness and our selfish actions and behaviors. I know for me that smoking (and many other sins) was simply a selfish action, it was self gratifying and self destructive and therefore not God honouring…which means it was sinful.

      I believe that you hit the nail on the head with this question: Do we live our lives to His honour, or do we seek to please ourselves?

      That was the question that changed my mind on smoking, and I think we would all do well to ask ourselves this question on a daily basis…

  3. Darren says:

    What’s the opposite of legalism? Is it not doing whatever you want? As long as the Bible does not explicitly forbid it, you can decide if it’s right or wrong for you to do, and no one can tell you otherwise.
    The issue with that is…. this is now open to your sinful heart, and we all know that we can make crafty and creative lines of reasoning to explain away anything we really want to.
    Romans 14…. Useful and relevant in everything we do. But sure can be used to justify anything we want, whenever we need to.
    I’ll take your ‘legalism’ as brotherly concern and guidance over the ‘free-for-all, as long as I can justify’ attitude that the other perspective can come to. Each can be sinful and hurt someone, but one at least you know your fellow brother and sister in Christ cares for you, even if it comes across poorly.

    • Hi Darren,

      Antinomianism is the opposite of Legalism. Antinomianism is the belief that under the gospel of grace, we are not obliged to follow the moral law because faith alone is necessary to salvation. It is a distortion of the gospel just as legalism is.

      As Wim said above, we should all ask ourselves this question: Do we live our lives to His honour, or do we seek to please ourselves?

      I am of the belief that Christians (and yes even those of us in the CanRC) are sometimes a little too casual with regard living a life of thankfulness, ( holy living, devotions, prayer etc), that is why I poke at it sometimes – to simply get us to think and talk and read and pray. At the end of the day I do not judge, but I will admonish in love…even if it comes across poorly 🙂