“But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners” (1 Timothy 1:8-9 NKJV).
During a discussion of a preacher’s work in an Asian country, the response came repeatedly: “I must rebuke them.” The brother’s idea of the mission of an evangelist was to reprove and correct, to always search for wrong and chastise the guilty.
While it is true that preachers and other Christian leaders are commanded to “rebuke” (2 Timothy 4:2) and to “stop the mouths” of deceivers (Titus 1:11), that is only a part of their duties. They are also charged to “exhort and convict” through sound doctrine (Titus 1:9), and to “convince” and “exhort” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Paul’s correspondence with his young co-workers (Timothy and Titus) begins with a firm warning against legalistic former Jewish teachers (1 Timothy 1:3-11). They are described as “Desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (1 Timothy 1:7). He goes on to describe the purpose of God’s law, which was to inhibit and control evil activity, not the conduct of the righteous.
We often struggle to define the ideology called “Legalism.” Some define it as “emphasis upon law” but that is vague and subject to miss-application. Many apply the term to anyone who insists on obedience to a set of rules, regardless of the nature of those rules. That is simply too broad. By that definition, Jesus was a legalist (Matthew 7:21; 28:19).
Paul’s description of the false teachers in 1 Timothy 1 is a good start towards a proper definition. The key to a proper understanding of and relationship with God’s law is to recognize its purpose. God intended it as a barrier to wrong conduct (Romans 7:7). It identifies and warns against evil behavior. Without law we cannot know what God deems sin, nor can we avoid it.
The legalist, however, uses the law to restrict and inhibit even righteous behavior. A good example of this is the Pharisees’ condemnation of Jesus’ disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath day (Mark 2:23-28). The Lord responded, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, God’s purpose in giving the law was to serve mankind. The legalistic Jews reversed that, maintaining that the purpose for which God made man was to keep the law.
It is true that righteous men will obey God’s will. It is also true that God’s will is not intended to restrict nor to inhibit or discourage righteous conduct. Note the following: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Those who have been transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2) have no sense of bondage to a set of rules. That which they desire to do is right and good because it is based on God’s own nature and will. Continually demanding “Thou shalt,” and “thou shalt not” is neither necessary or productive. They are not the people for whom those commandments were designed. They already obey, because it is their nature.
To continually demand obedience to strict regulations is to imply that even God’s faithful followers are depraved and incapable of doing right naturally. Even worse, such regulations are almost always designed to produce conformity to the enforcer’s standards rather than God’s.
The legalist wants others to be like himself. God seeks to mold us by his Spirit into his own image (2 Corinthians 3:18).