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Legalism or Realism: Understanding the Difference

By March 23, 2016Christian Living5 min read

He was observably upset, “You’re being legalistic!” were the last words I ever heard from Zachary, as he slammed my office door hard enough to break the jam. I sat there for a moment listening to the slamming of the front doors of the church and the screech of tires, as he sped away in his wreck of a first car. There was a boisterous conversation of self-doubt racing through my mind.

I sat still asking God if I were wrong.

Thoughts of resigning my duties flooded my thoughts. Then I looked down at my desk, and there it was, eternal, unchangeable truth staring back into my soul. It did not bring me comfort, however, but rather a sense of resolve. The pages of God’s Holy Word had, for that moment, become heavy, unmovable, and powerfully alive. The verse before me that I had shared with him was from 1 John, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). You see, Zack had been coming to see me several times over a few months for help about a failing relationship with his girlfriend. He was more interested in the girl than with God, of this there was no question. My wife and I had seen the writing on the wall for some time, and I’d been trying to help him through this personal crisis the best I could. That day, he left his high school classes to come inform me, if I didn’t intervene on his behalf, he was no longer going to be able to come to the church. I told him that wasn’t going to happen, and that’s where I needed to draw the line.

I could see he was disappointed, as if all hope was now lost.

I asked him what was going on. He explained the girl he liked had started courting another young man who was “serious about God,” as she put it to him. He became visibly upset and vocally vulgar in his hatred for this sweet and godly young man. So, as ministry and counseling had been modeled for me, I prayed and then went to God’s Word to get direction from Him. I knew I did not have the power to change his heart, but I was confident God’s Word could, if Zack would allow it. As I read from 1 John, I could see his temper start to boil, his hands balling into fists. He looked as if he was going to explode. In an attempt to open a relief valve, the Spirit of God led us to these verses, “He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, but he who is impulsive exalts folly.” (Proverbs 14:29), and, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). That was the gas to the flame! The emotional, verbal abuse and manipulation that continued to burn from out of his heart was like a F4 dropping napalm on the jungles of Vietnam, for what seemed like forever, and then, out the door he went.

In the calm following the storm, the question that arose for me was, am I being legalistic, or am I being realistic?

Simply put, legalism is the act of putting law above the gospel by establishing requirements for salvation beyond repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Just because you and I do not sometimes like the fact that God’s Holy Word disagrees with our personal desires, wants, wishes and/or behavior, does not mean it is legalistic for the church to preach/teach and uphold that command as good and right for the followers of Jesus to obey. Leonard Ravenhill said it well, “When there’s something in the Bible that churches don’t like, they call it ‘legalism.’” Paul told Timothy,“ All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (1 Timothy 3:16-17). I was not being legalistic. I was using God’s Word as it was intended to be used. I was not adding the requirements of the law to his need for salvation. I truly cared for this young man, and years later, my heart still carries the scars from that day. In that situation, however, the Sword of the Spirit came to bear on an emotionally compromised heart.

Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). We need to be circumspect when we start throwing around the term “legalistic” by asking the following question: Is this adding the law back to the requirements of salvation that is found in faith in Jesus Christ? Or is this simply a commandment from God’s Word I’m being challenged to obey in my walk with Him?

Ty Orr is the senior pastor at Watersprings Church located in Idaho Falls, ID. Ty is married to Laurie, and they have three children.