What means to be "legalist"
Why is it important to define and clear up the meaning of phrases, words, and concepts? Many use some phrases like a wild card or a joker in a deck of cards. In the game of Poker the wild card is used to represent any card the player wants.
In conversations, wild card words and phrases are used by some to give them the meaning that is convenient at that moment. Nevertheless, they change their meaning when used another time, when they find themselves cornered dialectically. They are not honest in their debate.
In some cases, even those who discuss honestly don't have in their minds a clear meaning of many of the words and phrases they use. For them, these phrases represent cloudy concepts that those who use them refuse to define clearly, or to answer questions about their meaning. Some do it because they expect you to accept this cloudy concept they have in their minds, in the same cloudy way they have it. Others do it because they don't want to clear up something that can be negative to the thesis they keep. Some of these phrases are: being in the Spirit, being legalist, being under the Law, being under Grace, love is the fulfillment of the Law, and many others. That is why it is good to define the concepts and phrases used in this type of discussion.
In every conversation, a person will say words and phrases whose meaning he have never defined to himself. He uses these words and phrases as a way to say something he wants the listener to accept in the same cloudy way that he has them in his mind, without definition. This inadequate manner of expression gives way to an endless number of errors and twisting that we must avoid in any subject we discuss, but more so when we are talking about the holy truths of God.
That is why it will be good, before talking about the Law, to define each one of the words and phrases commonly used, even though they are never defined or contrasted. Not only do we need to know what a word means, but sometimes we also need to specify what it does not mean.
What being "legalist" means. In many occasions I have heard someone label as legalist those who believe that God's laws for human behavior are not obsolete. What does the word legalist mean? If we look up its meaning in the dictionary we see that a legalist is one who considers above everything else the literal application of the law. I agree that such is the meaning of the word in our language.
Well, so what is wrong with obeying God's laws just as He expressed them? If we were talking about human laws it is possible that we would not want to interpret or obey them literally at all times, because the person that wrote it may not have expressed them correctly. But when we are talking about God's law, that scenario is completely impossible. Therefore, who dares to judge God's laws, or modifies them so not to be called a legalist?
The problem does not lie in obeying God's law faithfully, but in obeying literally only one verse or one passage, or one section of the Bible, as opposed to others; but not in faithfully obeying God's commandments interpreted from the whole Bible. Not only does the Bible present the commandments, like Thou shalt not kill, but it gives examples as to what the commandments mean. Let's see some of these examples.
When we see the different biblical episodes where killing is involved, we realize what the commandment thou shalt not kill means. When we read the rest of the Bible we see that God ordered Saul to kill the Amalekites. Therefore, the Decalogue's thou shalt not kill could not be applied correctly by taking just one verse. But it can be applied correctly taking into account the entire Bible. In it we realize that the thou shalt not kill means that we should not kill out of our own whim, for personal issues.
The same goes for the death penalty for the murderer. The murderer can be killed. Thou shalt not kill does not apply to not executing him. There are several laws in the Bible where God commands the killing of those who have committed certain crimes. Therefore, Thou shalt not kill has to be understood in light of the entire Scripture, and not just one verse.
The Decalogue says not to make
graven images. However, if
we read the rest of the Bible we see that when the Tabernacle and the
From there we learn that what the commandment says is that we should not make images to worship them, but we can take pictures of ourselves. So we can obey the commandment literally just as it is presented through the entire Bible, not as we read it in just one verse. If it weren't because we apply the commandment as the entire Bible shows it, in an integral manner, we could not take photos.
Therefore, being a legalist is not faithfully obeying God's commandments, but holding on to certain isolated words, verses or passages in order to give them the meaning that we want them to have, willfully forgetting the rest of the Bible.
What does "not being a legalist" mean? Is not being a legalist that we adapt God's commandments to our culture, our times, the doctrine of our sect, or our personal convenience? In other words, that in order for us not to be labeled as legalists, would we have to interpret each one of God's commandments as we wish? Yes, because if one person interprets that he can worship Jesus' statue, while another one interprets it as idolatry, the latter would be labeled by the first as "legalist". In that case the non-legalist would defend himself by saying that this law was for the Jews, or that it was for those times, or that it was for those who worshiped pagan idols, but not for people under grace. Are there not now-a-days millions of professed Christians that worship graven images?
In other words, in order for us not to be labeled as legalists we would have to quietly accept whatever heresy and error we hear, because if we allege what the Bible says as a whole, we would be called legalists.