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What is Legalism? by Tony Reinke

December 4, 2008

Ah the ole “L” word. Many of us use the word in our vocab. But what is it and what does it mean? That’s a question I’m asked on a frequent basis and one I like to revisit annually on this blog.

I can distinctly remember the time when this question begged for clarification in my own life. At one time three events collided (and all took place in the same week). I think each event reveals why clarifying the dangers of legalism are necessary and worthy of revisiting frequently.

First was a conversation with a woman who had decided to permit her daughter to skip church in order to participate in soccer games. “I don’t want to be legalistic about church,” she said. Another encounter was with a man who defined legalism as “living by lots of rules.” And the third encounter was with a man who labeled Christians who abstained from alcohol as legalists.

Let me say from the start that I’m not saying these people are right or wrong in their convictions. What is important to see is that each statement (I believe) reveals a superficial and fundamentally flawed view of legalism.

Let me explain.

Read the rest of his post at Christ-centered blog

20 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2008 8:29 pm

    “First was a conversation with a woman who had decided to permit her daughter to skip church in order to participate in soccer games. “I don’t want to be legalistic about church,” she said.”

    God law is never legalistic. It is a sign that we actually love God and aren’t liars (1 John 2:3-4)

    “Another encounter was with a man who defined legalism as “living by lots of rules.””

    Sorry, but Christianity does have rules. If Christ is King, then He ought to be obeyed. Fortunately, His commandments are not burdensome.

    “And the third encounter was with a man who labeled Christians who abstained from alcohol as legalists.”

    Since there is no such commandment to be found within the Holy Writ, I would have to agree.

    See David Chilton on Legalism.

    You also might find my definition of legalism in the Modern Church Lexicon of some interest.

  2. December 4, 2008 8:31 pm

    “And the third encounter was with a man who labeled Christians who abstained from alcohol as legalists.”

    Correction. If they obstain, fine. It’s when they tell others to obstain that it becomes legalism.

  3. DomWalk permalink
    December 5, 2008 2:25 am

    No, that makes them a pain. :-)

    It’s only legalism if it’s tied to salvation.

  4. December 6, 2008 4:38 pm

    29 Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
    Who has strife? Who has complaining?
    Who has wounds without cause?
    Who has redness of eyes?

    30 Those who tarry long over wine;
    those who go to try mixed wine.

    31 Do not look at wine when it is red,
    when it sparkles in the cup
    and goes down smoothly.

    32 In the end it bites like a serpent
    and stings like an adder.

    33 Your eyes will see strange things,
    and your heart utter perverse things.

    34 You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,
    like one who lies on the top of a mast.

    35 “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt;
    they beat me, but I did not feel it.
    When shall I awake?
    I must have another drink.”
    (Proverbs 23:29-35)

    I think it would be best if we did not touch alcohol.

    My wise grandmother asked me once…
    “Do you know how the alcoholic became an alcoholic? He took one drink.”

    I think she is right.

  5. December 6, 2008 4:43 pm

    Proverbs 20:1
    Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,
    and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.

  6. December 6, 2008 4:44 pm

    Proverbs 31:4
    It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink,

    Are we not kings? we are a ROYAL priesthood.

  7. December 6, 2008 4:44 pm

    Proverbs 31:6
    Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress…

    Alcohol for medicinal purposes? I think so.

  8. December 6, 2008 4:46 pm

    Isaiah 5.22
    Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink

    Hmmm… I think that the legalism argument is not standing up to Scripture. I think that abstaining from alcohol is a very holy thing to do.

  9. December 6, 2008 4:47 pm

    Isaiah 28.7
    These also reel with wine and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed by wine, they stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment.

    I can see why churches would ask their ministers not to drink alcohol.

  10. December 6, 2008 4:48 pm

    Isaiah 29.9
    Astonish yourselves and be astonished; blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink!

  11. December 7, 2008 2:14 am

    Bobby (you legalist you) ;),

    Great Scriptures warning against the sin of drunkeness. However…

    “…there is no such commandment (to abstain from alcohol) to be found within the Holy Writ”.

    I stand by that statement.

    Check out Christians and Alcoholic Beverages. And then pour me a tall Guiness and let’s talk some theology…

  12. December 7, 2008 2:17 am

    My wise grandmother asked me once…
    “Do you know how the alcoholic became an alcoholic? He took one drink.”

    I think she is right.

    Bobby,

    I used to use the same argument. However, I would suggest that anyone who does so really consider what he believes about original sin.

    Hint: A drink cannot make one an alcoholic.

  13. RAP permalink*
    December 7, 2008 2:34 pm

    My view of original sin is the same as yours. I believe we are concieved in sin and we need to be prudent with our actions. Drunkeness wouldn’t occur if one wouldn’t take a drink. That is my point. You are still a sinner, being wise and not drinking. Prudence is the best course of action. One drink does not make a person an alcoholic, but getting hooked on it because of our fleshliness could lead to alcoholism. Therefore, knowing that we are sinful and have a tendency toward addictive habits, it would be better to abstain from something that is not necessary.

  14. December 7, 2008 7:56 pm

    Bobby,

    What about all of the Scriptures that treat alcohol as a positive blessing? There are many Scriptures that clearly treat alcoholic beverage as a blessing from God, and even used in worship. (The Lord’s Supper is wine, not grape juice.)

    If one wants to abstain, great. But to teach this as a commandment to Christians is clearly a form of legalism. Jesus Christ is the head of the church, and the church may not legislate where Christ does not legislate.

  15. RAP permalink*
    December 8, 2008 5:19 am

    Scott,

    I don’t have a problem with people drinking. I have a problem with what alcohol leads to… mostly death, wife beating, abuse of children, wrecking cars, etc.

    The alcohol that was used in Jesus’ day was probably 8 part water, 1 part fermented grape juice. It was extremely weak. (see Andreas Kostenberger on John 2 – Commentary on John)

    Alcohol is a drug. Is it legalistic to forbid cocaine or Mary Jane? What if it became legal to push these, would it be legalistic to forbid it still? Alcohol is not forbidden in Scripture, but it was so much weaker then. One burboun and coke probably equaled 6 glasses of wine in Jesus’ day. So being drunk on wine in that day probably took 24 glasses of wine.

    I know that the Scripture eschatologically sees the flowing of wine as succesful and holy living with the hand of God. I know that the Scripture equates wine with the blood of Christ and the fullness of the Holy Spirit, etc.

    So drinking wine is not sinful… however, because of the sinfulness of man, it would be prudent to abstain.

  16. December 8, 2008 1:41 pm

    “So drinking wine is not sinful… however, because of the sinfulness of man, it would be prudent to abstain.”

    Bobby,

    That’s where it easily becomes legalistic. This is merely an opinion of man, not supported by the Word of God.

    Again, there is no problem with a person abstaining from wine. But this is an issue that cannot be legislated by the church. If so, then it is clearly legalism.

    Also, 24 glasses of wine???? I have heard many attempts to support the idea that wine was weaker in Bible times. I can find no historical or exegetical support for this view.

    BTW: Caffeine is a drug too. Do you drink coffee?

  17. December 8, 2008 1:46 pm

    “You shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine (yayin) or strong drink (shekar), for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household” (Deut. 14:26).

    Clearly, the alcoholic beverage in the Bible was “strong drink”, which is why Scripture warns against it’s intoxicating power. Nonetheless, the issue here is the ethical use of alcohol, and such use is not only allowed by Scripture, but even encouraged in righteous moderation.

  18. December 11, 2008 5:15 pm

    Bobby,

    Can you send me a link on Kostenberger’s Commentary on John 2? I’d be interested in…

    1.) The Historic and Exegetical arguments which no one in the temperance movement have ever been able to provide.

    2.) An explanation of how a beverage with such low alcohol content could be preserved in Bible times for more than a day.

    3.) How anyone can drink 24 glasses of a beverage within a time period that would enable drunkeness.

    4.) Why would Jesus be accused of being a drunkard (Matthew 11:19) for partaking in such a weak beverage.

  19. Raider permalink
    March 18, 2009 2:19 pm

    Scripture has much to say regarding the drinking of alcohol (Leviticus 10:9; Numbers 6:3; Deuteronomy 29:6; Judges 13:4,7,14; Proverbs 20:1; 31:4; Isaiah 5:11,22; 24:9; 28:7; 29:9; 56:12). However, Scripture does not necessarily forbid a Christian from drinking beer, wine, or any other drink containing alcohol. In fact, some Scriptures discuss alcohol in positive terms. Ecclesiastes 9:7 instructs “drink wine with a merry heart.” Psalm 104:14-15 states that God gives wine “that makes glad the heart of men.” Amos 9:14 discusses drinking wine from your own vineyard as a sign of God’s blessing. Isaiah 55:11 encourages “yes, come buy wine and milk…”

    What God commands Christians regarding alcohol is to avoid drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18). The Bible condemns drunkenness and its effects (Proverbs 23:29-35). Christians are also commanded to not allow their bodies to be “mastered” by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12; 2 Peter 2:19). Drinking alcohol in excess is undeniably addictive. Scripture also forbids a Christian from doing anything that might offend other Christians or might encourage them to sin against their conscience (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). In light of these principles, it would be extremely difficult for any Christian to say he is drinking alcohol to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

    Jesus changed water into wine(John 2:1-11; Matthew 26:29). In New Testament times, the water was not very clean. Without modern sanitation efforts, the water was often filled with bacteria, viruses, and all kinds of contaminants. The same is true in many third-world countries today. As a result, people often drank wine (or grape juice) because it was far less likely to be contaminated. In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul was instructing Timothy to stop drinking the water (which was probably causing his stomach problems) and instead drink wine. In that day, wine was fermented (containing alcohol), but necessarily not to the degree it is today, although it could be. It is incorrect to say that it was grape juice, but it is also incorrect to say that it was the same thing as the wine commonly used today. Again, Scripture does not forbid Christians from drinking beer, wine, or any other drink containing alcohol. Alcohol is not, in and of itself, tainted by sin. It is, rather, drunkenness and addiction to alcohol that a Christian must absolutely refrain from (Ephesians 5:18; 1 Corinthians 6:12).

  20. Raider permalink
    March 18, 2009 2:27 pm

    Let me just ask you this…..what if Jesus handed you a glass of wine after HE MADE IT in Cana? Did Jesus cause those at the party to sin?? NO, Jesus causes no man to sin. Wow, what would that make you think….would you re-evaluate how you treated the subject? Think of gluttony, would you grandmother say “Do you know how a glutton became fat? He took the first bite of chocolate cake. Has anyone had something unhealthy that they enjoyed and are not fat? A Big Mac….maybe Pizza? Nutritionally these are horrible and lead to the sin of gluttony….which IS a sin like drunkenness…not drinking. Just like having pizza is delicious…it can also lead to sin. If you believe that drinking will trip up you or another person….don’t do it. But don’t put words in Christ’s mouth by calling drinking a sin….it is as much a sin as eating unhealthy food….regardless of if you are a glutton. Being drunk is a sin ….drinking is not. Being a glutton is a sin….eating a pizza or burger is not. I only hope this can illustrate the difference for some and help them understand.

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