I heard Duffy Robbins speak at a youth leaders conference some years ago. Duffy shared a list of characteristics found in a group. These characteristics were things like fiercely dedicated to the scriptures, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines. The hook was that they were from an ancient guide for Pharisees.

The Pharisees, like other religious movements, had a great foundation. Then, like almost all movements, they got off track.

The Pharisees became devoted to their movement over devotion to God.

I remember growing up in the latter years of legalistic holiness. “Its against my religion” was an often used phrase in my life.

The working definition of legalism is to add to what God has said. For my ancestors, if consuming alcohol is wrong, then drinking soda pop from a bottle is wrong – because someone might think you are drinking. Same applied to chewing gum; someone might think you are chewing tobacco.

When we demand that everyone think alike, vote alike, preach alike, …this is the pathway towards legalism. God has given us, as someone has said, “roots and wings.” There is indeed wiggle room for many life choices. All of our life choices must be founded in scripture.

Jesus was confronted by another discipleship group; John the Baptist disciples. Jesus made an incredible statement, “For John came neither eating or drinking and they say ‘he has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.” Matthew 11:18,19.

Side note: we sing a song “Jesus friend of sinners” but probably wouldn’t sing “Jesus, glutton and winebibber.” The truth is, Jesus won’t be coopted by any of us. “Wisdom is justified by her children.”

So, as a recovering Pharisee, I have to ask – are my children; spiritual and natural – closer to God because I put on them a burden neither I nor my fathers were able to bear?  It’s a rhetorical question.

The answer to rebellion isn’t extremism. When we read the New Testament, we are confronted with saints that are doing crazy things; stealing, taking one another to court, being lazy, hating one another…but the answer wasn’t to go back to the old system, it was to move forward into the new system.

Grace is the new system. It isn’t a license to sin, it’s a license to live holy. Titus reads that grace teaches us how to live holy in this present age. Paul despised legalism, not because he wanted to live a loose life, but because holiness only comes from freedom in Christ.

Paul got angry in his hyperbole. Hey you in Galatia, if you think that circumcision makes you holy, why not emasculate yourself? Ouch.

So, when I find myself and others saying and doing things that say, “if you are really devoted to Christ, you MUST do this and you MUST to that.” That’s legalism.

“Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Jesus said. Our word is indeed our bond. Adding to it, according to Jesus, is of the devil! (Matthew 5:37)

At our church, when someone joins the church, they do so “in front of God and everybody.” Will you questions are asked. The corresponding answer is yes. The right hand of fellowship is extended. No papers signed. No vows made. That’s legalism.

Discipleship in messy and legalism is easy. I would prefer to make disciples, and I believe that is what the Lord wants.