Legalism is a common word in Adventist discourse. Whether certain evangelicals are calling Adventists legalists for talking about Sabbath or Adventists are calling each other legalists for various reasons, the word is a very common one in any discussion of Adventism. For that reason, we should address, what does it even mean?
What is interesting is that much of the time the word means different things to different people. Now please don’t read me wrong. I am not saying that there is no such thing as legalism. I am saying that we have to define it before we can discuss it.
I remember having a discussion about some issue a while back with someone. After much time I realized that we had different definitions of the core terms we were discussing. I believe this happens often in discussions about legalism.
Obeying the Law Very Closely
So what do people mean when they say legalist or legalism? Well the first definition might come from Websters. Some people mean “Strict Adherence to a valid or invalid law.” A good example of this might be the 70 mile per hour speed limit. You are a legalist according to this definition if you say you must always fall under that 70 miles per hour. Some of us kind of fudge this by going 75 or 77 miles per hour. They are keeping the law, but strictly speaking are breaking the law.
Another example would be the people who say that you must keep the Sabbath from the very second the sun goes down on Friday till the sunset on Saturday. Some would say that is legalism. But according to this definition, it is legalism to condemn one for strictly keeping the Sabbath hours. Others would simply call this obedience.
Now I doubt many Christians would argue that strictly keeping a valid law is legalism. So the question at this point is not how strictly you keep it, but whether the law is valid or not. That brings us to our next variety of ways to define legalism.
Keeping a law that has been done away or is not valid
Now the next way that some folks define legalism is to keep a law that is not valid. This seems to be a very common method of definition. The Evangelicals sometimes seem to use this argument. The Sabbath has been down away, so you are a legalist in keeping it.
Some Adventists use this against the folks who keep the feast days. The Adventist argues that it has been done away so you are a legalist if you keep it.
Sometimes it demonstrates itself in other ways. Like the folks who get accused of making up rules that you must follow. You are a legalist if you say make up rules about what you should or shouldn’t do on the Sabbath for example. Or whether Christians should wear certain things. Or whether they should or should not look at certain things on TV or at the movies. People are seen as legalist, according to this definition, if they do those things.
The key question is whether the law is valid. So the discussion centers around whether the law is valid if this is the definition of legalism that those who are having the discussion take.
Hold People To Your Understanding
Now the next definition is not about what you do or don’t do, but whether you attempt to hold others to your standards. So it is not in what you do, but in judging others by your standards. So you keep the Sabbath, this definition would call you a legalist to judge others by whether they keep the Sabbath or how they keep the Sabbath.
It is in the judging that makes it legalism in this definition. This does seem to be a common definition, but one wonders how one can suggest any behavioral improvement if any such suggestion is legalism?
The vast majority of Christians will judge folks by some law. Whether it is “love your neighbor as yourself” as our liberal friends would argue, or some other definition, we all believe that humanity should follow some rule or law. So really this makes all of Christianity legalists.
Keeping The Law To Gain Or Retain Salvation
This is the definition used to keep or retain salvation through law-keeping. What is different about this definition is that it is about motive and not about practice. You may keep the law very strictly and precisely and not be doing it to gain or retain salvation.
Then again you may be keeping it very sloppily, but still believe that your salvation is tied into your sloppy keeping of that law. Then you are still a legalist according to this definition. Theoretically, it is possible therefore to be seen as “liberal” in practice and yet still be a legalist according to this definition.
In addition, it is not possible to really know who is or who is not a legalist according to this definition. I mean someone can look at you to see if you are strictly keeping a law, but one can’t know whether you are or are not keeping it to gain or retain salvation. So if someone calls you a legalist according to this definition, then you might want to ask them what number you are thinking because they obviously know how to read minds…
I didn’t write this to attempt to prove which is the valid or invalid definition of “legalism.” Words connect us to concepts. Discussing concepts is more important than battling over semantics. No, I wrote this to remind you that when we have our discussions that we often have very different meanings of core terms. It is important to understand what we mean by core terms before we can move on to understanding.
So, before you get in an argument with someone about whether you are or are not a legalist, it might be helpful to define what you mean and what the other means by the term.
but more than this, I think we Christians (especially Adventists) throw around that term with certainty. As with many issues, people “looketh on the outward appearance, but God looketh on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)