Legalism and a New Circumcision

When we make the results of our walk with the Lord requirements for our standing with Him, we are drifting from grace. When we hold up the personal results of our faith as requirements for others—we act as legalists.

A couple of examples…

As a result of their time with the Lord and conversations with each other, a couple concludes that the Lord is leading them to homeschool their children. They express a burden to be the primary teachers, caregivers, and examples in the lives of their children. So far so good, until they start to believe that their standing with God is based on this decision, that somehow they are more approved before God because of it. Also, they begin to send signals, subtle in their talk, that parents who really “get it” will also homeschool their kids.

Another couple, as a result of a recent mission trip and prayerful discussions with other believers they respect, concludes the Lord desires them to send their kids to public schools. They are convinced they want to build relationships, as a family, with other families in the community. So far so good, until they begin to lay their heads on the pillow at night thinking their standing with God is somehow validated by their “missional approach” to life. And they begin to look at others, who don’t live as they do, as less spiritual and more self-consumed.

Both couples have this in common: they rely on their own works, not the work of Christ, for their daily approval before God. And they are modern legalists, projecting the results of their faith as requirements for others.

Schooling choices is just one example. Legalism happens with stay-at-home moms and working moms, musicians who play only in churches and musicians who also play in clubs, and a host of other people and scenarios. And there is a lot of pain in people who feel judged by those who have made their results their requirements—and the requirements of everyone else they encounter. Sadly, legalism destroys community and hurts people.

We, of course, should not be surprised. After all, we are all recovering legalists. We are recovering from attempting to fulfill ourselves or stand before God in our own works. And without constantly reminding ourselves of His grace, we start to live as legalists.

I am making a distinction between results of our faith and results of our faith clearly denoted in Scripture. For example, the result of generosity is required for the Christian, not to secure our standing before God but because we are secure in our standing before God. The result of sharing our faith with others is required for the Christian, not to earn His forgiveness but because we are forgiven. Where your kids are educated, what radio station you listen to, whether the mom works or stays home, and where your band plays music are not clearly denoted in the Scriptures.

In the churches of Galatia, the issue was circumcision. “If you want to be approved before God,” a group of Jews were telling new Christians, “you must be circumcised.” The apostle Paul knew differently and wrote:

“Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all… For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:2,6)

Paul was adamant that the people not be circumcised as a way to gain approval from God. He insisted that they not allow themselves to be burdened down with a yoke of enslaving teaching. Circumcision was not a requirement.

Yet later, Paul encouraged Timothy to be circumcised so that the Jewish people would be more receptive to their message (Acts 16:1-3). Timothy was half-Jewish, and because of his dual heritage, Jews would be more likely to listen to him if he were circumcised. So as a result of his forgiveness, for the sake of advancing the gospel, he was circumcised. But Paul and Timothy never put this as a requirement for someone else.

We must not position the personal results of our faith as requirements for others to gain approval by God. We must not burden people with a new circumcision.