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Characteristics of a Legalistic Church
A legalistic church is concerned about protecting its traditions and rules rather than fulfilling the mission of preaching the gospel and making disciples. Institutionalism takes the place of the great commission (Matthew 28:19). The church forgets why it was established, believing its primary purpose is to preserve its identity and establish self-righteousness. Its goal is to prosper rather than to be a light to the world.
Example of a Legalistic System
The Bible gives us an example of a legalistic System. After the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile, they were so afraid of losing their identity that they sought to safeguard their laws. One of these laws was the law of the Sabbath. So, they created many rules and regulations to keep it. Many of these rules were not founded in the Scriptures, taking principals and ideas to extremes. These man-made rules and traditions became more important than the principles upon which they were established, which is a holy relationship with the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28).
The religious leaders esteemed their outward rules in such high regard that they charged Jesus of Sabbath-breaking when He healed a sick person on the Sabbath (Luke 13:14). Christ’s emphasis on the value of doing good on the Sabbath and demonstrating acts of love in regard to true Sabbath keeping brought Him into bitter conflict with the Jewish leaders. (Luke 6:8-10, Luke 13:15-16).
For this reason, Christ said, “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). It was a question of salvation by faith or by works. Jesus affirmed that those who worship God must do so “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23, 24). The danger of exalting human precepts and even human interpretations of divine requirements above the “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23) is no less today than it was then.
Traditions are good when founded upon solid biblical principles, but when the traditions become more important than the principles they supposedly serve, the church’s activities become empty ceremonies without the power of the Holy Spirit. Outward ceremonies take the place of inward purity of heart and sincerity. Concerning them, the Lord said, “This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6).
The Cure for a Legalistic Church?
A legalistic church’s remedy is heart transformation by the Holy Spirit:
1-Individually through the study of the Word and prayer. David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You” (Psalms 51:10-13).
2-Corporately as the body of Christ. The Lord stated, “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
God’s wish for sinners is that they should humble themselves, forsake their sins, and turn to Him for salvation. The Lord does not delight in the suffering and death of the sinner, and calls them to leave their wicked ways and turn from their sins and find life (Isaiah 1:18–20; Jeremiah 25:5; Ezekiel 18:30–32; Hosea 6:1)
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In His service,