God is bringing to our attention the Law of Moses, with the statutes and judgments, along with strict standards given to the church through Sister White. In response, some may be fearing that all this talk must be legalism and that we should avoid it. However, legalism is nothing to be afraid of – at least the good, dictionary-defined kind. And that’s what we’re going to look at today: why legalism is a good thing.
What Is Legalism?
The current Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “legalism” primarily as follows:
Strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.
The world, which has unfortunately crept its way into Christendom and even Adventism, sees this as negative. However, the entire Bible exhorts us to strictly obey every word of God’s Law, including the statutes and judgments. Also, Ellen White wrote excessively (in relation to the world’s thinking) on the Law and the necessity of obeying it. Christ Himself spoke the Law in much more narrow, stringent terms than the self-righteous Pharisees saw it. Was this legalism? Absolutely!
A Few Statements on Legalism
Here is what our pioneers said about the good kind of legalism:
As for us we prefer the “legalism” of obedience to the commandments of God through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to that ” legalism ” which usurps the place of conscience, and of God, and ends in the re-crucifixion of Christ in the person of his saints.
— Present Truth, 10/6/1887
“Oh,” says some one, “you are going back to legalism.” Well, it is the legalism of the Lord Jesus Christ who said, “I delight to do Thy will.” ” Thy law is within My heart, —a very happy legalism.” I will put My laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts,” so that they cannot help doing them. So when your children ask, ” What mean ye by this?” you can say,” The Lord Jesus brought me up through the wilderness into the land, that I might keep His statutes and observe His laws.”
— Present Truth, 7/20/1893
Many seem to be afraid to say Law, or think Law, for fear of what they are pleased to term “legalism.”
But David did not appear to feel that way. He says, “Oh, how love I thy law. It is my meditation all the day.” Ps. 119 : 97. Were some modern religionists to express their mind on the subject, we imagine it would read something like this: “Oh, how hate I thy law It is my detestation all the day.”
But says one, we must be righteous, and righteousness cannot be gained by keeping the law.
Very true; but the righteousness we must have is the righteousness of the law, nevertheless. Paul declares that the object of Christ’s work is “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Rom. 8 : 4.
— Review and Herald, 5/21/1889
Not All Legalism Is Good
There is also a bad kind of legalism. The suffix ‘-ism’, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is, “a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory.” Now, the “commandments of God” is part of our third angel’s message as Sabbathkeepers, so our message and religion would be partially legalism; however, our other half is “faithism” since “the faith of Jesus” is next to “the commandments of God” in Revelation 14:12. But the bad kind of legalism is a doctrine or religion that is strictly legalism, which is what Jesus and Paul spoke against and Sister White termed a “legal religion.”
There is nothing in any inspired writing that speaks against a strict observance of the Law and exalting the Law as part of our message. In fact, we generally do not exalt the Law enough! But there is plenty written against a religion that is solely about the Law. Perhaps the best way to describe this kind of legalism is this: “Observing or teaching the Law isolated from the covenant, or the Gospel.” The Gospel covenant came to us in promises – first given to Adam, then Abraham, and later Moses.
How to Hear the Law
When God proclaimed the Law at Sinai, He spoke them as promises. He meant this covenant to be the everlasting covenant, and it was on His end. Sadly, the people received the words as human laws that they would do by their own works. But, every precept was to be a promise of eternal life; for it is written, “By every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
The commandments, statutes, and judgments are simply the conditions of the covenant, which promises an everlasting Kingdom; but we can only meet these conditions by faith, not by simply trying to do the works the Law requires. True faith believes that what God says is true and what He speaks will be true for us, with the Word itself creating the truth in us.
How Did We Become (Bad) Legalists?
It is important to understand what contributes towards legalism, and it has been a serious issue for Seventh-day Adventists, who traditionally viewed the Law as strictly the words in the Ten Commandments. But that is not what we have in our Bibles. The Law was part of a narrative given in the first five books of our Bible, the Pentateuch, or Torah writings. The recurring theme was the covenant, with coming out of Egypt to enter the promised land – symbolic of coming out of sin to enter the Kingdom of heaven. God gave us the covenant by promise as a gift, and not by works.
But when you isolate the Ten Commandments from the rest of the Torah — both from the covenant narrative and the sacrificial law of the Torah, typifying the sacrifice of the Messiah that would bring us deliverance — you are left with a warped, legalistic view of the Law.
It is true that the entire Law can be summarized in the Ten Commandments; every principle of righteousness expressed more fully in the statutes fits under one or more of the Ten Great Principles. However, the Bible defined the Law much more broadly than we traditionally have. Usually, it referred to the Pentateuch, with the writings of the Prophets following; even the latter was sometimes classified under the Law, being that it was the foundation of all the inspired writings.
Don’t Divorce the Law and the Gospel
Seventh-day Adventists have done the same thing the Pharisees did. They isolate the divine requirements from the rest of the Torah, and then add their own. This is why we preached “the Law, the Law, the Law” before 1888; then Jones and Waggoner started emphasizing more the faith and righteousness of Christ. They also taught that the Law of the Lord was synonymous with the Law of Moses and that the Law in Galatians embraced the entire Law, both moral and ceremonial.
However, we as a people have been slow to grasp that light, which has delayed our Lord’s Second Coming. It has kept us in an unhealthful legalistic mindset where we divorce the Law from the Gospel. Yet, the moral and ceremonial statutes were mixed and interspersed throughout the Law, revealing to us the Cross — a marriage between righteousness and grace.
Friends, we can’t do this anymore. What “God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). As long as we view the Law holistically, with the covenant and the sacrifices (hence, Christ) at the very center of it, the more we proclaim of the Law the better! Christ will be exalted, and we will only be legalists in a good sense. When people use that label on us, we can just say something similar to what our pioneers said. There is so much more to God’s Law than the requirements. God’s complete character is there, including His merciful attributes and the most exalted statute there is:
And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
— Deuteronomy 6:5
Legalism = Love!
No matter what our profession is, if we do not have this kind of strict, sacrificial legalism, then we do not have real love – a sacrificial love. Love puts God before everything else, and various commandments and statutes detail for us just how. These requirements are all for us when we view them with a covenantal way. We must view them as promises from God of eternal life, which is righteousness, and which only He can manufacture.