We think of obvious types of legalism - the false gospel of works-based salvation Paul challenges in Galatians, the added rules of the Pharisees that burdened the people in Jesus' day. Recognizing those extremes is really not difficult when we have a working knowledge of the New Testament.
It's the subtle legalism that trips up so many of us. The idea that we can make God love us less or more. The pride that creeps in when we think we have something figured out that others are missing. The "ideal _______ (man, woman, marriage, child, pastor, church, etc.)" that goes beyond Biblical parameters to apply personal preferences. And ... unnecessary sacrifices.
This one took me a long time to see. I heard a pastor years ago say "Don't make any unnecessary sacrifices". I took it as an encouragement, but as I've grown in the Lord and in the understanding of His Word I realize how much wisdom is in that sentence. Unnecessary sacrifices can be dangerous and often have a root of legalism.
Of course, God asks us to bring spiritual sacrifices. The sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15), doing good and sharing with others (Hebrews 13:16), sacrificial giving (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2), and even being willing to die for the sake of the call (Philippians 2:17) -- all these are right and good sacrifices for the Christian.
But unnecessary sacrifices? Those can be downright dangerous. Consider the example of Saul, when he asked his men to fast during a major battle:
Now the men of Israel were pressed to exhaustion that day, because Saul had placed them under an oath, saying, "Let a curse fall on anyone who eats before evening--before I have full revenge on my enemies." So no one ate anything all day, even though they had all found honeycomb on the ground in the forest. They didn't dare touch the honey because they all feared the oath they had taken. But Jonathan had not heard his father's command, and he dipped the end of his stick into a piece of honeycomb and ate the honey. After he had eaten it, he felt refreshed. But one of the men saw him and said, "Your father made the army take a strict oath that anyone who eats food today will be cursed. That is why everyone is weary and faint." "My father has made trouble for us all!" Jonathan exclaimed. "A command like that only hurts us. See how refreshed I am now that I have eaten this little bit of honey. If the men had been allowed to eat freely from the food they found among our enemies, think how many more Philistines we could have killed!" They chased and killed the Philistines all day from Micmash to Aijalon, growing more and more faint. (1 Samuel 14:24-31 NLT)By this point in the narrative we know that Saul acts irrationally. His request for an unnecessary fast - an act intended to be a sacrificing of food in order to draw close to God - put his soldiers at risk. God still gave them victory, but they were weaker than they had to be. Jonathan's strength is a direct contrast after he feasted on the honey God provided. Saul's example gives one factor that leads to unnecessary sacrifices - a false idea that we can earn God's favor by an extreme act of devotion.This is a key sign of legalism.
Another reason for unnecessary sacrifices is a lack of desire to do what God asks. Sometimes we simply just don't want to do what He's clearly said. A sacrifice of our own choosing, however hard, seems easier.
What can we bring to the LORD? What kind of offerings should we give him? Should we bow before God with offerings of yearling calves?Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8 NLT)
Sometimes unnecessary sacrifices are motivated by selfishness - trying to impress God while really pleasing ourselves.
'We have fasted before you!' they say. 'Why aren't you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don't even notice it!' "I will tell you why!" I respond. "It's because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me.You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD? No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. (Isaiah 58:3-7 NLT)All of these unnecessary sacrifices - and many others - have a dangerous root of legalism.
So how can we know our sacrifices are genuine spiritual sacrifices? As we learn to walk with the Lord and hear His voice we will know when He is calling us to a hard thing. I see four principles in Scripture that help me recognize His call instead of my own subtle legalism:
1) The sacrifice is Biblical.This should be obvious but it can't be overstated: Make sure that what you think you are being asked to sacrifice is a Biblical request. One of the ways legalism creeps in is to ask for sacrifices that are outside the lines of Scripture. This is, frankly, spiritually abusive. For example, God doesn't ask you to sacrifice your marriage for the sake of ministry. He might ask you to give up some time you had planned to spend with your spouse or something similar (you should always seek for unity in such a decision), but He won't ask you to leave your spouse to have more time for ministry. Immerse yourself in the Word and sit under sound teaching, and you'll have good sense of Biblical parameters for sacrifices.
2) The sacrifice is given freely and willingly. 2 Corinthian 9:7 tells us: "Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." While the immediate context speaks of financial giving, the passage applies the Old Testament principle of freewill offerings to the church. Money, time, fasting, our favorite shirt -- whatever we sacrifice should be given freely and willingly. 1 Peter 5:2 even goes so far as to apply this to church leaders! "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve;"
So what about times God clearly calls you to sacrifice something that you struggle to hold on to? You know this sacrifice lines up with Scripture, and you know when God's asking something of you - but you are struggling with the 'freely and willingly' part. Maybe you've heard it said that "God loves a cheerful giver but He'll take it from a grouch." I don't see that concept in Scripture. Sure, a "grouch" can hand over a sacrifice, but God looks on the heart. I've faced a few of those situations in my life (who hasn't) and here's what I've learned: The answer to get me to the point of "freely and willingly" is the same as anything in Scripture -- look to Jesus. Keep my eyes on Him, and ask the Holy Spirit to help me. As Christians we already know the power of God to change hearts, to make dead men live. If He can do that, then He can make unwilling hearts willing. Before giving the sacrifice, I take it to God and ask Him to change my heart, to bring it in line with His. Often I don't get the "feeling" until the moment I put my hand to the step of committing to the sacrifice (sending that email, writing that check, etc.) -- but inevitably, when God is behind a sacrifice, before it's actually made He makes me willing. I just have to seek Him more sometimes than others. :)
3) The sacrifice is prompted by faith. 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says, "May God fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith." This is great encouragement for those times we aren't sure if something is a direct call from God or the good act of a Godward believer. Any good purpose -- and any sacrifice -- should be prompted by faith. This is crucial, because faith-prompted acts are not based on guilt ("I should do this") or manipulation ("You should do this"). They're not driven by fear or pride or selfishness. Instead. they are full of faith from the beginning.
4) The sacrifice is motivated by Christ's love. Paul wrote to Corinth: "If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died." (2 Corinthians 5:13-14). Everything that Paul did was motivated by the love of Christ. The word "compels" literally means "controls" or "held together with restraints". It's used of prisoners being arrested and cattle being squeezed into a location to receive medication. Paul is essentially teaching us by His example that the only thing that should press any sacrifice or act of faith upon us is the love of Christ. The biggest danger of legalism is that it gives someone or something else a level of control over us that belongs only to Christ.
So there you have it - 3 examples of the danger and legalism of unnecessary sacrifices, and four Biblical guidelines for discerning the difference. May God give you grace for everything He calls you to do, and may He direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance when things get tough (2 Thessalonians 3:5).