The Traps of Legalism and License

After more than half a century of being a Christian – first within the world of Protestant fundamentalism, then in the mainstream Church of England, and now as a Catholic priest – I am convinced that there are two extremes that play against each other to kill true Christianity. The first is legalism and the second is license.

We should understand that the clash between legalism and license is only part of the Judeo-Christian understanding of religion. Pagans of all sorts do not link a moral code with the worship of God. A Buddhist may be an ascetic, but that is because he wants to rise above this physical plane of suffering. A pagan may make sacrifices, but that is because he wants to appease and please the god.

The idea that Almighty God would be pleased by human good behavior was a sudden and striking innovation of Moses and his clan. For the first time obeying a law code was the way to make God happy. Unfortunately, the law is not enough, and St Paul unlocked the riddle by telling us that the whole reason for the law was not to make us good enough, but to show us that we could never be good enough. The Christian religion was another innovation. Instead of living by the law, we are called to live by faith in a dynamic relationship with God.

Unfortunately, that seems even harder, so we revert to a religion of the law. Too often we fall into an immature insistence that all we have to do is avoid the “dont’s” and do the “do’s”. We tell ourselves that if we just keep the rules we will be all right in the end. Order will be brought out of the chaos. Everything will be hunky dory. God will be happy with his good little boys and girls. And if we are very, very good, nothing will go wrong and one day we will get the lollipop of eternal life.

The consequences are dire because, of course, we can never be good enough. And if we are locked into legalism, the realization that we can never be good enough starts to sour our whole world. Desperately wanting to be good enough, we assume a posture of self-righteousness to convince ourselves that we really are good after all. Like the addict who is never satiated, when our goodness fails we become more legalistic, not less.

Then the real rot sets it. In a continued effort to make ourselves feel good enough, we find those who are worse than we are. We point fingers. We tut tut. We blame others. We find scapegoats. We exclude, persecute, and eventually plot to destroy the sinners. This pattern of legalism and the spiral of destruction began with Cain, climaxed with the Pharisees and continues its cancerous way in our world with the extremes of fundamentalism in every form of Christianity.

       Between Scylla and Charybdis by Henry Fuseli, 1795

Reacting against the legalism, we fall into the other trap of license. We declare that we are not bound by any law. Toleration becomes the only virtue and the sole commandment and creed. We assert that we are here for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that means we adopt the witch’s creed that we must be allowed to do what we want as long as we harm no one.

Unfortunately, license is just as destructive as legalism, for when we all do as we please it eventually harms everyone. Total freedom destroys individual lives and the family and society descend into chaos. Furthermore, those who follow the path of license soon become as self-righteous and intolerant as the legalists, for they have unconsciously treated their creed and commandment of “do as you please but harm no one” as their own higher law. Consequently, they seek out and castigate anyone who might criticize or condemn them.

How is one to sail through the Scylla of Legalism and the Charybdis of License?

This is where the Christian recommendation of repentance provides the answer. When we truly repent we are not simply saying “sorry” for the naughty things we’ve done. Instead we are admitting at the deepest level, not only that we’ve failed to keep the law, but that it is impossible for us to keep the law. Repentance is hopeless without faith, and it is through faith that we accept not only Christ’s forgiveness, but the grace to live in a new dimension of reality and freedom.

Through this transaction, we shrug our shoulders and repudiate the huge rock of legalism, but we also reject the easy whirlpool of license. Instead, the New Testament suggests that it is possible to walk in the way of the Lord, obeying all his laws not because we have to, but because we want to. We do so with complete freedom, empowered by a constant renewal of grace in our lives.

This freedom and power can be compared to the talented musician who learns to read music, takes lessons from the master, practices for hours every day, studies the score, and then one day walks out on the stage and plays Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto with complete freedom, beauty and grace. He has done so with a consummate conflation of both law and license – structure and freedom.

This is the new dynamic of humanity we see displayed in the lives of the saints. They show us a level of accomplishment in which God’s laws are lived out with joy in complete freedom, and when we see this, we witness grace at work in lives that are gracefully and gloriously human.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an Anglican convert to Catholicism. He is married with four children and lives in Greenville, South Carolina where he serves as pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church. He is an acclaimed author and blogger.