Legalism is the most dangerous heresy for pious Christians. Its polar heresy, antinomianism, is perhaps just as dangerous, but that danger is mainly a problem for those less pious who slothfully sit back and feel they don't have to spend time thinking about what pleases God. Legalism, on the other hand, is a temptation to everyone, pious and slothful alike, but a special temptation for those who are most active and effective in the Church.
What do I mean by "legalism"? In its strictest sense it is the ancient heresy of Pelagianism: that men can attain the Kingdom of Heaven by doing good works, and that if they do not do enough good works they will go to Hell. Note that this is totally different from Universalism, the heresy that all men will attain the Kingdom of Heaven. All legalists believe that bad people will go to Hell. We usually think of the Strict Legalist, who believes that you must work very hard to attain Heaven and few people will succeed. Infinitely more common, however, is the Easy Legalist, who believes you must work a little to attain Heaven, but mainly by avoiding gross temptation. Most people are Easy Legalists, even if they are just nominal Christians who never go to church. They believe they will go to Heaven because they don't commit any crimes, don't kick their dogs, and are faithful to their wives most of the time. They believe, however, that Joe down the street, who was in prison for robbery when he was in his 20's, who does kick his dog, and who openly has both wife and girlfriend, will go to Hell. Joe, in turn, is also an Easy Legalist. He may kick his dog, but he isn't Adolf Hitler. Adolf Hitler, he says, is the kind of person that populates Hell.
But let's focus on the Strict Legalist. To basic Legalism, he adds Perfectionism, the heresy that a man may become morally perfect. Perfectionism is a bit different, because though Pelagian Perfectionists would say that they can become perfect by their own efforts, Predestinationist Perfectionists would say they can't do good by their own efforts, but they can become perfect by the grace of God. They're both wrong. Your own efforts can make you better, but not perfect. God's grace can impute Christ's death to you as atonement for your sins, but it won't keep you from ever sinning. For the Perfectionist, however, sinlessness is a feasible goal. Indeed, for many Perfectionists the Christian road is "Perfection or bust". It is the ultimate in Strict Legalism: you must not only do good works to attain God's kingdom, you must do them perfectly.
Now let us come to the subject of the bland, typical, American Real Church--- that is, not the fake, dying, liberal churches, but the American evangelical churches, large or small, strong or doctrine and weak, run by saints or run by rascals. Legalist Perfectionism is a problem for almost all of them, but legalism in a particularly insidious form. It's insidious because nobody thinks of it as legalism, or perfectionism, even though the problem I'm thinking of is widely recognized, especially by the simple, unsophisticated, members. It's that everybody in church is perfect, and you can't admit that you're not, because that would show you don't belong.
I'm writing this because I'm reading now, in 2021, of the Ravi Zacharias scandal. Pastor Zacharias was a celebrity evangelist who died recently. He was famous worldwide for his eloquent defense of Christianity, combining an elegant accent with friendly openness and familiar story telling. It turns out, however, that he packed his ministry with relatives paid secret salaries, hid his financial dealings generally, lied about his credentials, was intimate with many, many women, and resorted to slander to protect his image. I myself have heard him speak and liked it. He was one of our Christian heroes.
Pastor Zacharias actually does us good by his sin, yet another example of how God turns all things to good. He is a prime counterexample to Legalist Perfectionism. As far as I know, he was completely sound in doctrine, and intelligent enough to appreciate all its nuances and explain them to others. He may well have believed it all, too. But knowing doctrine and believing it is true does not attain the Kingdom of Heaven-- the demons believe too, and shudder at the fate they know is coming. What people mistakenly call "faith"--- the proclamation, or even the belief, in what is true about God--- does not save. It's more complicated than that. You need God's grace to give you the desire to walk the walk and well as talk the talk.
Pastor Zacharias does not seem to have had that grace. I say "seem", because maybe we will meet him in the Kingdom of Heaven despite the sin that continued all the way to his death. I do not know whether he was fighting his sin and failing, or relishing his sin. Either way, however, his sin teaches us not just that good doctrine is insufficient, but a second lesson: we should not expect moral perfection in anyone--- not in ourselves, and not in our leaders. The first of Martin Luther's 95 Theses is
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Nobody becomes perfect. The Christian is never perfect, just always trying to be better and always failing to be good enough. Knowing that he will always fail, he keeps trying, knowing that God will be pleased by his childlike efforts, and every little bit less sin is a gift to his Lord.
Many members of the modern church understand Luther's point, I think, as far as their own sin goes. They realize how sinful they are, and how they keep on sinning despite all their efforts--- not all, but most understand this. I don't know how many churches preach this in sermons--- quite a few even of Real churches avoid Sin in sermons--- but many do, and even more have this as their official doctrine, and it takes a high level of blindness for someone not to realize that he himself is a sinner, just like the books say.
Where people are fooled is when they think about the sin of the other people in church. True, they know from gossip that Fred across the room has an on-again, off-again drinking problem; that Leonard just got back together with his wife after a six-month separation; that Jake goes fishing on Sunday mornings when the weather is good. They realize that Fred, Leonard, and Jake, like themselves, are in desperate need of God's forgiveness and will probably keep on backsliding. What they don't grasp is that Pastor Smith, every one of the elders, and sweet old Mrs. Jones who always sits in the front row, are also sinners.
I have a hard time with that too, especially with sweet old Mrs. Jones. I am 62 years old, so I've seen a lot of pastors and elders exploded, men who were perfectly respectable but turn out to have gross, disgusting, sin in their present or their past. In some of those case, the men were imposters and hypocrites. In others, they were merely sinners like me, if perhaps more gross in their sin; they confessed and repented and we could hope they would not repeat those same sins, at least. But if you keep your eyes open and stay in church enough years, you will not be disillusioned by men like Ravi Zacharias. Equally important, you will help your leaders not to fall into sin. You will not allow them to be alone with young women for the massages they genuinely need because of their back injury. You will not give them money if they pack the board of directors with relatives and refuse to reveal their salary. If some woman accuses them, you will not take their word that she is lying and refuse to investigate. As I said earlier, I do not know the spiritual fate of Pastor Zacharias. If he is presently screaming in the fires of Hell, however, great should be the remorse of the admirers who protected him from sin being revealed instead of from sin.
But sweet old Mrs. Jones is the bigger problem for most of us. After all, most of us couldn't do anything to keep Pastor Zacharias from sin. Many of us aren't really in a position to help keep even our own pastors from sin, though we who are older men should all be mindful of how we can help, and even a child can report to a grown-up the strange things he sees. But Mrs. Jones presents a different problem. She needs help too, but that is not the only thing. She is a sinner, and her sin may be great-- indeed, she could be as big an imposter as Ravi Zacharias. But an old lady, and especially an old lady who wants to keep up a respectable appearance, is not going to sin in a way that gets into the newspapers. She is going to sin by neglecting God in prayer and reading, by ignoring the needs of her Christian brethren and her non-Christian neighbors, by fantasizing, by selfishness, by avarice, and by the hundreds of other petty sins that tempt us all. She may be an alcoholic, or a pill-popper, or an embezzler too--- you would never know. She, too, needs accountability, and you should help her with that. She needs help--- but that is not the only problem.
Rather, the biggest problem with Mrs. Jones is that she discourages us. We think that she has achieved perfection in deeds and doctrine, and we haven't. And she is not the only one. She is just the creme de la creme. 90% of the pews are filled by people who seem to be perfect. The other 10% are people like Joe and Leonard, whom everyone pities, and by me. So I wonder whether I'm good enough to be in the same church with Mrs. Jones, or bad enough that I should slink to the back of the church where Joe and Leonard sit. A lot of people slink all the way out of the Church, or never dare come in. The story used to be that people saw all the jackets and ties men wore in church and all the nice dresses the ladies wore, and thought they wouldn't fit in. Nowadays, everyone dresses down, but that hasn't fixed the problem in the slightest. In fact, maybe it's worse, because I can't even put on a jacket and tie and think I can look as sinless as Mrs. Jones, at least. Rather, I hear a lot of talk about how we're all sinners, and the pastor telling us at least once every sermon about what a sinner he is, but no actual examples of specific sins anybody else has fallen into. There's no "church discipline", with public confession and repentance by people who've sinned in specific ways, only a general confession that there are sinners among us--- which means Joe, and Leonard, and me, nobody else. And I feel awful because I'm pretending to be one of the good people, but actually maybe I'm more like Joe and Leonard.
Of course, we're all feeling awful. We really are all sinners. What we need is to recognize that. We need the preacher to convince us that not just me, but he himself, the elders, and Mrs. Jones are sinners. And he can't do that by talking generalities. To convince us, it's got to be embarrassing and shameful. I don't myself know quite how to do it. I certainly don't want to confess my sin publicly, and that leads to sin-boasting anyway, either competing with each other to confess the worst sins (usually past ones), or confessing to such minute sins that it really amounts to a confession of sinlessness. What is easier, though, is for preachers to try to pound into us that the people we respect most-- pastors, elders, Mrs. Jones, and all the other respectable people in church--- are currently under temptation, currently succumbing to it, and currently getting back up to try again. And when sin does become public, they must talk about it, not tiptoe around it or pretend it didn't happen.
I will end with my favorite story about Legalist Perfectionism, Leo Tolstoy's story "Father Sergius". It's only 45 pages, so if you faded reading War and Peace, here's your chance to do Tolstoy. It begins,
"In Petersburg in the eighteen-forties a surprising event occurred. An officer of the Cuirassier Life Guards, a handsome prince who everyone predicted would become aide-de-camp to the Emperor Nicholas I. and have a brilliant career, left the service, broke off his engagement to a beautiful maid of honour, a favourite of the Empress’s, gave his small estate to his sister, and retired to a monastery to become a monk."
Taking the name Father Sergius, he eventually becomes a hermit and gains a reputation for holiness. A party of aristocrats comes by the neighborhood, and a pretty lady decides to tease the holy man. She invites herself into his hovel to get warm and takes off her shoes and stockings. He excuses himself to go into the other room, and she hears "Clunk". He comes back in with a bandaged hand. To resist temptation, he's chopped off one finger with an axe. She begs his forgiveness and starts a nunnery near his hermitage. He becomes a celebrity monk, performing miraculous healings and attracting pilgrims from far and wide, to the great financial advantage of the monastery, which takes full advantage of it. Then one day a merchant with a fat, feeble-minded daughter comes to see if the holy hermit can fix her addled brain. He leaves her with Father Sergius; she tempts him, he immediately succumbs. He is mortified.
‘Can this all have happened? Her father will come and she will tell him everything. She is a devil! What am I to do? Here is the axe with which I chopped off my finger.’ He snatched up the axe and moved back towards the cell.
The attendant came up.
‘Do you want some wood chopped? Let me have the axe.’
Sergius yielded up the axe and entered the cell. She was lying there asleep. He looked at her with horror, and passed on beyond the partition, where he took down the peasant clothes and put them on. Then he seized a pair of scissors, cut off his long hair, and went out along the path down the hill to the river, where he had not been for more than three years...
For eight months Kasatsky tramped on in this manner, and in the ninth month he was arrested for not having a passport. This happened at a night-refuge in a provincial town where he had passed the night with some pilgrims. He was taken to the police-station, and when asked who he was and where was his passport, he replied that he had no passport and that he was a servant of God. He was classed as a tramp, sentenced, and sent to live in Siberia.
In Siberia he has settled down as the hired man of a well-to-do peasant, in which capacity he works in the kitchen-garden, teaches children, and attends to the sick.
We do not know what the merchant, the monks, or the public though about Father Sergius's sin, whether it was covered up or revealed, whether they learned from his example or not. But Sergius did learn. He learned that the Christian's life is one of repentance, that the Christian celebrity's apparent holiness is just a facade, no matter how hard he tries, and that a hired man can be as holy as a hermit.