First off, What is legalism?
“Legalism is the excessive and improper use of the law (holiness laws, selective old testament ordinances, man-made laws, a new set of do’s and dont’s etc). This legalism can take different forms. The first is where a person attempts to keep the Law in order to attain salvation. The second is where a person keeps the law in order to maintain his salvation. The third is when a Christian judge other Christians for not keeping certain codes of conduct that he thinks to need to be observed.”
Of the many things on my bucket list, there is an unusual entry of finding a church as legalistic as TPM. To my dismay (maybe not!), I haven’t been able to find one yet. TPM seems to be winning that race by some distance. If there was a competition of who could come up with the most rules in a day, TPM would take the cake. But then that cake would meet its fate in the trashcan because the cake contained traces of wine and caffeine!
In the TPM system, you lose your salvation every time you sin. TPM believes in sinless perfectionism, which means only the sinlessly perfect (living without committing a single sin) will get to heaven. I believe this part of TPM’s theology comes from underestimating the purity and holiness of God. Sinlessness is the attribute of God alone.
In order to help you along the way, TPM has given us a list of do’s and don’ts so that we “become like Christ”. It goes something like this; don’t lie, don’t steal, attend as many church services as possible, wear a white dress to church, shave your moustaches, don’t touch wine, don’t own a TV, don’t go out to restaurants, don’t watch cricket or football, don’t go to the gym, don’t read novels, don’t listen to Christian music, don’t watch cartoons and Christian movies, don’t go to the theatre, tithe regularly, obey whatever is commanded by the clergy etc. While the list contains a few biblical commandments, the majority of them are man-made.
Here’s the kicker. TPM says we are to follow these rules not as a response to God’s love for us, but because if we don’t follow those things God will throw us in hell i.e. lose our salvation. If we were indeed doing it out of love for God, we would let the Holy Spirit guide us instead of a bunch of man-made rules.
There is a song in Tamil that goes like this, “Unnakaaga naan marithene, ennakaga nee enna saidhaai” meaning “I have died for you. What have you done for me?” This was the song sung every time at the IYC to get the crowd emotional and consider stepping out to do the “full-time ministry” of TPM. What this song also does is subconsciously make one think it is possible for mere men to do something for God as a repayment for his great sacrifice. That is a dangerous place to be in. It creates a sense of God doing half the job and you do the rest.
So, with that in mind, let me ask you, do you have the assurance of salvation? Is your assurance based on what Jesus did for you on the cross, or is it based on your performance on this earth?
For example, is your assurance of salvation dependent on if you have taken medicine?
TPM says the best you can hope for if you take medicine is to be left behind at Christ’s second coming. Is that the kind of assurance you have? A kind where Jesus leaves you behind? Scripture clearly teaches that God adopts as his children at salvation (Ephesians 1:5) and we are sealed with the Holy Spirit when we believe (Ephesians 1:13).
I remember trying to fill the youth camp form every year and would get stumped on that question. If I ticked “yes”, by the time the form reaches the pastor, I would have committed some sin and would have “lost my salvation” according to TPM’s understanding (and mine at that time. Even going out to the restaurant and having food was considered sinful as preached certain TPM preachers). I didn’t understand the simple fact that my salvation rests in not what I do, but in what Christ did for me. As TPM believers we live most of our lives thinking of what we do and very little time thinking what Christ did for us.
“This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
The above verse from John 6:60 is used as a club to beat down on anyone opposing the rules of TPM. I have lost count as to the number of times TPM creates unbiblical rules and then uses this verse to manipulate believers into submitting to those rules. Believers think, “Well, I don’t want to be like those folks in John 6 who left Jesus thinking his teaching was hard, so let me just accept it”.
What is John 6 about?
John 6 is the gospel. In short, John chapter 6 explains that Jesus is the bread of life who came down from heaven. Jesus draws a comparison between the manna and himself. Jesus says even though the Jews in the wilderness ate heavenly food, they perished. But only the true food that Jesus is, gives eternal life.
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54)
“Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
Here Jesus uses the phrases of “eating and drinking” and parallels it with “coming and believing”. But the Jews who heard took that literally and assumed they had to physically eat his flesh, which offended them (as literally consuming human flesh was loathsome). Jesus also explained the reason for their blindness. He said in v44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them”. That is why they said, “This is a hard teaching”. This verse is not a multi-purpose tool to enslave believers with unbiblical rules and regulations that take the focus off of Christ. So next time a TPM pastor teaches an unbiblical rule and uses this verse, keep that in mind.
I’d like to end this article with a few scriptures that would help us discard the spirit of legalism and instead look at Jesus.
“But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:3)
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Galatians 2:21)