Can Reading Your Bible Be Legalistic?

Bible 001

For a few years now I have heard people saying that they don’t want to be legalistic about reading their Bible, so instead of reading through it systematically they might do something like opening their Bible and seeing where their eyes land, reading a verse and closing it again. I think that they feel like if reading the Bible through is hard then it can’t be right to keep doing it that way – that it would be legalistic.

So is that the right way to think? And if it’s not, then what’s wrong with it? Well to start off with, here is a great quote from my husband on Sunday – to challenge your thinking!

‘You wouldn’t want to be legalistic about reading your Bible? It’s your food! Are you legalistic about your three meals a day you have? I bet you’re not! “Well, I wouldn’t want to be legalistic about eating.” But when it comes to spiritual things we use all these clichés of thought like, “Well I wouldn’t want to be legalistic about reading my Bible, so I’m not going to read it.” So you’re going to die an emaciated, ineffective Christian who doesn’t know your God, doesn’t experience the abundant life, doesn’t walk in the fullness of all the blessings God has for you because you don’t have the word of God, you walk in the flesh all the time – your knowledge, your resources.’

What does legalism mean?

Here is the dictionary definition of legalism (Merriam-Webster)

Strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code

Where is legalism in the Bible?

I have mostly heard legalism referred to in the context of Galatians. The church in Galatia thought that they had to stick to the slavery of the law – the rites and ceremonies of the Jewish law – in order to be saved. Whereas in fact Christ has set us free – through Him we are now saved by grace.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Gal 5:1

Also Colossians talks about the danger of making our own rules that are not in the Bible and submitting ourselves to them:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Col 2:20-23

Can reading your Bible be legalistic?

If you are trying to stick to laws in order to be saved, then you would be legalistic. Reading a chapter of your Bible every day won’t get you into heaven, because we are saved by grace.

Ephesians says: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. Eph 2:8,9

You could also be legalistic about it if you set a strict standard of how much to read (the Bible doesn’t say how much) and then expect other people to follow the same rule as you, or think that God won’t love you if you fall short of your own standard.

However generally I don’t think we are in any danger of being legalistic by reading our Bible, and here is why:

  • Most of us don’t read it enough to know it very well at all, so in most cases I think saying it is legalistic is an excuse, or a temptation from Satan to discourage us from reading.
  • Discipline is not the same as legalism. Legalism is saying, “I have to read 1 chapter a day or God will be angry with me, and maybe He won’t let me into heaven.” Spiritual discipline is saying, “I want to know God better so I’m going to read 1 chapter a day whether I feel like it or not.” Athletes have to be disciplined to reach their goal, but we don’t call them legalistic when they spend hours training even though they don’t feel like it.
  • As my husband said – the Word of God is our spiritual food, and without it we will stay like babies, weak in the faith. If we want to grow we need to eat, just like those 3 meals a day. We don’t call eating legalistic. If we are spiritually hungry then we should want to feed ourselves.
  • To feel like Bible reading is a chore and not want to do it is quite natural. There is a fight going on in the spiritual realm – ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ Eph 6:12 I think in our culture we have got so used to being comfortable that often things that are difficult feel wrong so we think we can’t be supposed to do them. But we need to remember we are in a spiritual battle and decide to do what will make us grow and what will help us stand on our feet and become more of a mature Christian.

More than anything I just want to echo what my husband said – don’t use legalism as an excuse not to read your Bible! Instead I think we need to sort out our priorities. If we are going to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33) then reading the Bible and praying should be pretty much at the top of our list for the day. And we’re not going to get very far just reading a couple of verses as a general rule, unless you are meditating on them pretty heavily, applying them and praying through them!

So it’s OK, and good, to set yourself a target of a certain amount to read every day – a chapter a day is a good place to start, and reading through the whole Bible is a good goal (you can find some plans in a post I wrote on it). Just don’t feel like God will be angry with you if you don’t do it, because He loves you whatever. Just do it because He loves you, and because you are hungry and want to know more about Him!

And if you feel like it’s too hard maybe this quote might help you, from Elisabeth Elliot’s ‘Discipline: The Glad Surrender’:

‘Feelings, like thoughts, must be brought into captivity. No one whose first concern is feeling good can be a disciple. We are called to carry a cross and to glorify God.’

Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. Luke 9:23 (NKJV)

 Linking up to Mondays Musings and Missional Weekend


You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. Brooke says:

    Thank you for the post! It almost seems too easy to understand, and yet I’ve never thought of it this way. Your bullet points at the end are right on and I love the Bible references and quotes you used.

  2. Rhoda says:

    Thanks Brooke! 🙂

  3. I recently had the pleasure to talk with Don Whitney (author of “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life”) on my podcast, and we talked about this very issue. I would commend his book to you. Sure, we don’t want to be legalistic – but that’s not the problem that most of us have. The problem we have is that we’re not disciplined enough.
    Loren Pinilis recently posted…The Cost of Redeeming the TimeMy Profile

  4. Rhoda says:

    Yes I definitely think that’s our problem – at least for us Westerners anyway. When I was in the army reserves at university I really appreciated their discipline – it makes you realise what you’re capable of – like getting up at 5am to do physical exercise! I will go look up the book, thanks for the recommendation.

  5. I agree with this post 100%. I also think John 3:17-20 that people love darkness rather than light plays part in it as well. People say they dont want to be legalistic in their reading because they don’t want the word of God as their final authority. If it means that they got to be a doer of the word and not a hearer only, it hurts people. The word of God is sharp Hebrews 4:12. Great post!

    • Rhoda says:

      Thanks for your input. Yes you may be right. It’s possible that people are subconsciously looking for excuses not to read their Bible if it is convicting and means they have to change.