Author: Ron Graham

Sin and Legalism

Sin or Not Sin?
—Can a sinful thing ever be right?

The question, "Can a sinful thing be right?" is a silly question on the face of it. But it is short for whether a thing can be sinful on one hand, yet on the other hand be right. A legalist would still think the question silly, because he doesn't appreciate the underlying questions which we now examine.

1 The question of degree

Sin is wrong in any degree.

Example (1). Fornication would not be right even if you did it only on your birthday.

Example (2). Idolatry would not be right even though you worshipped only one or two idols.

But the question of degree is not quite that simple.

Example (3). Consider gluttony (Proverbs 23:20-21). When does eating become over-eating, and over-eating become gluttony? To reply, "Any degree of gluttony is sinful" only begs the question, "Yes but what degree of eating is gluttony?". Eating, up to a certain degree is good. Eating beyond a certain degree is sinful.

Example (4). Consider the command "Let all things be done decently and in order" (1Corinthians 14:40). Excessive noise would constitute one kind of disorder. But moderate noise might be in order. The question is what degree of noise is immoderate and disorderly?

2 The question of circumstance

Sin is wrong in any situation.

Example (5). Taking God's name in vain or denying the Lord would be wrong in any context (Exodus 20:7, Luke 12:8-9).

But the question of circumstance is not quite that simple.

Example (6). In a TV ad, a man, face distorted in horrifying emotion, wrenches open a car door, violently pulls a struggling woman out of the car. She appears frightened and shocked at this attack. But in the next scene, the car bursts into flame like a bomb. She realises the man acted urgently to save her.

Example (7). An angry man strode into a place of business and terrorised the traders with a whip. He emptied all the coins out of the till and overturned the furniture. Such wild behaviour, in most circumstances, would be sinful. But on this occasion it was right (John 2:13-22).

Example (8). The eating of meat offered to idols was something Paul either condemned as sin, or permitted as right, depending on the circumstances (1Corinthians 10:19-33).

Are you disturbed by the question of circumstance? Does it seem like situation ethics that a thing can be right or wrong depending on circumstance?

Well what about manhandling a woman, throwing furniture around, and eating meat offered to idols? We can ask three questions:

Common sense tells us that those acts, and many more, can be right in certain circumstances and wrong in other cases.

3 The question of purpose

It can never be right to do evil, not even that good may result (Romans 3:7-8).

But the question of purpose is not quite that simple.

Example (9). You see a large teenage boy holding a small lad by scruff of neck and beating him around the legs with a stick. You yell, "Stop that you bully! Let the boy alone!" The larger boy looks you in the face and says, "I am this boy's elder brother. Our father is dead. I have just caught the boy stealing letters from people's mail boxes, and this isn't the first time" .

You discover that one of the letters is yours, and its loss could have cost you several hundred dollars. "Carry on," you say, "And give him a couple of whacks for me!" You approve of responsible discipline and correction (Proverbs 13:24, Hebrews 12:9-11).

Example (10). Diotrephes was condemned for putting people out of the church, yet the Corinthians were told to do so (3John 1:9-10, 1Corinthians 5:7,13).

Example (11). Jesus once would have sinned had he made bread miraculously, yet on other occasions he rightly did so (Luke 4:1-4, Luke 9:16-17).

Take special note From the examples above, we see that the rightness or wrongness of a given act often depends upon whose purpose is being served by that act —God's or the Devil's.

4 The question of association

A sin is a sin, no matter what form it may take. Any act that can be identified as a form of some sin, must be regarded as sinful.

Example (12). If intoxication with marijuana can be identified as a form of drunkeness, then it is sinful by association, because drunkeness is sinful.

But the question of association is not quite that simple.

Example (13). When Jesus and his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain on the Sabbath, they were identified (by legalists) as Sabbath breakers. Their action was identified as "harvesting grain" which in turn was identified as "work" and thus prohibited on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8, Exodus 31:14-15).

Appropriately, if you had put a sickle to your neighbour's grain, that was identified as a crime, but if you plucked a neighbour's grain with your hand, that could not be identified as stealing (Deuteronomy 23:25). But the same distinction was not applied to Sabbath breaking by Jesus's accusers. Legalism, you see, tends to be arbitrary and inconsistent in associating a particular practice with this or that sin.

5 The question of the extraordinary

A sin is a sin whether the occasion is extraordinary or commonplace.

Example (14). Cursing God is a sin no matter how extraordinary the circumstances (Job 2:9-10).

But the question of the extraordinary is not quite that simple..

Example (15). As a normal practice, it is a sin for husbands and wives to deprive one another. Yet in extraordinary circumstances they may mutually consent to do so, and there is no sin in that (1Corinthians 7:5).

Example (16). Severe treatment of the body, as a usual practice, is not right (Colossians 2:23). Yet fasting on extraordinary occasions is good and acceptable (Acts 13:1-3).

Example (17). Under normal circumstances it was unlawful for anyone but priests to eat the temple bread. But Ahimelech the priest rightly allowed David, who was on a secret and extraordinary mission for the king, to use the bread for food (1Samuel 21:1-6, Luke 6:1-5). (Legalists might have complained, "Before we know it, the temple will be turned into a tuck shop!")

Example (18). Some of the most perplexing moral questions centre on this idea of the extraordinary. In Australia thousands of unwanted babies are murdered each year. But occasionally an abortion is performed to save a mother's life. That is an extraordinary case deserving of different criteria from the commonplace —whether or not we still judge it wrong.


The above points, and the examples illustrating them, are tedious I know. But thinking them through will help you to avoid a hallmark of legalism: the unconditional condemnation of a practice as sin, regardless of the underlying questions of degree, circumstance, purpose, association, and extraordinary cases.

Legalism offers a "hollow and deceptive philosophy" whereas you have been given "fullness in Christ" (Colossians 2:8-10) and you can live in holiness by his authority, cross, resurrection, and priesthood.

Questions for Review

1. Can you give some further examples where things have been labelled as sin without due consideration having been given to underlying questions of the sort we have discussed?

2. Are the examples I chose (somewhat at random) applicable only to the question they illustrate, or do some of them illustrate more than one of the questions?

3. Are the underlying questions that we have discussed "loopholes" that allow people to sin without being condemned? If not, why not?

4. Is the consideration of these underlying questions only making it harder to understand sin, and isn't it wiser to formulate some clear-cut rules and insist that everyone adopt them?

5. With regard to the "Conclusion" of this lesson, What has the cross, resurrection, and high-priesthood of Christ got to do with his authority, and what has that authority got to do with the matters we have considered?