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Letters from Iwo Jima: The Case Against Legalism

Like a letter sent without a clear recipient, legalism often gets the rules wrong.

Following the rules gets you nowhere. For the 22,000 Japanese stuck on the black rock of Iwo Jima in 1945, the rules probably seemed immaterial from the start. During World War II, a one-way ticket to the last island before Tokyo was essentially like being dropped inside a hole, handed a pistol and told to fight until you die. Clint Eastwood’s companion film to the more streamlined Flags of Our Fathers is told almost entirely through subtitles, making it seem more authentic. It’s a dark tale, shot in dull colors and filtered lenses, that shines a bright light: War brings out the worst in man, but in the end, we are all formed from the same dirt.

Meanwhile, lurking just behind the main story—about soldiers who write letters home when they know the post office is more of a concept than a reality—is an incredible story about displaced military obligations. There’s a deep spiritual lesson in the film, one that hits you like a ton of bricks. Late in the film, two Japanese soldiers have to decide whether a suicide mission really makes sense, and then one of them chooses an obvious act of dereliction and pays a deadly price. In the movie, the Japanese hunker down on a rock where nearly every soldier died, forced to weigh their decisions about life and death based on incomplete details.

Ever notice that legalism works the same way? Rules are passed from the Bible—the source of truth—to those who think they have all the answers, and then passed on to you. During the exchange, mistakes happen. A pastor somehow decides that the Bible forbids all drinking, and then skewers anyone who thinks otherwise. A parent finds a passage about Paul preferring a life of celibacy, and then draws a false conclusion about dating in general and promotes staunch anti-sex sentiments.

Like a letter sent without a clear recipient, legalism often gets the rules wrong and uses fallible, wrongly motivated people to deliver the message. The heavy-handed religiosity in some churches causes deep misery to those who must abide by them. You can never measure up, never escape from the ever-closing anvils of defiled grace. Ultimately, there’s a price for a filtered Christianity: your freedom.

For those who fought for freedom in World War II (on both sides), the idea was based on a logical premise: that war is a terrible tragedy, but victory means long-term freedom. Legalism is not like that at all; it’s not a battle for independence, but an ideology meant to keep you in line, meant to keep the walls around you.

So how can you break free from the stronghold of legalism? By going to the source yourself. Biblically speaking, you have direct access to unfiltered grace. When it seems as though your incomplete knowledge could lead you to bad doctrine, consider that the alternative is living by someone else’s bad doctrine. When it seems like the walls of legalism provide comfort, consider life outside the walls—where God is the protector, and you have the freedom to act within the bounds of grace. Lack of grace keeps your head pushed down hard to the rock of legalism; grace implies that there isn’t a rock at all, that you are free to gaze into heaven.

See Also

Questions for Discussion:
1. How do biblical righteousness and legalism differ?
2. What does freedom in Christ look like?

Scripture References:
1 Corinthians 8:9
Galatians 5:1
1 Peter 2:16

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