By Clarence L. Haynes Jr., Crosswalk.com
Legalism is a big word but it poses an even bigger problem. According to dictionary.com legalism is: a strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.
Biblically, legalism is the preoccupation with form at the expense of substance.
The danger of legalism can impact your path to salvation and it can impact your walk with God after salvation. Because of this I want to look at its effect from two perspectives.
The first is as a path to salvation which I will call the Legalistic Method.
The second is as way of living as a believer, which I will call the Legalistic Lifestyle.
Let’s look first at three dangers of the Legalistic Method:
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1. The Legalistic Method Is Another Gospel
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ – Galatians 1:6-7
The message of the gospel is simple. You are saved by grace alone by putting your faith and trust alone in the finished work of Christ alone. Anything else is another gospel, thereby making it no gospel at all. Legalism falls into this category.
If your salvation requires anything else beyond faith in Christ, regardless of how small it may be, you are not following the gospel. You have slid into works, which means you are trying to follow the law. Once you try to follow the law, you are under a curse because the law is all or nothing.
Either you get it right 100 percent of the time or you are guilty. Since no one can do this, it leaves you guilty and still under the curse of sin.
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” – Galatians 3:10
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2. The Legalistic Method Nullifies the Cross
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! – Galatians 2:21
What if all you had to do was follow a set of rules, and by following those rules you would be justified? Wait a minute, we were given a set of rules to follow, called the law. All we had to do was follow them and obtain justification. How did that work out?
If it was possible to follow all the rules and obtain justification, there would be no need for Christ’s death. His death would have been in vain. If you attempt to pursue legalism as the path to salvation, you are really saying, “Jesus, thanks but no thanks. I appreciate the fact you died and everything you did—but I got this one."
By doing this, you are literally taking the cross and making it useless—thereby eliminating the only path to true righteousness. You have made your salvation about your ability to achieve, instead of your ability to receive, therefore nullifying the cross.
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3. The Legalistic Method Removes Grace from the Equation
Grace is God’s favor showered upon you, without you having to do anything to receive it. The minute you have to do something to receive it, then it is no longer grace.
When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. – Romans 4:4-5 (NLT)
Legalism takes grace off the table and the entire process becomes about your works. The problem is, according to Roman 3:23, we have all sinned and fallen short of the requirements that God has established. Since you have fallen short and can’t depend on that, what do you have left? The grace of God.
Unfortunately, within a legalistic approach to salvation there is no room for God’s grace. Here is the dilemma a person finds themselves in with a legalistic approach to salvation. You can’t live up to the standard God has established, because you have sinned and fallen short. This makes you guilty.
Grace is off the table because you are trying to accomplish it by human effort. Therefore, when you take a perfect standard (the law) and combine it with a guilty person (you and me) there is only one option available…condemnation. You then have two choices. You can choose to receive salvation through grace or condemnation through works. Unfortunately, if you follow The Legalistic Method it will not produce salvation because you are already condemned.
Some people get the salvation part right. They recognize that salvation only comes through Christ alone and they put their trust in Christ. That is wonderful because it takes care of their salvation. The problem is after receiving salvation by grace, they slip into living the Legalistic Lifestyle. Here are three reasons this becomes a potential issue:
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1. The Legalistic Lifestyle Destroys Your Fellowship
If you live this way, then you base your ability to fellowship with God on how you are doing that day. If you have had a good day and done everything right, then you can approach God. If you have made some mistakes or committed a sin then you can’t approach God because he wants nothing to do with you.
Without even realizing it, you have slipped right back into legalism, basing your relationship with God on your works. I mentioned earlier that your salvation is not about your ability to achieve, but your ability to receive. The same thing is true of your fellowship with God.
At the beginning, it’s grace. In the middle, it’s grace. At the end, it’s grace. The moment you forget this, your relationship with God becomes about you trying to prove something or impress God and that is a slippery slope.
Understand, however: grace is not a license to sin.
If you believe that, you have a far bigger problem. Grace is the favor God has given you that allows you to walk in fellowship with him. Not because you deserve it, but because he desires it.
Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. – Romans 5:1-2 (NLT)
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2. The Legalistic Lifestyle Robs Your Freedom
So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. – Galatians 5:1 (NLT)
Too many Christians live their life wondering what they can and can’t do. This is not freedom, this is bondage. This takes all the joy out of walking with God and this is exhausting. Imagine being married, and all day long you’re wondering what you can and can’t do to try to make your spouse happy. This is a miserable way to live, and it’s not fun.
One of the definitions of legalism is strict adherence to the letter of the law. This means you focus exclusively on what you can and can’t do. People who are legalistic tend to focus more on what you can’t do. Can’t go here. Can’t wear that. Can’t do this. Can’t watch that. Can’t be around this person.
My simple question is, where is the freedom?
So often we get freed from the bondage of sin to take on the bondage of legalism.
How then do you avoid this? It’s really simple. You allow the Holy Spirit to do his job.
When I was a teenager, I used to be in a Christian Rap group (I know what you are thinking, now stop thinking that). I also used to sing in the youth choir. On Friday and Saturday nights, I used to listen to the ‘rap attack’ and the ‘master mix party.’ This was secular rap and my reasoning was I was keeping up...trying to get ideas.
One Sunday morning I was singing in the choir after listening to the master mix party the night before. That morning, the Holy Spirit convicted me and told me not to do that anymore. From that point forward I was able to stop and didn’t return to it.
My point is, you don’t have to burden people with the rules. Yes, there are things that are black and white and we know are sinful. However, that’s not usually where the legalistic person gets trapped. It’s usually the grey areas, which create the bondage.
Give room to the Holy Spirit to work in your life. He will let you know what is not good for you and what is. This allows you to maintain your freedom and still be able to live a life that is pleasing to God.
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3. The Legalistic Lifestyle Makes You Judgmental
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. – Matthew 7:3-5
When I was growing up, I used to dread going to my great-grandmother’s house. We called her Nana. She was a Pentecostal preacher and had a small storefront church but she was the meanest person. She judged and condemned everybody. Everything was sinful and everyone was a sinner (except for her of course).
She was quick to point out the faults in others, but never admitted any faults of her own. When legalism takes over your heart, all you see are faults. There is no room for compassion, kindness, grace, love...and there is no way you are going to show mercy.
The ironic thing is this is all contrary to the way God treats us. Instead of a legalistic heart that deals with the letter of the law, let’s have a ‘lovealistic’ heart (I know, I just made up a word) that deals with the spirit of grace.
Not only do you become less judgmental, but the gospel becomes more attractive. Yes, people should be made aware of their sin. But it’s not because you are trying to condemn them, rather, it’s because you are trying to win them. It’s the way God deals with us. Because it’s his kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Final Thoughts to Consider
I hope you understand why legalism is so dangerous. The truth is there is nothing good that will come from it. Instead of producing freedom, joy, and peace, it will produce bondage, despair, and hopelessness.
I pray that we would all become agents of God’s grace...pointing others (and ourselves) to Jesus so he can set us free from the power of sin and death—both now and for all eternity.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. – Romans 8:1-2
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