Legalism is like a beautifully prepared table with no food! In fact, it is such a perpetual issue that God devoted an entire book
to it (Galatians), with major portions of several others alongside (Romans 14, 1Corinthians 8, 10:23-33, Colossians 2:6-23).
But legalism's claws can be broken, and broken forever.
May today end the famine at legalism's table, and begin a feast on the eternal riches of God's grace.
What is legalism?
Legalism is a fixation on strict adherence to a law, rule, or code, to the neglect of that law's higher purpose. Among born-again
Christians, legalism has two forms: (1) an unusually strict adherence to a particular biblical command or set of commands, (2)
an unusually strict adherence to man-made rules or traditions within Christendom.
Examples of the first would include the early church's struggle against circumcision (Gal 2:3-5, 5:6-12), observing Jewish holy
days and events (Gal 4:9-11, Col 2:16,17), and dietary prohibitions (1Co 8:7,8)--all Old Covenant commands. Or, the
contemporary church's struggle with the Jewish tithe or the unnecessary banning of women from public ministry.
Examples of the second would include the early church's struggle against asceticism (extreme self-deprivation, Col 2:6-23)
and gnosticism (all matter is evil, Jesus Christ was not truly human, etc..., 1Jn 4:2,3, 2Jn 7). Or, the contemporary church's
struggle against dogmatic styles of worship music, the blacklisting of technological conveniences as "worldly", or deifying a
certain English translation of the Bible as the only true one. Legalistic fixations can affect any Christian, any church, any
movement, any area of life, to any degree, in any generation.
The Intricacies of Legalism
Legalism is humanism. It is initiated and sustained by human willpower and raw determination (Gal 3:3). The result is a
man-centered and self-glorifying spirituality (Mt 23:5-7). We are to be Spirit-led, thereby resulting in the Father's glory, not
ours (Jn 15:5-8).
Legalism is behaviorism. It values behavior over motive (Mt 23:25-27). The result is a showy, yet mechanical and superficial,
spirituality (v28). God judges motive first, behavior second (Jer 17:10, Rev 2:23, Pr 21:2).
Legalism is Christian hyperactivity. It is the Captivity of Activity, the Tyranny of To-do (Lk 10:38-42). The result is a workaholic
and near-burnout spirituality. God values intimacy with Him before activity for Him (v42).
Legalism is prohibitionism. It seeks to legislate personal, non-sinful liberties. The result is a deprivationist, strict, thou-shalt-not
spirituality (Col 2:20-23). New Covenant life is permissive and subjective in the gray areas (Ro 14).
Legalism is obligationism. It is motivated by "have to" (duty) instead of "want to" (passion). The result is a high-pressure and
guilt-filled spirituality. Christian life is to be ruled by passion (Ro 12:11), peace (Col 2:15), and joy (1Th 5:16).
Legalism is authoritarianism. Its proponents play the authority card much to impose their spiritual fixations on others (Mt
23:1-3). The result is a burdening, slavish, and obey-without-question spirituality (v4). Jesus said His burden was easy and
light (Mt 11:28-30). Plus, our New Covenant priesthood grants us the privilege of testing and "making sure" leaders are
liberators, not controllers (1Pet 2:5, Ac 17:11, Rev 2:2).
Legalism is perfectionism. It is hypersensitive to mistakes and missteps. The result is a nitpicking and harsh spirituality toward
self and others (Mt 15:1-3, Jn 8:1-11). Scripture calls us to grow in godliness (1Pet 2:1,2), but not grueling moralism.
Legalism is uniformity. It promotes conformity, sameness, and ritual. The result is a predictable spirituality (Lk 9:49,50). God
wills variation, individuality, innovation, and spontaneity (1Co 12:4-6).
Legalism is separatist. It maintains selective and elitist personnel (Gal 2:11-13). The result is a loss of perspective, a
nearsighted spirituality (Lk 9:49-56). At the end of the day, denominationalism is a convenient form of legalism.
Legalism is non-maturity. It reveals a lack of spiritual depth and breadth (Ro 14:1-4,1Co 8:7-13). The result is a dwarfed
spirituality and delayed progression to more liberating spiritual altitudes. We are called to a maturity in which we can enjoy all
the privileges allowed by a strong conscience (1Co 8:7-12).
Legalism vs Obedience
What's the difference, then, between legalism and obedience? Superficially both can look very similar. A Spirit-filled Christian
truly enamored with the Lord will exhibit meticulous obedience and high involvement in Christian activities--making them
appear almost identical to a legalist. So what's the difference? Motive and means. Why am I obeying Scripture (motive) and
how am I going about it (means)?
Motive Why am I obeying Scripture? What is my truest motive? Is it to not get in trouble with God? To enhance my public
image? To improve my self-esteem? To relieve the guilt of past or present mistakes? To avoid negative consequences? There
is a grain of legitimacy in each of these reasons, however, they can never be our highest reason. If so, we are in legalism to
whatever degree. Remember, the greatest command is to love God with all we are (Mk 12:30); He is to be our First Love (Rev
2:4). Authentic obedience, then, happens because we truly love and cherish Him above all, and therefore, we love and cherish
His standards (Ps 119:97,113,163,165). We obey Him because we first love Him (Jn 14:21,23,24), then His commands are not
burdensome (1Jn 5:3). Intimacy is the motivating center of obedience.
Means How am I going about obedience? Am I depending on my own ability, effort, and personality ("works")? Or am I
depending completely and daily on the Spirit ("faith")? If my trust is in Me to any degree, I am in legalism to that same degree.
If I am depending on the Spirit's grace, I am moving in authentic obedience. Galatians 3:3 nails this one on the head.
Breaking the Claws Forever
(1) Relax...and fall in love!
My friend, a million vocabularies in a million languages could never express how wonderful it is to be madly in love with Jesus! I
promise you beloved, His love is better than life itself (Ps 63:3). He is a Best Friend who is always there, a Lover who
relentlessly desires us, a Father who provides, protects, corrects. Relax...and fall in love with Him! Get to know this One you
call "God" and "Lord". He will let you close. He will. Draw near to Him and He will show up (Jas 4:8). Defy the angry voices of
condemnation coming from the enemy, the past, others, or yourself.
End the Christian slavery and drudgery today. It is a false version of the true faith once for all delivered to the saints (Ju 3).
Paul called legalism "another gospel" (Gal 1:6). The true gospel brings us into an intimate fellowship with the Father (1Jn 1:3).
APPLICATION: Daily seek a face-to-face relationship with the Father who loves you. Make Him your First Love, not Christian
activities or should-dos (Rev 2:4). Develop a Mary spirituality, not a Martha one, by prioritizing quality time alone with Him,
worshiping, praying, reading, listening (Lk 10:38-42). Fall in love with Him in this secret place (Ps 91:1). Legalism withers when
(2) Understand New Covenant spirituality: by grace through faith
Breaking legalism's nasty grip also means understanding New Covenant spirituality. How many Christians have deported
themselves back to an Old Covenant life! Why do such a thing? Why go backwards to the elementary principles (Col 2:20,21)?
Old Covenant spirituality entailed a legal relationship with God, not a personal one. Only a few Old Testament believers were
anointed by the Spirit to have personal intimacy with God and serve as theocratic middlemen (judges, prophets, priests, etc...).
The general Hebrew population had to relate with God from a distance, by observing stringent rules--613 to be exact. A legal
relationship...in a word, law. Galatians 3:23 says this law was a temporary prison, intended only to supervise humanity until a
New Covenant could be established in Christ (v23-25).
New Covenant spirituality is gloriously better! It entails a personal relationship with God by the grace of Christ, not a distant
legal one by observing rituals. Romans 6:14 says we Christians are no longer under law (the Old Covenant system), but under
grace (the New Covenant system). In fact, Scripture says Christ is the end of the law (Ro 10:4), and everyone who comes to
faith in Him has also come to the end of the law (8:4). This is grace, Christ giving us what we never could have gotten
ourselves. I think most Christians understand salvation by grace through faith (Eph 2:8), but stumble when it comes to living by
grace through faith (Galatians).
The grace of Christ pertains mainly to salvation. It is the grace of the Spirit that pertains to Christian life after salvation. This is
what Galatians is all about--depending on the Spirit's grace to live a victorious Christian life (Gal 3:2-5, 5:16-25). This is called
"walking in the Spirit" (5:16,25 NKJV) or "led by the Spirit" (v18). Paul is saying in Galatians, Just as you were saved by grace
through faith in Christ, so now you must live by grace through faith in the Spirit. The mechanics of salvation are the same for
This means I can stop sweating and slaving so hard to be "a good Christian", and I can focus my energies on falling in love
with this gracious Savior who ended law and legalism for me (Ro 10:4, 8:4). This means I can stop trying so stinkin' hard to
change myself, and I can start depending on the Spirit to change me. By grace through faith means His presence (grace) is
my total dependence (faith)--for salvation and Christian life.
Zechariah 4:6,7 (NKJV, underline added) explains grace wonderfully: ..."Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit", says the
LORD of hosts, "Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain! And he shall bring forth the
capstone with shouts of 'Grace, grace to it!'" New Covenant Christian life is not lived by human might or power, but by the Holy
Spirit. Like Zerubbabel, isn't it time we started shouting Grace! Grace!?
APPLICATION: By grace through faith means His presence (grace) is my total dependence (faith). You were saved this way as
a precedent that you might live this way. As already mentioned, prioritize that intimate time alone with Him, worshiping, praying,
reading, listening. The Spirit will always react to intimacy; His graces will come alive in you with conviction, inspiration, and
guidance. You will walk in the Spirit naturally.
(3) Pull up the roots: deal with the deeper reasons
It is easier to be legalistic, at least in the beginning years of Christian life. This is because everyone is a legalist from birth; all
are created with God's law written on their conscience (Ro 2:15). I have seen the most licentious nonChristians be amazingly
legalistic about certain things. They have a sin nature, but they also have God's legal witness inside.
There are a number of other factors that can exacerbate legalism in a person's life. Breaking its claws, then, will require you to
discover the deeper reasons why you personally are drawn to legalism in certain areas. Here are the most common roots:
The law on our conscience (Ro 2:15)...Now that we are saved, we no longer need God's legal writing on our conscience; we
have the Holy Spirit to provide loving conviction (Gal 5:18). Therefore, the longer we walk in the Spirit, the more our weak and
law-driven conscience will strengthen and rewrite itself according to the Spirit (1Co 8:7-12, Ro 9:1).
Human pride...Some do not wish to admit inadequacy and embrace dependence. Unbroken Christians are stubbornly
self-sufficient, the antithesis of New Covenant life, which is absolute surrender and dependence. Self-death, not self-life (Gal
Performance-orientation...Some are highly performance-oriented due to overachieving parenting, or a "Type A" style
personality, or a capitalistic mentality. They transport these "you-get-what-you-earn" attitudes over to their Christian life and
apply them there. Dependence, not performance (Gal 3:3).
Measurability...Legalism is quantifiable, and therefore, capable of visible results (Lk 18:9-12). Grace yields fruit that sometimes
cannot be measured or seen. Am I living the Christian life for immediate results that congratulate my reputation, or eternal fruit
that lasts and glorifies the Father (Jn 15:8,16)?
Insecurity...Some are fearful and unsure in some way, and therefore, need a predictable and controllable spirituality to feel
safe. Resolve the deeper fears and legalism becomes less attractive.
Laziness...Legalism requires no critical thinking, very little Scriptural understanding, and no relationship with the Spirit. In fact,
all it requires is a Bible verse or two and an autopilot button. Living by grace through faith requires us to reason with the Spirit
and prayerfully think through the situations we encounter.
Inability...Some honestly feel unable to perceive the Spirit and think critically. They have never been taught or tried to learn
themselves. Consequently, they settle for a spirituality they can do, legalism, which does not require much perception or
Fear of failure...Some do not want to fail God, others, or themselves, and pick a scab concealing shame. Legalism is a less
risky alternative, never requiring faith-risks, only ritual. Heal the shame root and be free to fail as you learn to gracewalk!
Christian examples...Some are following spiritual leaders trapped in legalism themselves. This does not mean those leaders
are 100% bad. It simply means the follower has not yet learned to discern and "spit out the bones".
APPLICATION: Repent of the bad root (Mt 3:8). Ask the Spirit to change it (Ro 8:13). Confess to others and have them pray
for you (Jas 5:16). Obey whatever the Spirit might lead pertaining to the root (Gal 5:18).
Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
Galatians 3:3 (NIV)
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