As Christians, we should want to obey Jesus and bring him honor and glory. As Christians, we should also want to seek all that is made available to us through the wonderful promises of salvation. However, there is one thing that can greatly hinder these things: legalism.
What is Legalism?
If you look up the definition of legalism, you might find something like, “excessive adherence to law or formula; dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.”
As it pertains to Christianity, we could define legalism as any action we take in order to conform to an idea of what it means to be a Christian.
Legalism can include many things, like how a Christian should dress, behave, and worship. We can also apply this to what we deem necessary actions that signify an entrance into the faith, such as making a declaration of faith or becoming baptized.
I understand that the latter examples might seem confusing at first. If you will, please continue reading so a clear point can be made.
Put another way, to act legalistically is to perform outward showings of Christian behavior, that may or may not be an accurate representation of genuine conviction or change of nature. Herein lies the problem with legalism.
Legalism is akin to letter-of-the-law obedience—a form of obedience that is more aligned with an old covenant mindset—a mindset which Jesus came to testify against and abolish. Why? Simply stated, man could not be made truly righteous by following law. Man finds loopholes, lives hypocritically, and at times, will blatantly defy law.
The law of the kingdom of God is not so. These are the laws of the new covenant, as promised in Jeremiah, stating:
But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jeremiah 31:33).
This is the very same law brought to us by Jesus Christ (also referenced in Hebrews 8:10 and Hebrews 10:16). This law is perfect and cannot be tainted by man, because it is of a spiritual nature and instead of being written on stone, it is written “on the fleshly tables of the heart.” This leads to that “new nature” we Christians are to put on.
When we are transformed by the Holy Spirit, we begin walking a path of righteousness that cannot be contained within the letter of the law, nor can it be attained by a mere fleshly being. This is a walk “not by power or might, but by my spirit.”
Therefore, when we attempt to walk that “straight and narrow path” using our traditions and outward performances of righteousness that seek to mimic what we think a Christian should be, we will fall short—and as with the old covenant, we embark on a path of bondage instead of true freedom.
Examples of Legalism
I’m sure most of us can think of at least one example of legalism among Christian traditions and beliefs today. For the purposes of this article, I want to illustrate some common areas of legalistic thought and compare these ideas to the spiritual change we are to seek.
When you look at this, consider the manner in which God’s people sought to obey Him in these moral issue areas while under the old law. Are we much different today?
|Moral Issue||Legalistic Approach||Spiritual Approach|
|Appearance||Women should have long hair and never wear pants.
Men should keep short hair.
|Men and women should dress with humility and modesty. Women should not purposefully dress like men or vice-versa.|
|Dietary Law||Christians should not eat pork or drink alcohol of any kind.||Christians should be moderate in all things, never allowing gluttony or dependence on any substance.|
|Sacrifices||Give a 10% tithe to your church. Donate to charities. Help with church functions.||Cultivate a servant’s heart that does not seek after it’s own, but instead looks out for the well-being of others.|
|Worship||Christians must go to church on the right day (Saturday or Sunday). Instruments are allowed. Instruments are forbidden. Conduct quiet services. Jump, shout, and sing to the Lord.||God created the sabbath for man, not man for the sabbath. One honors one day above the rest, one honors every day alike. Worship Jesus with a sincere heart, and praise him according to your conscience.|
Can you see the difference? As Christians, we know that we should live a certain way, so we place restrictions on ourselves or adhere to certain traditions in our attempts to attain righteousness (or, to appear as such). This is an approach that “makes clean the outside of the cup” first. This is a backwards approach that can only get us so far.
In Christ, we should be doing things the other way around. Through his Spirit and with faith in the promises of salvation, we should be seeking a change of heart that will lead to sincere righteousness.
Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also (Matthew 23:26).
Why Legalism Can Become a Trap
If we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), our perspective on many issues will change. As this happens, we might do some of the things mentioned in the above “legalistic approach” example. However, law does not consider the inner-man, and Jesus came to change the inner-man.
Some scripture to consider concerning the “inner-man”:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 1:7)
For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God (Ephesians 3: 14-19).
We cannot fool God with our legalism. We might be able fool ourselves and others into thinking we are doing God’s will, but He knows our hearts and is not fooled by our traditions. In other words, “God is not mocked.” As with the church in Sardis (Revelation 3:1), we will say that we live, but we are dead.
Legalism kills our liberty. Another problem with legalism is it opposes the liberty we have in Christ. Of course, liberty is not a license to sin, however there are a lot of things that Christians judge others for that are a matter of individual conscience. Things like praise preferences, holidays, clothing, food, and the like all have some measure of liberty in Christ—so long as we are not in bondage to these things or full of pride. In-fact, when we become too worried over these things and judge others, pride and vanity are often within our hearts, so what does our legalism profit us?
- Division: When we place restrictions or obligations on others, and especially when we begin to judge others according to these ideas, this leads to what Paul the Apostle called “doubtful disputations.” Or, as Jesus said, “straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel.” We become so caught up on small issues that we forget to love one another and divisions break out among the body of Christ.
- Accusations: Things like pet doctrines or traditions can cause us to judge our brethren in a very unrighteous manner. We might question whether they are “real” Christians, or begin to accuse them of having weak faith or of committing a sin, when in reality, they are within their liberty-based rights to make the choices they make and hold the beliefs they hold.
- Hypocrisy: The Christian walk is of a spiritual nature. Therefore, when we attempt to attain that which is spiritual through traditions and other fleshly devices in place of an actual spiritual change, we often become hypocrites. Our inner-self does not reflect the outer performances.
- Complacency: When we view the sinner’s prayer, baptism, or any other tradition legalistically, we risk becoming stagnant in the faith, without really pushing forward and growing in the things of God.
- Death: It does not matter how much we “honor God with our lips” if our “heart is far from him,” we are not going to inherit eternal life. If we continue fueling unnecessary conflict, accusing others falsely, living as hypocrites, and conforming to this world, then we are at risk of eternal damnation. The salvation and condemnation of others is for God to judge, but it’s not a path we should want to go down.
For scriptural insight and reference, I recommend reading the book of Galatians and Colossians. I was going to include excerpts in this article, but there was so much relevant information that I had a hard time deciding which to choose. I’m considering doing a written work on these books chapter by chapter.
A Declaration of Faith and Baptism Can Be Legalism?
I’ve written before that I view things like the sinners prayer to be a man-made tradition that’s loosely based on scripture. However, I believe that we cannot judge whether or not making a declaration of faith or becoming baptized indicates one will be saved—either in the positive or in the negative.
Why? These are outer works, that may or may not reflect sincerity. Even if sincere, a person might not continue in the faith and become as “the seed on stony ground or among thorns” (See Matthew 13 for the Parable of the Sewer in the Field).
On one hand, if we tell people that all they have to do is make a confession, and/or get baptized, without preaching the fullness of the gospel of the kingdom that promises an inner change of nature, then we risk leading people on a path of destruction—and that is the common teaching today, sadly.
On the other hand, if we tell people that their declaration of faith is not enough, we are setting ourselves up as judge, and that is God’s domain. When our heart is right and sincere, things like reciting a sinners prayer or baptism is a fruit of salvation. If our heart is not right, it is a work of the flesh. That, I think, is the distinction—and not one that we can go around judging others concerning.
We cannot know the heart of anyone or what God is doing with them. When make judgments of the heart, we risk falling during the time of great tribulation (see the warning Jesus gave to the church of Thyatira in Revelation 2:22-23).
When we view our own ideas too stringently, we risk harming those who are already weak in the faith, leading them to question their salvation and relationship with God. In doing so, “it would be better that a millstone were hung about our neck and we were cast into the sea.”
The best approach is for each individual to work out his or her own salvation and seek to be “conformed to the image of Christ.” If we truly seek to know Jesus and to grow in the things of God, then the Holy Spirit will do the rest. Remember, this is not works-based salvation. It is the work of Jesus within us.
The Commandments of Christ are of The Spirit—Not the Letter
The greatest problem with legalism, as mentioned already, is it does not necessarily reflect the inner-self and will only lead to a partial and imperfect form of righteousness. Jesus’s sermon on the mount is the most important example of the commandments of God, demonstrating that true obedience goes deeper than some simple matter of law.
For example, most of us can avoid murder, but can we cause our nature to change so that we do not hate in our heart? Many of us can avoid adultery, but can we change a lust-filled heart? Can we truly love anyone, much less love our enemy without some kind of inner change? Probably not. Those inner-changes are what the gospel of the kingdom of heaven is about!
Through faith in Jesus, we are forgiven of our sins and promised a new nature that is free from the bondage of sin. When we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, the Holy Spirit will write the knowledge of the Lord in our hearts, changing our very natures from wickedness to righteousness—“against which there is no law” that can condemn us! This is the ultimate pursuit of Christianity, and it is a life-long spiritual journey—one that is often in opposition to and hindered by legalism.
Read Matthew 5-7 for the commandments of Jesus.
Food for Thought
We know that Jesus causes us to “bring forth fruit.” This is spiritual fruit that comes forth out of a changed heart. Therefore, real fruit cannot be fake. We do not want to be as those who offer fake fruit to the Lord. When we approach the Christian life according to the letter of the law (or legalism) instead of trusting Jesus and seeking him so that our natures are changed, we embark on a path of hypocrisy that bears “wild fruit.” What did Jesus tell us would happen to hypocrites and those who do not bring forth fruit?
For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).
Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1).
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned (John 15: 5-6).
Consider this passage from Isaiah 5. What are your thoughts about how this might apply to Christians today? These are verses 1-16, not the entire chapter, so you might consider looking up the whole chapter for full context.
Isaiah 5: 1-16
And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.
What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?
And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down:
And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.
Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!
In mine ears said the Lord of hosts, Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant.
A faith-based Christian life is one that seeks, by faith, to have one’s nature changed from wickedness to righteousness—not by our own efforts or ability—but by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. To do otherwise may or may not lead to condemnation, depending on the level of mercy God is showing each individual.
However God is not mocked, and we do not want to “throw ourselves off of the pinnacle of the temple.” If we worship the Lord “in spirit and in truth,” he will lead us on the path of righteousness that leads to everlasting life. Legalism can hinder our faith, trapping us in a cycle of bondage, and it will be manifest that the love of the Lord was not it us.
If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you (John 15:10-12).
This article is part of the series, “Minuscule Faith Moves Mountains.”