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21 September 2015

Real legalism—and weaseling out of religion.

Legalism is the opposite of grace. But we’re quick to cry legalism if it gets us out of stuff.

Legalism /'li.gəl.iz.əm/ n. An excessive, graceless observance of God’s commands. Usually based on the idea we’re saved by obedient merit.

It’s a little odd to talk about legalism under the category of grace, but legalism is the opposite of grace. It’s the fake version of the Spirit’s fruit of goodness. It’s phony sanctification. It’s when people are trying to get holy (or holy-looking), but don’t understand how grace works. Yeah, they say God saves us by grace; they know that line. But they redefined grace, and now it’s something we earn—and we get it by being good.

It’s fake goodness ’cause it lacks goodness. See, we could follow all the rules perfectly, yet still not be good. If the rule is “Give to the needy,” yet I bend that rule as much as possible by giving them as little as possible, by giving them really crappy stuff, or by attaching so many strings to the stuff that they’re basically earning it, I’m technically obeying, but in an evil sort of way. My heart’s not in it.

And that’s one of the purposes of God’s commands. He wants us, not just to obey, but understand—to study his commands, realize his point, learn how he thinks, and grow to think like he does. He wants us to develop fruit of the Spirit.

Legalists, on the other hand, just wanna be “good.” [Naughty verb] understanding. Don’t think, just do. Don’t ask questions, just obey. Embrace God’s commands in a hollow, empty, fruitless sort of way—with the motive of achieving heavenly Brownie points and the acclaim of others. Not love, forgiveness, grace, and God’s character.

Goodness only works by grace.

Wanna be good? Can’t do it without the Holy Spirit.

It’s not “It’s really hard to do without the Spirit.” It’s impossible to do without the Spirit. Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit. Ga 5.22 It’s achieved through his power, not ours.

The best we can do on our own, apart from him, is be relatively good. Better than the neighbors. Not perfect, but hey, at least we’re not murderers or rapists. (Well, I’m not. I don’t know about you.)

Legalists find goodness—or the appearance of it, anyway—to be mighty hard. But they’ve learned a few tricks to get around calling upon the Spirit, or grace.

  • Set the bar really low. You only have to follow the rules; you don’t really have to deal with the underlying motives, like Jesus expects. Mt 6.21-24, 27-28 Or you only have to be better than the neighbors. Or you only worry about the stuff everyone sees, and not the change of heart. Or you‘ve redefined the commands so they’re unbreakable—“to covet,” fr’instance, now only means wanting what you can’t have, not wanting in general.
  • Penance: If you mess up, invent some rules so you can work your way back. They can be easy or hard, but they prove you’re sorry, which should be good enough for God.
  • Add commands. Seriously. Take God’s 20-pound weight and add another 100. Shows how devout you really are. (Never mind the fact you dropped God’s 20-pound weight a few clicks ago, ’cause you were too busy showing off the 100 pounds you’re carrying so well.)

Now, we’re not all that good—we suck. We need God if we’re gonna get any better. And we need tons of grace, ’cause on the road to grace there are a lot of potholes and roadside distractions. We’re gonna stumble, and when we do Jesus helps us back up. 1Jn 2.1-2 If God doesn’t forgive us regularly we’re not getting back up. Or we’ll figure it’s too hard and try hypocrisy instead.

The legalist mindset.

There are lots of reasons why Christians go the legalist route:

  • It’s how they were raised. If you have legalist parents, likely that’s how you think goodness works. So you either become a legalist too—or you get sick of the hypocrisy and fakery and quit Christianity. (And I don’t blame you. Legalism sucks.)
  • Grace offends them. Getting something for nothing?—that’s for the greedy and lazy, and they’ll totally take advantage of it. They believe in karma: You get out what you put in. Legalism is their way of paying God back for his grace—as if that’s even possible.
  • Pride. They don’t want grace from God: They wanna make themselves worthy of saving. God would be stupid to let leave like them out of his kingdom. They take handouts from no one—not even God. And they take all the credit for their goodness—none to the Spirit. (Well, unless they want to justify certain evil behaviors by claiming the Spirit told ’em to do it.)
  • Rules are easy. A lot of us have no trouble following rules—we grew up under ’em, and following them is second nature. “Don’t covet? Don’t steal? Take Sabbaths off? No problem.” To such people, rules are no burden. But relationship—actually listening to the Holy Spirit and submitting to him minute by minute—that’s hard. We don’t want that kind of supervision and dependence. Yep, it’s also a pride thing.
  • It’s far easier to follow rules than produce fruit. And pointing to your “goodness” will usually shut people up whenever they start to ask uncomfortable questions.
  • Rules are power. If you get to define and enforce the rules, it’s pure, unadulterated, antichrist-like power. Legalists sure do covet that power.
  • Rules are a handy excuse for hating others. “Hate the sin, love the sinner”—with 99 percent of our effort put into hating the sin, and attacking the sin-bearer.

There are other reasons, but they all pretty much stem from self-centeredness. As do most sins.


How do we catch ourselves before we slide into that? Simple: Keep practicing grace. Forgive! If people mess up, forgive ’em. Don’t force them to earn their way back into your favor. Deal with your hurt feelings and forgive like the Father forgave you. Mk 11.25

If we’re talking about breaking workplace rules, or laws of the land: Actions have consequences, and they’ll likely need to suffer those consequences. That’s life. But leave punishment for those whose job is to dispense the punishment. Your job, hard is it may be, is to forgive.

Yes, whether they ask forgiveness or not. Yes, whether they deserve it or not. They don’t deserve it. If they did it wouldn’t be grace. Forget about “three strikes and you’re out,” or “fool me twice shame on me”: Jesus intends us to lose count of how many times we’ve forgiven others. Mt 18.21-22 So lose count.

If you’re this kind of forgiving, it’s impossible to be a legalist.

Calling religion legalism.

So that’s what legalism is; now for what it isn’t.

A lot of Christians are lawless: They don’t even try to be good. They figure since we’re not saved by good works, we needn’t bother to do any. They’re irreligious—they have no discipline when it comes to their Christianity, and if God forgives everything, they’ve given him a whole lot to forgive.

So when any Christian teaches, “God commands us” or “Jesus has expectations” or “Christians shouldn’t do that,” they call that legalism. To them, legalism means any rules, guidelines, instructions, corrections, rebukes, anything which tells ’em they’re wrong and need to repent. They’re not wrong, they insist. Jesus made ’em right when he saved them.

Any Christian who doesn’t give them a blank check to sin themselves raw and sticky, is a legalist. Any Christian who tells them they have to exercise any self-control (a fruit of the Spirit, y’know) is a legalist. They’ll flee those Christians, and their churches. They’ll look for any church which expects absolutely nothing of them. Because that, they claim, is “freedom in Christ.” Freedom to sin.

And if we tell them otherwise—if we dare preach anything but grace—we’re legalists. We practice works-righteousness. We’re Pharisees. Pick your favorite term for legalists; they’ll use it.

Religion, as I’ve written previously, is about the practices which further our relationship with God. Tell the irreligious we need to do such things, and they’ll stare at you like Satan just climbed out of your head. “What, I have to do stuff? I don’t have to do anything. I’m saved by grace. You’re preaching religion. Christianity’s about relationship, not religion.”

No; it’s about both. If you aren’t religious about any relationship, it’s gonna suck. If you never call your dad, doesn’t matter that you’re related: You have no relationship with him. Yeah, he knows who to call when he needs a kidney. But you don’t know what he’s up to, what he expects of you, what he currently likes and doesn’t like—you might assume these things, and might even be right. But you might be wrong—and in for a huge surprise when he dies and leaves you nothing, and your siblings everything. ’Cause they called him every week.

God likewise. People assume he’s gonna save ’em. He might. And he might not. After all, when they’re effectively acting like the same dipsticks they were before they “came to Jesus,” it doesn’t matter what they claim. They’re lying to us, and themselves. There’s no sign of any relationship there, and God isn’t contractually obligated to save people who have no relationship with him and live in the dark. 1Jn 2.10

If they wanna call Christian discipleship, Christian fellowship, and Christian practices “legalism,” there’s little hope for them. They don’t want the kingdom. They want a get-out-of-hell-free card. Well, God doesn’t have to give them either thing.

So no, religion isn’t legalism. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.