Occasionally I get a challenge on my use of the word “legalism.” Some say that I don’t use it right, that I am just using it to categorize people in a negative way. They think it is unfair for me to use the word to describe those who hold to higher standards or certain kinds of behavior.
What these challengers don’t understand is that I have been where they are. In fact, years ago, I wrote a little pamphlet entitled, “The L Word,” in which I debunked the challenges of those who pointed at my church and called us legalists. I said that legalism was only properly used in reference to a system teaching that people can be saved by keeping the Law. Since I always believed that salvation came through Jesus alone, by grace through faith, I could not have been called a legalist.
Have you ever been right and wrong at the same time and about the same thing? Well, I have been. The above assessment is technically correct. Legalism teaches salvation by law. What I didn’t understand then is that all forms of performance spirituality stem from and return to legalism.
Now, let me give you a little of the theology I believe. There is one requirement for salvation and it isn’t something we do. It is receiving, by faith, the gift God has given to us in Jesus. That’s it. Just saying yes.
And that’s where some people disagree. Yes, it’s faith, they say, but it is also obedience. It is also doing the things God says. If you don’t do what God says, then you aren’t really saved, they say. And I reply: that’s legalism.
If my behavior is a requirement for my salvation, then I am under the law and saved by works. If it is 90% Jesus and only 10% me, then I cannot be saved because I can never measure up even to that. It doesn’t matter what ratio you bring out, if it isn’t 100% the love of God through Jesus, given freely as a gift to those who will receive, then it’s legalism.
Still, most performance-based people would agree with this. And that’s where I was. But then I began to hear people say things like, “Well, real Christians don’t ___.” Or even, “I have to wonder if so-and-so is still saved.” And sometimes, “We have no fellowship with people who don’t ___.” I began to understand that we still had some requirements in addition to Jesus.
If the teaching produces feelings that some are “real” Christians while others are not; or that a person could lose his salvation on the basis of some evil act or the lack of some good act—how is that not legalism? It is still under the law and not dependent on the grace of God in Jesus. It’s grace plus whatever rule or standard the teaching promotes. If you have to speak in tongues or be baptized a certain way or wear certain clothes in order to be a real Christian, then Jesus doesn’t make real Christians. He only makes potential Christians. We have to do the rest. And if you have to avoid smoking or divorce or television or alcohol in order to be a real Christian, then Jesus can’t keep what He has made. It’s up to us to keep ourselves in the kingdom and keep ourselves saved.
And—listen—if it’s up to us to keep ourselves saved, then we are under law and not under grace. And those who are under law are legalists.
So what does your church or organization teach? What do the people around you say, particularly about others who are not like you? Are some people “real” Christians while others who profess Christ in some other category? Are some people you talk about in danger of losing their salvation or of never having been saved because of something they do or don’t do?
Legalism is the antithesis of grace. It pushes the love of God into a side category considering it something like an influence, rather than the answer and hope of the believer. The cross of Christ is not enough for the legalist, we must do our part. And the legalist will tell us what our part ought to be.
The truth is that the cross is enough. The work of our salvation was accomplished by the love of God in Jesus. That’s the past work, the present work, and the future work. All that is necessary, He has done. Our part is to believe and receive.
And about now the objections are being shouted. “But what about sin?” “We have to do our part!” “What about the commands?” “What about those people?” Go my blog page and type the word “sin” into the search box. You can read my many answers to these objections.
My mom and I used to play cribbage and she often said, “No matter how many times you count it, that’s all you get.” Count it any way you want. The truth is still the same. All the challenges and objections and qualifications boil down to a simple fact:
If Jesus is enough, that’s grace.
If Jesus is not enough, that’s legalism.