Is it Legalism?


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.


Filed under grace, Grace definition, Legalism, Theology and mystery

7 responses to “Is it Legalism?

  1. Fellow Survivor

    Dave, my daughter and i have been going to this church for over a year that we both really like. You know the routine, January is when small groups are established and also is a typical membership drive time period. I was really looking forward to joining a small group of believers in my situation but they changed the requirement this year where you first have to “Join” the church. Joining the church officially requires four documents signed and pledges made etc. I can’t do that.

    I know you have seen and heard it all. They say ” we are not looking for numbers” but they want the numbers pretty bad. I went to two meetings about joining, wasn’t comfortable yet, and made my choice to “not” officially join right now. But I am getting emails asking ” what’s the problem?”

    The problem is I am uncomfortable making a pledge that I am not certain I can live up to. As sad as it may be to say, a church is a business. Businesses need customers.

    On a side note, I joined a Bible study group at a different church and it is good for me.

    • UnForsaken

      FS, wow ! You made a great choice joining a Bible study. I very hesitantly joined a church a Lot like that, and have since felt the pressure. They really believe anyone not involved in “flock group” is not seeking the true unity of the community. ( ” Community” and “the church” just meaning to Them the local system, not all believers. Such a sad, ungracious belief.)
      Plus, the flock group elder who leads the one I tried even made noises about signing my care- and- share form ( Samaritans), since I wasn’t going to his group. Manipulatin if I’ve ever heard of it. I attend morning services regularly and the other things on the form are also obvious about me…but people believe what they want to and usually to get something.
      Hey, I don’t go to the groups because church is all I have energy for, and when I did try it , it seemed so pointless. They had nothing to offer, and expected a lot of personal prayer requests I would find damaging in the presence of my N. (Misery, in fact. I heard the N’s vague request about my ” problems” ((health)), which is a very easily misinterpreted, all -encompassing word. ) Just another way to stress. And the real point is to encourage each other in the Lord, to turn our thoughts toward Scripture, and to apply it to our lives in our hearts.
      Way to go on your choice!! A group that Expects that kind of confidences is just a clickish club. You should feel comfortable enough to choose to share. And free enough to be with the people who help you, and who you can help.
      If you find yourself being shut out of further ministries, there are always things you can do on your own, such as visiting a nursing home.You may also find their policies change/relax with time. Not ideal, but no organization is.
      As a general rule I’m not a joiner – I like to find more flexible ways of ministering/involvment – so I wish I had done what you are doing now!

  2. Carol

    Dave, I agree with you totally that you about this issue, but I still have questions about other verses that make us wonder about eternal security. And maybe its not so much about sin as about if one has truly from the heart believed to become “born again” with the Holy Spirit or even our free will to change our mind and reject Christ (apostasy or the unpardonable sin). I know there are several to quote, but just one specifically is when Jesus is going to say “I never knew you” to some who say haven’t we prophesied, cast out demons, etc in Your name when He comes. Also, I think the idea of “falling from grace” is not sin, but returning back to legalism and trying to do things ourselves. But, Paul talks about departing from the faith and contending for it too. Is any belief that names Christ, no matter how heretical, going to get us a free ticket to heaven? Can you differentiate it from the thinking that one prayer to Jesus is like fire insurance or a universalist doctrine of ecumenicalism where you don’t even have to believe in Christ at all (all people and religions are saved). If you can’t lose faith than why even have the word apostasy along with other warnings throughout the new testament? I know these are hard questions, and I’m not trying to be argumentative or anything either. I just struggle over hearing good arguments from both sides and I would appreciate your take on them. For the record, I’m not a Calvinist, but not really an Armenianist (sp?) either. Thanks.

  3. Richard

    I agree with the original post. Some people use the word legalism to fend off obedience. I feel this is a slap in the face to the Lord for the grace He has bestowed upon us. Seems once we acknowledge Jesus as Lord its a free for all in how we behave. Yes it is. Free will to do what we want.
    Like I said I feel its a slap in the face..Me. Not you. Or do you feel that way too. Do we value the cross with the real value it has? Very simply, to the wise the law is sweet, to the foolish the law is bitter.
    God sent His Holy spirit to guide us. We have to be guide-able.

  4. Bethany

    There are some statements in this article I can agree with, but ultimately, if you are summarizing that obedience to God is legalism, you are being licentious. There 3 categories of people being discuss 1) Man taking their own standards and making them commandments (pharisee-types) 2) Brothers encouraging each other to obey God’s commands (Christians) and 3) Man saying you don’t need to repent and obey at all (unbelievers). John the Baptist preached repentence, Jesus preached repentence, and the apostles preached repentence. Who here wants to be in opposition to these and still claim to be a Christian? John the Baptist who said, “Be baptized for repentence! Make straight the way for the Lord!” Our Lord who said, “Many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and will not enter. ‘Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ Paul who said, “Let not these deeds even be named among you” and, “Walk as children of Light.” James who said, “Faith without works is dead.” Jude who said, “Ungodly persons have slipped in among you are perverting the grace of our Lord into licentiousness.” Now does any of this mean that when you convert you are suddenly perfect? No, it’s not that clean cut. There is some learning involved of what is right and wrong. Born Again, starting over, relearning how to walk, how to talk, to imitate your Daddy. Does it mean everytime you make a mistake or stumble, you are suddenly not loved, not saved? No, of course not, because we are not suddenly capable of being perfect, and we will make mistakes. However, there is a difference between learning how to overcome temptation and resisting the devil and the desires of your flesh and saying, “Meh, you don’t have to repent or obey, because Jesus is enough.” Jesus died because our sins put Him there. Those crimes we committed are still equally disgusting to God, and if anyone thinks CLAIMING to believe in Jesus is enough to go on living like a son of darkness, you are sadly mistaken. Sadly, He will say to you, “Depart from Me, you who PRACTICE lawlessness.”

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