What does it mean to be a legalist?


It’s Monday Grace!

(This post is old, but still fits here.)

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.







I’m excited! 

Those who read here know that I am “absolutely, completely, permanently, eternally dependent on Jesus!”  My only hope in life and for the future is the love of Jesus for me.
So, I wrote a little book called, “Jesus Loves Me – This I Know.”  Obviously, it centers on the widely known first verse of the song most of us knew as children.  Those words, which still touch the hearts of so many in and out of the church, remind us of the simple truth of God’s love in Jesus.
Written as a poem by Anna Warner to be included in a book written by her sister, Jesus Loves Me was quickly brought into homes and churches and even the camps of the Civil War.    It has remained one of the most beloved songs of our faith.
What excites me today is that I can offer this book at a low price so you can send it to family and friends over the holidays.  At just 80 pages, it is a quick read that may break through to hardened hearts and warm the hearts of those who walk with the Lord. 
The Amazon price for this book is just $5.99.  At that price, you can buy several to give as gifts.  But listen: buy the ebook first.  Read through it to decide if you would like to use it to touch the hearts of your loved ones and neighbors.  The ebook is only $3.99, and you will have plenty of time to read it and make your order before the holidays. 
I hope to have a couple more books out before the end of the year, but this little book has such potential that I wanted to get it ready first.  Of course, if you read it and like it, I’d be blessed by a positive review on Amazon. 
Frankly, if I cut the price any lower, the only ones making anything on the book will be Amazon.  As it is, I will get only a little over a dollar from each book sold.  That’s okay, because I want this to get out.  I believe it will be a blessing for anyone who reads it.  It might even be the thing God uses to get word of His love to someone who has forgotten. 
So, please consider downloading the ebook.  Check it out.  Then, if the Lord leads, buy several paperbacks to give to others. 

Buy the Paperback  

Buy the Ebook


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2 responses to “What does it mean to be a legalist?

  1. I would go one step further and say Jesus is not even concerned with our “faith”, He is concerned with our heart condition. There are lots of people who believe on Jesus and that “faith” hasnt changed them at all. 

    People can believe on Jesus and not even know Him. Its knowing Jesus that produces change within us.

    Seeing as God does is what changes us, it’s a work of the Spirit within our hearts. Seeing truth thru His eyes… Like if Jesus shows me that my actions are hurting others I would stop doing it. My heart would change in that area… even if it took me awhile to stop the behavior. 

    Thanks for the article. Well written. I myself have struggled with legalism for years and it’s a beautiful thing to understand I just need to know Jesus. Everything i want is found in really knowing Him. There is simplicity in Christ. Amen.

  2. When we accept what Christ has done for us, we receive His Spirit, who comes to live inside us. It changes us. And it keeps on changing us. It changes us in ways that God directs, but always in the direction of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. As I continue in my walk with Christ, these things should become increasingly evident in my life. When they are lacking, and do not grow over time, the evidence is lacking.

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