Exposing Legalism: What is Legalism?

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Legalism seems to be the new buzz word is Christian circles.  You know, one of those words that everyone seems to know, knows is a bad thing, but yet doesn’t seem to really know what it is or how recognize it either.  It’s like everyone knows it exists, that it’s really bad stuff, but that’s the church down the street, not part of my church or my understanding.  Hmmmm….

Okay then–  so just what is legalism?

  • Exalting an allegiance to a set of rules and regulations as bringing salvation and spiritual growth over God’s grace

  • Extra biblical commands that are more associated with holiness than wisdom, prudence or pre-caution

Everyone has legalistic tendencies!

Let’s be honest, grace can offend our pride!  Think about it- we live in a society of fair, rightness, and justice—the concept of grace completely defies this mindset.  I write this because legalistic teachings abound everywhere!  Everywhere, all around us—even the best of churches, pastor’s with the best of intentions still have these same legalistic tendencies.  I have heard legalistic teachings from some of my favorite teachers, and at some of the churches I admire most.  It’s part of our human nature!

We are responsible for what we believe and accept as truth!

It’s easy to talk about the dangers of legalism, how bad it is etc., but it is much more difficult to spot, to hear legalism when it occurs.  And it is much more difficult to reject such teachings, but  we are the ones that have to live with the fruit, good or bad, of these teachings.  That said it just makes sense that we would want to be on guard about what we choose to accept (and live our lives by) and that which we reject!

I hope to go into greater detail about each of these, but for now will leave a list of my top 4 prominent legalistic tendencies in the church today:

  • Extra biblical commands

  • Works based salvation

  • Modern day Asceticism

  • Protestant Monasticism: Avoidance


Over the years I must admit I have been rather confounded by what is required for salvation.  Upon first becoming a Christian, I was ecstatic to learn that all I had to do was believe in my heart and confess with my mouth, that I was saved by God’s grace.  Wow–  that’s it?!?!  It was not about being good or bad, but it was a free gift and all we had to do was accept it.  But soon, I would learn that, in some circles, teachings, salvation was all about being good or bad.  Sure, we were all too bad to earn salvation apart from God’s gift, BUT…

What is a “True Christian”?

… there were certain sin issues that somehow disqualified you from or caused you to lose salvation?  It has often been taught that there are certain behaviors that are associated with a “true” Christian that is bearing fruit:  abstinence from fornication, foul language, worldly environments, substances (alcohol, nicotine, drugs), church attendance, service and tithing.  And, in general, these are good things.  And yet, I must ask do one’s failures or struggles to be “the good Christian” really invalidate one’s conversion? Ironically, the specific fruits mentioned in the Bible are more associated with attitudes than outer behaviors: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, patience and self-control.

Levels of Righteousness?

… I soon learned that some Christians were deemed “good enough” to have the ability of accepting this gift, while others were seen as insincere and not really having accepted the gift of salvation.  My inquisitive mind went racing: Is there some level of righteousness that is required in order to truly accept salvation?  Is there a level one must maintain in order to keep their salvation (and not give it back)?  How can one have assurance of salvation?

Teachings such as these, regardless of their intention, are dangerous and legalistic as they invite Pharisee like judgments, invite individual shame and condemnation and inhibit transparency and community.

Granted, few would argue against God’s desire for our sincerity/ devotion, but am I crazy to think that God sees the hearts of man better than we do (and doesn’t need or help!)?  Is it crazy to think that God doesn’t want us to have a boastful attitude towards our own salvation (that we somehow have earned it while other “Christians” haven’t)?  Is it wrong to believe that God forgives our sin and unrighteousness every time we confess them?  Am I crazy to think that one can confess their sin and believe in their heart to be saved (Rom10:9)?


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