A few years ago a friend and I were at a missions conference when we got into a discussion about the “right” way to eat bananas. I laughed at first, but after hearing his arguments, I became convinced that he was on to something. The first thing he shared with me was how bananas grow on trees in clumps, like the clumps we find at the grocery store. The only thing is, they grow upside down to the way we find them laid out at the store. Next he showed me, using a banana, how monkey’s hold them: upside down, how they open them: with their thumb, peeling from the bottom. I was amazed to see the ease at which he opened the banana! It was easier than opening it from the stem, and by doing it from the bottom, the stem became a handle. What once seemed upside down has now defined what right side up is.
Our complete acceptance with God doesn’t come through performance. Well… at least not our performance! The gospel, the good news that God wants you & I to understand, is that you and I are complete spiritual train-wrecks. Ok, well that doesn’t sound like good news, but here is the real good news: Even though we are failures, undeserving of any kindness from God, He loves us anyways and sent Jesus to pay for our sins on the cross and offers eternal life to all who trust in Christ for it. To put it another way, the Bible teaches that because we are a sin-plagued people, we can’t earn anything from God. The only thing we can “do” is trust in God’s Son who earned everything on our behalf through His death on the cross, burial and resurrection from the dead. In this way, the gospel is counter to everything else that has been natural to us our whole lives and everything we have perceived in our reality. No other religion holds this view and sadly, some Christians and Christian denominations misunderstand this, as well. For some of us, it will take a complete paradigm shift to accept this truth. Like eating bananas right side up.
“Then they said to Him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” -John 6:28b-29
Because of how counter this perspective is to what seems natural, there are two main wrong responses to the gospel of God’s free grace that people often fall into. One is that of payback and the other is exploitation. The former misunderstands or disbelieves that God’s grace is actually free, the latter misunderstands and abuses the goodness of God in giving His grace. One is called legalism, the other, license. Both can be attributed to spiritual immaturity.
This blog will be an exploration into the idea of payback or legalism, while another blog later will deal with exploitation or license. In a legalistic response to the gospel the individual believes he or she needs to earn God’s kindness through good performance to be saved or to grow spiritually, or they need to pay God back for His grace once they are saved.
Legalism Defined & Described
Here is my working, extended-definition of legalism:
Legalism is as a position that emphasizes a system of rules and regulations in achieving both salvation and spiritual growth. Strict literal adherence to those rules and regulations is demanded. Doctrinally, it is a position essentially opposed to grace. Those who hold a legalistic position may even fail to see the real purpose for law, especially the purpose of the Old Testament Law of Moses (which is our “schoolmaster” or “tutor” to bring us to Christ according to Galatians 3:24, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith”). Lives are lived in accordance with an extensive list of “do’s” & “don’ts,” and God’s favor is earned by good performance. The hazard is that it tends to make God’s love something to earn rather than accept freely. It would reduce Christianity to a set of impossible rules and transforms the Good News into bad news. (Adapted from CARM and the Life Application Study Bible)
Notice that this definition includes two aspects: legalism in regards to salvation, and legalism in regards to spiritual growth and maturity.
Let’s take a look at a few verses from Romans, chapter 3. “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
This passage in the early chapters of Romans continues a lengthy discussion on the complete lostness of all mankind and focuses in on faith in contrast to the Mosaic Law, specifically answering the idea that a person could be saved through law keeping, i.e. their good works. In these passages in Romans, the Mosaic Law serves as an example to all of us of the general principle of rule-keeping as a means to earn a good standing with God. Whether it be the Mosaic Law itself or by other rules, man-made or God-given, according to this passage and others, justification is only given by God by His grace to those who place their faith in the Son, not by their attempts at living decent lives. “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11)
Some people while believing that we are saved by grace through faith, also believe or live as if we have to continue to maintain God’s approval of us by being good. Sadly, this perspective does not lay hold of the spiritual truths in the scripture regarding the believer’s new, once-and-for-all identity in Christ. For instance, the Bible teaches in Romans 8 that we who have trusted in Christ are “under no condemnation” and later in the chapter it is said that “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” We have all the love and acceptance beyond what we could ever imagine, from God, solely on the basis that Christ was worthy enough and His work was good enough. We are in the family.
How sad would it be if my children, Jude & Iris, grew up thinking that in order for them to continue to be our children they would have to meet a set of criteria, a list of rules and regulations. That would be strange and might even be considered child abuse. Jude & Iris’ acceptance into our family is not based on their performance as children, it is based on their unchangeable DNA which they were born with.
Some people become prideful because of what they do or don’t do, while some other people, when confronted with the reality of their shortcomings, are racked by guilt and self-abasing because they are failing to perform well enough for God to be happy with them. Both are legalism, both either misunderstand or disbelieve the freeness of grace, and can be attributed to immaturity.
Unfortunately for the believer enslaved in legalism, this performance-based acceptance has major problems. To put it another way, every time they sin, they feel like God is angry at them. Every time they are doing well in their walks with Him, they feel secure. The problem with this is that their sense of security is totally dependent on their own performance, whether good or bad, not on the work of Christ and the promises of God. “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Romans 5:1)
For Spiritual Growth?
Some believers understand that we are saved by grace through faith alone, and even that our acceptance in Him is secure. However, legalism can still enter their lives if they turn to law-keeping or rule-abiding as a means for their own spiritual growth or maturity. Listen to what Paul said the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
As believers, the moment we trusted in Christ, we were changed from darkness to light; having been dead, we are now risen with Christ to new life all by the power of His Holy Spirit, not on the basis of our own abilities. The new life we now have in Christ is also to be lived by faith and yielded to His Spirit. Unfortunately, the person enslaved in legalism sees spiritual growth as something attainable by following a strict code of conduct, usually encompassing all areas of life, even those the Bible never touches on.
In my experience, people who are legalistic when it comes to spiritual growth usually add rules that the Bible is never explicit on, for example: drinking alcohol, dancing, going to movie theaters, using the NIV Bible translation, women wearing pants, tattoos & piercings, long hair on men, smoking, wearing make up, being a democrat, listening to rock music, eating at McDonalds, the list could go on. Actually I’ve never heard anyone say that eating at McDonalds is wrong, but it could be argued that since “your body is the temple of God…” Kidding.
To be fair, some of those things a maturer believer might choose not to do for the sake of their ministry, testimony or personal health. The problem comes when they are added as a means of spiritual growth and a justification for assessing other people’s spirituality or lack thereof, etc.
Spiritual growth is like a plant, and for certain there are things we can do to aid, rather than hinder our own growth, like getting to know God through studying His word and talking to Him in prayer. The bottom line, however, is that God causes the growth, not you or I, and certainly not by our own self efforts at trying to be good in and of ourselves, in our own strength. Especially if we are living under a set of man-made rules and regulations.
Now is a good time to point out that there is a difference between legalism and being conservative. Just because someone lives a prudent or conservative life, and just because someone may choose not to partake in freedoms that he/she has in Christ does not automatically make them a legalist. In fact, there may be wise or mature reasons for doing so. For example, I have a good friend who does not touch alcohol because he has a family history with alcohol addiction. In this case he has determined that it is wise for him to refrain. This isn’t legalism; it’s wisdom.
Also, obeying Christ’s commands through the power of our new identity in Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit isn’t legalism either. In fact, its called sanity. There are some things in scripture that are black and white, such as sexual immorality or worry. Where legalism differs from conservatism or prudence is that legalism is an attempt to earn salvation or spiritual growth through good works or performance, thinking those good works will score them points with God or maybe even somehow make up for past sinful works.
There is a place in the Christian life for good works. Ephesians 2:8-9 states that, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Continuing on, verse 10 shows that, “…we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” Paul tells the Ephesians that they were not saved by good works, but rather that they were saved for good works. Do you see the distinction? Being someone who wants to live a life of good works in obedience to Christ isn’t legalism. The key is the motivation behind why we are doing what we are doing.
Other Dangers of Legalism
One of the main characteristics of someone in legalism is lack of grace towards other people. This may not be apparent in their inner circles and close friendships, but it can be evidenced in their treatment of other people outside of their group. Every believer should ask themselves, “Is my life marked with the same kind of free, undeserved kindness towards others that God has towards me? Am I modeling this grace to the world, other believers, my spouse and children?”
Also, beware of false teachers who add rules to the Bible and standards to the Christian life that are man-made and unbiblical. They might appear to be looking out for your soul, but they are wolves in disguise who will enslave you, and strip you of the the joy that comes with understanding your real freedom in Christ. They usually use guilt & fear to “shepherd” their flock and any outright violation of their own personal convictions is a reason for getting ousted from the inner circle. This is called spiritual abuse. If you are in a church with this kind of spiritually abusive pastor, its time to get out and find another church.
Some Tips on Freedom
Knowingly choosing sin is abuse of God’s grace; choosing to exercise the freedom you have in the areas the Bible doesn’t mention is not abuse. It is not a sin to enjoy the liberty we have in our relationship with our Lord and Savior.
Having that said, here’s a few things to consider: For one, if you don’t know whether something is prohibited in the Bible or not, take some time to study it out for yourself, and do it honestly. This means don’t try to justify something that the Bible clearly teaches is wrong.
Secondly, be aware that there may be times where you will find it wise to sacrifice your freedoms in an area for the sake of not offending someone who might otherwise be open to the gospel or your input in their lives if they are already a believer. You can’t please everyone, and you definitely don’t want to slip into legalism. However, sacrificing your freedoms at times might help gain an ear with some people and perhaps help them come to know Christ. If they are a believer, it might give you the opportunity to help them grow into a more biblical understanding of grace.
Lastly, if they are a believer that has convictions about things that seem to be gray areas, you need to be careful not to make them stumble with your freedoms, and thus cause them to violate their conscience. That was Paul’s point here in Romans 14, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” (See Romans 14 for the entire discussion) Instead we should become “like them” to help them grow into a more mature understanding of grace. “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)
Our lives should be lived out of love for others with a desire to see them come to know Christ. “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24) What that looks like will vary from person to person, but the principle is the same. Our lives are meant for others.
The grace of God is free to all who want it, and is granted solely on the basis that Christ’s work was good enough, and not on the basis of our own good deeds or promises to clean up our act. This is true for you and I, and it is true for everyone around us.
Sometimes we see believers failing, and in response the temptation might be to question whether or not they are in the family of God. We might say things like, “How could they act like that or think like that if they were truly saved?” Or “If they were saved, they would…”
We need to be very careful if we are ever tempted with these words to remember that the grace of God is free to all, not on the basis of our performance, but on the basis of Christ’s promise. If we see another believer failing or acting in immaturity, instead of writing them off as a non-believer, we should see it as a sign that they are in need of further discipleship. This means that someone needs to take them under their wing, not kick them out of the nest.
Nearly fifteen years ago, at the same time I began abusing drugs and alcohol with only a piecemeal understanding of the gospel, I was asked not to return to the Christian school I was attending, and with my parents permission I left the church, and shortly there after any and all churches. This was a school and church that I had spent six days of the week at for seven years. When I left there I left all relationships behind; friends, authority figures both good and bad, and just about every believer I had ever known.
Would you be surprised if I told you that not one single person from this church ever took the time to reach out to me at this pivotal point in my life? To be sure, God works all things together for good. Here I am today, praising the Lord for the life I now have in Him, and yet still the regrets I hold for the life I’ve lived before someone reached out with the love of Christ in grace are painfully real.
Every moment we spend not extending grace to those in need, not reaching into the lives of those in pain and those heading in a self-destructive path, not living a life that says “you matter to God and you matter to me” are wasted moments of our lives.
Legalism is deadly because it cheapens grace by turning the open arms of acceptance-in-Christ into the crossed arms of rejection. It is damaging in our walks with God, our witness before the world and our families, and our ability to meet others where they are at. May we always be the people to others that we ourselves needed at our lowest points in life so that the cross of Christ may be magnified and the goodness of God glorified.
My chains are gone,
I’ve been set free;
My God, my Savior has ransomed me.
And like a flood, His mercy rains;
Unending love, amazing grace.