The term ‘legalism’ is thrown around a lot in the Church today and 99% of the time when this word is uttered, people think of a strict adherence to law or rules which stands against the freedom we are supposed to enjoy in Christ. We think of those people who are full of lists and requirements and seem focussed on outward behaviour and the impact that has on our relationship with God. “If you want to please God, you need to do this or that … and not do this or that …” That is often the thrust of their whole mind-set.
That is certainly legalism, however I fear that such obvious legalism is only the tip of a very large iceberg and it’s what we don’t see below the surface in so many believers (and ourselves) which is the most destructive threat to the spread of the Gospel. The spirit of legalism wears a cloak of invisibility. I don’t know of a single legalist who has ever admitted to being a legalist at the time. There are many who have been freed from this life-sapping spirit and can look back now and admit they were under the power of this spirit. However, when you are trapped in legalism, you never know it. Discernment is the first casualty of the spirit of legalism.
So is there a simple definition of legalism? There are actually many. You can search the internet and find dozens and they all have some truth in them. For me, however, I believe the simplest definition is the best and so here is my contribution to that long list:
Legalism: Trying to attain or maintain rightness with God (righteousness) through human effort.
Now most of the Christians I know will say a loud ‘amen’ to the first part. They will affirm that salvation is by grace, through faith and that we can never, ever ‘attain’ righteousness through even our best efforts. If we could – Christ died in vain. Very few believers would have a problem with that part. However, it is the second term ‘maintain’ which trips up so many of us and it’s in this area that the spirit of legalism gains such a powerful foothold in individuals and then entire churches. Beginning in grace and then moving on in the power of the flesh is exactly what the Galatian believers were guilty of and the entire letter to the Galatians was written to expose and counter this evil in this midst of God’s people. Paul began with a charge (which could so easily be directed at many Christian Churches today), “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3)
Paul had seen these very people set free by the power of God’s amazing grace. They had ‘attained’ their salvation through grace alone. But now, so soon after being set free by God’s empowering presence, they had moved on to ‘please’ and ‘serve’ God in their own strength and by adhering once again to rules and laws and requirements – forgetting that every single requirement of God was already met by Christ and given to us as a free gift! Not only is our salvation a gift of God’s grace – the victorious Christian life is also a gift of God’s grace – every single day.
Peter tells us in 2 Peter 1:3 that, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” However, there are millions of Christians across this planet right now who are trying to ‘please’ God through their service, their devotion, their ministry and their ‘work’ for Him and His Church. This is the spirit of legalism unbridled and running rampant through the Body of Christ! It is poison. It is the exact antithesis of the gospel. It is pure evil because it stands against everything Jesus and Paul taught and it makes a mockery of the cross of Christ and the central truth of the gospel.
We don’t just get into this new life by grace, we live every moment by grace also. Even the work we gladly and freely do in Jesus’ name is empowered by grace – by the presence of God – by “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27). Paul said it all in 1 Corinthians 15:10 “… by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” It is ALL by grace, from beginning to end and by ‘grace’ I don’t mean that innocuous theological concept people sprout to sound spiritual. By ‘grace’ I mean the empowering presence of God within us. When this penny drops, the spirit of legalism is driven out completely.
So how does this spirit of legalism manifest today in our Churches? What does it look like or sound like? How can you recognise it in yourself and others? Well first and foremost you need to ask God to give you the discernment you need to see it as He sees it. Because to the normal human eye and ear, legalism is invisible and inaudible. You will completely miss it more often than not, until God gives you the ability to see what He sees. Legalism has many faces and many vehicles in which to travel and they all present in ways which are not obviously offensive or theologically inept. You have to look behind the scenes and read between the lines.
For example, whenever I preach about the grace of God like Paul preached about the grace of God, I will always (without fail, in fact) have someone come to me immediately, or soon afterwards, and say something like, “I really understand grace and why it is so important we know what God has done for us in Christ, but …. I am keen to know how we live out our Christian life and make an impact on the world around us.” That sounds like a reasonable statement to most of us, right? However, the spirit of legalism is oozing out of that statement! If this person really understood grace like they claimed, they would never have made such a statement. What this person was really saying is this: “I know I have attained my salvation through God’s grace in Christ, but now I need to know what I have to do and how I have to live in order to maintain my right standing with God. I want to please the Lord and be a blessing to Him and so give me a list!”
There is no list! Welcome to the New Covenant in Christ. Jesus was required to obey the holy law of God 100% as a man – and He did! Jesus was required to pay the ultimate price for ALL human sin, which is death as a man – and He did! Jesus needed to conquer the power of death and Satan once and for all time by rising from the dead as a man – and He did! Now by the grace of God we stand IN CHRIST and so ALL that He achieved is ours – for free – not once at conversion – but every moment of every day! Outside of Christ, we cannot please God or bless God or do anything right before God. In Christ, we are already pleasing to God because of the finished work of Christ. When we truly ‘get’ that – then, and only then, will grace ‘have its effect in us’ and like Paul, we will gladly work our butts off for God – not to please Him or obey Him or because we are required to – but because we will have no choice, because it will be the empowering presence of God within us (grace) which compels us to serve and minister.
So when we attempt to do anything which God has already done for us in Christ – it’s legalism at work, not the Spirit of Christ.
What then is the cure for legalism? Two simple things need to happen and they need to happen as a daily lifestyle choice. First, we need to re-connect with the true gospel of God’s amazing, empowering grace and get our theology back in line with the New Testament. Then we simply need to give the Church and our own lives back to God every day and trust the life of Christ within us to transform us and all our ministries so that once again we are living and ministering out of the life of Christ within us, not from our own corrupted flesh and good intentions.