I’ve been accused of being legalistic countless times. In fact, any Christian who insists there are things we must do has probably been called legalistic. But, what is legalism and what does it really mean to be legalistic? I think there are at least two negative ways in which a person can be religiously legalistic. Here they are:
1. Trying to Save Yourself
First, there seem to be some Christians who give the impression (or truly believe) that salvation is obtained by keeping the rules well. They leave no room, or very little room, for the grace of God. They seem to preach, “For God so loved the world that He gave the Holy Bible, that whoever keeps it good enough might have everlasting life.”
We need to understand that salvation is necessary because we have all sinned (Romans 3:23) and deserve death (Romans 6:23). The only thing that can erase our sins and put us into a right relationship with God is the blood of Christ (Ephesians 1:27; Hebrews 9:22). Keeping the rules well does not erase sin. And God doesn’t grade on the curve. Whether you’ve sinned once or sinned a million times, you deserve punishment and your ONLY hope is the blood of Jesus Christ.
The question then is, “How do I obtain the blood of Christ? How can I have my sins washed away?” And the answer is pretty simple. This gift is received by faith when you repent of your sins (Acts 2:38), confess Christ as the Son of God (Acts 8:37), and call upon His name through the waters of baptism (Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Romans 6:1-7).
God graciously saves those who obediently submit, in humble faith, to His plan of salvation (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; Hebrews 5:9).
2. Looking for Legal Loopholes
On the other side of the legalism coin are those who treat the Bible as a legal document, full of loopholes to find and exploit. This is not usually called legalism, but I believe it as much legalism as the other. Furthermore, I believe this type of legalism is even more prevalent in our culture today.
These types of legalists use phrases like, “Well, the Bible never says I can’t do this or that; so, it must be ok.” Like the Pharisees in whose footsteps they’re following, they try to catch God on technicalities. Instead of faithful obedience, they look for ways to avoid doing anything they don’t want to do and they look for ways to ease their conscience while they fulfill their fleshly desires.
This is the type of legalism Jesus condemned in the Pharisees. The kind of legalism that made people think they could say all kinds of horrible and evil things about other people, as long as they didn’t murder them. But Jesus said,
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21–22, ESV)
The kind of legalism that made married men think they could lust over a woman all day long, as long as they didn’t actually have sexual relations with her. But Jesus said,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27–28, ESV)
This is the same type of legalism that people use when they say, “God is fine with me having a beer or two with my buddies, so long as I’m not technically drunk.” Or, “I can mess around with my girlfriend, so long as we don’t actually have intercourse.”
This is not godly thinking! This is not the heart of one who is trying to please God (2 Corinthians 5:9).
It is not legalistic to be obedient or to think God requires faithful obedience. You cannot honestly read the Bible and think God cares nothing about obedience or that obedience has nothing to do with salvation (Romans 1:4; 16:26; Hebrews 5:9).
However, do not think for a moment that your obedience earns you salvation. The only thing you’ve earned is punishment. Salvation is the gracious gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:24). It is a gift we obtain (receive) and maintain through faithfulness to Christ (see John 15:1-11; 1 John 1:7).
I love you and God loves you,