The Anatomy of Legalism

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The word “legalism” does not occur in the Bible. But it comes from the word “legal,” which relates to “law,” and the Bible has lots to say about law. Legalism is a certain attitude toward God’s law. Or, more generally, toward commandments and rules.

Here is legalism: “Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works” (Romans 9:31-32). The essence of legalism is when faith is not the engine of obedience.

Note well: legalism is not simply the pursuit of the law. It is pursuing the law in the wrong way—with some other engine than faith. The law of God should be pursued. The Son of God “condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). We should seek to fulfill the law—by the Spirit. Let’s call this good pursuit the “obedience of faith.”

So legalism is the pursuit of the law with some other engine than faith, on some other steam than the Spirit. What is the engine of legalism? Paul calls it “works” (Romans 9:32) and he calls the fuel of this engine “flesh” (Galatians 3:3). “Works” is the opposite of “faith” and “flesh” is the opposite of “Spirit.” So legalism is not whether you strive to obey the commands of God, but which engine and which fuel you run on.

Thus the power of legalism comes from ourselves (flesh). This is crucial because the aim of legalism is to trade with God value for value. And so the engine of works must have something self-wrought to offer God in the deal. “To the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor but as what is due” (Romans 4:4). Legalism deals in debt payments and magnifies its worth to God.

But the power of the “obedience of faith” does not come from ourselves but from God (the Spirit). The aim of the obedience of faith is to receive everything from God as a free gift of grace. And so the engine of faith must have nothing self-wrought in its dealing with God. “By the grace of God I am what I am … I labored harder than any of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). The obedience of faith deals in beneficiary delights and magnifies the grace of God.

Implications for Prayer and Bible Reading

Discipline is not legalism. Hard work is not legalism. Acting against carnal impulses is not legalism. They may be. But they may also be the torque of the engine of faith running on the fuel of the Spirit to the glory of the grace of God in a self-centered and undisciplined world.

In the strength that God supplies that God may get the glory (1 Peter 4:11),

Pastor John


Rooting Out Legalism

Paul makes at least two  huge statements in the middle of Galatians 3:

All who rely on works of the law are under a curse (v. 10).

False teachers in the Galatian churches–we call them legalists in today’s vernacular–were teaching that it was good to have faith in Jesus, even necessary, but that the completion of a person’s salvation came through their personal adherence to the law. These legalists taught that “works of the law” would bring God’s blessing of salvation, but Paul says that teaching couldn’t be further from the truth. Moral self-sufficiency does not bring God’s blessing, but God’s curse. The legalists misunderstood not only the nature of faith in Christ alone for salvation, but they misunderstood the larger lesson of the law, namely, that without a new heart and the power of God’s Spirit through faith in Christ, all efforts to obey the law are just dirty old worthless legalism, deserving of God’s divine curse.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (v. 13).

The good news for people who have come under the curse of God for the sin of moral self-sufficiency (which is all of us at one time or another) is that Jesus has done for us on the cross what we could not do for ourselves. The only way to escape the curse is not by our work, but by his. There is a way out if we look away from our self-sufficiency and look to Jesus as the only one who can provide hope for the eternal future we have in Jesus, and power in the here and now to grow in obedience as we seek to be led by God’s Spirit for the rest of our lives.

Rooting out legalism

Because legalism was such a destructive force in the Galatians churches, we have to assume it is extremely dangerous to us as well. Therefore, it is helpful for us to examine our own hearts–in the spirit of Psalm 139:23-24 and Corinthians 13:5–for signs of legalism, signs of places where we are trusting in or protecting our moral self-sufficiency for our identity. Below are three questions that might help the examination process. There are certainly other questions, but these are starters. They are accompanied by the reason the question is important and a prayerful, Jesus-focused, response. I hope you find them helpful.

1. Question: When do I get angry and/or defensive with people?

Reason for the Question: Our anger and defensiveness are often signs that our “good” identity must be protected at all costs. This is a sign of self-sufficiency and does not reflect our true need for God’s work to redeem us from our inadequacies.

Prayerful Response: Lord, show me the places where I demand that people see me a particular way. Help me to trust that because of Jesus’ death for me, that I no longer have to protect the image of self-sufficiency.

2. Question: In what areas am I discontent?

Reason for the Question: Discontentment is often a sign that we are not appropriately valuing Christ’s sacrificial work for us and, therefore, are trusting something other than Jesus for our relationship with God.

Prayerful Response: Lord, help me grow in my appreciation for all Christ has done for me. Help me find contentment in your gracious and merciful love for me.

3. Question: Where am I blaming other people for my anger, discontent, and anxiety?

Reason for the Question: The decision to blame others for our emotions is often a sign that we believe that we cannot be seen as guilty because our worth depends on our ability to live up to standards. Therefore, we must shift blame in order to feel acceptable.

Prayerful Response: Lord, show me the places where I am blaming others for my sinful thoughts, words, and emotions. Help me to trust that because my relationship with God is dependent solely on Jesus’ willingness to take the blame for me, I no longer have to avoid confession and repentance of my sin.

Credit: Pastor Joel Lindsey @ Grace Church