Wednesday, August 5, 2015


    Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time I'm sure knows that legalism is a hot topic of mine. I was deceived by this lie for years, so it is a topic I take seriously to heart. It has taken me nearly two years to work through all the false reasoning and deceptions I had believed. It is, in my opinion, one of the absolute gravest errors a Christian or a church can fall into.

    One of the most striking examples of this that I've ever heard is hearing a church break out into applause after a speaker said from the pulpit that being labeled a legalist is a good thing. I remember exchanging looks with my brother like, "Did he just say that?" Yet the majority of the congregation didn't even notice the apparent problem in the midst of their applause.

    So, why is it such a big deal to me? Shouldn't I just be happy to let some people have high standards? Well, yes! If you want high standards, be my guest! Please, by all means do so! Do what God leads you to do. But legalism doesn't rear its ugly head in personal conviction. Legalism becomes the problem when one begins applying those personal convictions to others and using them as spiritual markers to judge brothers and sisters with. Legalism then continues down the path of destruction when it finally begins it's ultimate rise to prominence, ultimately knocking Jesus off His rightful place at the center of our lives and replacing Him with the emptiness of manmade standards and rules, made all the more deceptive and enslaving because of the apparent "goodness" of them.

    But why? Why is this such a big deal to me? Well, partly because it supplants the whole idea of the gospel. Grace and legalism cannot walk together. But partly because Paul thought it worth writing an epistle about in the form of Galatians.

    Galatians 3:1-3, "You foolish Galatians, who has bewtiched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected in the flesh?"

    I'll get into what legalism looks like later, but this is the heart of legalism right here in those verses. The heart of legalism is attempting to perfect your Christianity, your status with God, or your salvation by works of the flesh; and by works of the flesh, I do not mean sinful actions. I mean good, impressive works done apart from faith in Jesus Christ meant to promote one's own status or spirituality.

    Most people I know in the church know, at least in their heads, that they were saved by Christ. But so many of them cannot get passed the concept that they now must earn God's favor by high standards, increased devotion, or a sin-free life. And that is where Satan wins an important victory in our hearts.

    Many of the pitfalls in our Christian walk result in extremes. For example, one commonly guarded against temptation in many conservative Christian circles is license, or abused grace. Oh, but the church will go up in arms against that, and rightfully so! But so often, in our spirited defense of a true appreciation of God's grace, we veer too far away from that side of the road and instead slip off the ditch into the other side, slipping into legalism. Rather than sinning by abusing God's grace, we sin by attempting to earn God's favor apart from grace.

    Now some of you guys are thinking what I once had one guy tell me. "Okay, so, I agree that legalism is bad. But honestly, why is it that big a deal? I mean, Christians are actually being more moral because of these high standards. So why should we attack these Christian high standards, even if they are for wrong reasons, so long as they accomplish the right ends of good, moral behavior in the church?"

     If you've had the foresight to reach that question, congrats to you. You're thinking well. And from a human reasoning viewpoint, you actually have a very good point. But from a Biblical viewpoint, that question is answered rapidly by a very cursory walk through Scripture. Over and over and over again, Jesus pounded the religious leaders of His day for their outward morality without the presence of the Spirit and grace in their hearts.

    In Matthew 23, Jesus announces a very long set of woes upon the Pharisees. I want to spend just a moment looking at what He says in regard to these morally upstanding, yet faithless leaders of His day. I don't have time to go through the whole chapter (and other men have done much better than I could hope to. Here's a link to a very good article on Matt. 23: Why Jesus Hates Legalism ), but I do want to pick out just a couple of verses that make a very strong point.

    First of all, Jesus makes a striking point at what legalism leads to in v. 4-7. These laws, these great moral burdens that the Pharisees so liberally applied to the masses, did not gain them one bit of heavenly favor, but instead, simply swelled their spiritual pride. In trying to improve their status with God through moral acts, they instead turned to trying to improve their outward moral standing with other people through apparently selfless acts and deep laws; which while they hypocritically applied to others, they themselves were not even able to keep them. 

    V. 23-24, however, point out one of the most sure signs of legalism, making molehills of mountains and mountains of molehills. Yes, indeed, here we see the Pharisees doing scrupulous measurement in order to keep the law's every jot and tittle, and in doing so apart from faith in Jesus, break the whole law. Jesus uses the analogy of the Pharisee's practice of straining their wine with a fine cloth in order to keep from swallow a gnat (the smallest unclean animal), and tells them in their attempt to keep the fine points of the law, they have swallowed a camel (the largest of the animals the Israelites could not eat). In their attempt to keep the smaller, finer points of the law, they had majored far too long on the dotting of "i's" and the crossing of "t's" and had broken the law by their lack of mercy toward their brothers and brokenness before God.

    A sure-fire sign of legalism in the church is when extra-Biblical rules and ordinance begin to become more major issues than Bible principles such as love for each other and the world, evangelism, maintaining a good witness, always being able to give an account, etc. When the extra-Biblical topics, such as courtship, music style, detailed modesty standards, steal the spotlight, they crowd out the topics Jesus laid His focus on, such as love, grace, a relationship with Christ Himself.

    And as shown by the Pharisees, this legalism than blossoms further into outright sin through spiritual pride (basing my worth in God's eyes and standing in the church on my high standards in comparison to other believers) and self-reliant faith rather than in brokenness and repentance before God.

    Legalism is no small issue; it is not a question to be dealt with later when more important problems are dealt with. It is one of the most deadly diseases facing our church today, because with all the subtlety of the devil, it appears not as a sin, but as extra righteousness! Who would suspect the entanglement of greater rules and higher standards!

    Remember, the devil's goal is not just to make you fall into great sin. His goal is to take your eyes off Jesus. He is not limited in doing this to great vices or addictions, such as adultery or alcohol. No, he uses whatever means he may need to draw you away from Jesus, whether it be great, obvious sins or subtle, slight feelings of superiority over a brother. He can use distraction in the form of perfecting our moral code just as easily as he can with lust for a pretty woman; both are simply tools in his toolbox to take our eyes away from Jesus.

    In Luke 15, Jesus gives us the parable of the prodigal son. I've written before on here about this story (here), but in this post, I want to simply hone in on what I covered in part 3 of my series on that parable. The obvious "bad guy" of the story is the prodigal, who leaves home, squanders his father's money, then comes home a beggar in need of mercy.

    In my opinion, the prodigal is actually the "good" guy of the story, the picture of us, not in the way of proving that we are at heart really good guys, but proving that each one of us is that empty, broken prodigal who, though undeserving of the Father's mercy, gained it before we had even asked. The less obvious, yet harder "bad" guy of the story is instead the outwardly moral older brother, who apparently dutifully, yet without any pleasure at all, kept the Father's commandments, stayed home, appeared responsible, and even goes so far as to say that he had not broken a single one of his father's commandments.

     Yet, in his harsh judgment of his younger brother and bitterness at his father, you can easily see the tally-keeping in head of the older brother. He was keeping track. He had done the better things, kept all the rules, and that meant, in his mind, that he was more deserving than his younger brother of the Father's blessing. But we see the opposite is true. the blessings of God are poured out on the openly broken, not on the religious superiors and morally elite.

    So, this has been a long post. Thank you for staying with me this long, but I'm not quite done. Because while I may have diagnosed the problem and how it appears in the church, I did not offer a solution. And, with as simple a solution as there is, it would be a shame to pass up on the opportunity to present it.

    The opposite of legalism is faith in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. So, quite literally, the opposite of legalism is Jesus. It's very simple. The method for counteracting legalism in our walk with Christ is to instead lose ourselves in appreciation for Jesus instead of self-appreciation. The best method to keep from spiritual pride from this legalism is to instead pour out our broken hearts before a loving Father, and openly admit our inability to please God on our own and in our flesh.

    The answer to a self-centered religion focused on morals and high standards is a Christ-centered relationship focused on His grace and mercy, which overflow into our actions. That is the only way to have Christ-honoring morals and actions. High standards instituted and kept in the flesh are hateful to God, because rather than building our dependence on Him, they exercise an independence and spiritually proud nature that is contrary to His purpose for us.

    In the face of lies and deceit by Satan, the only way to counter his traps is to cling all the tighter to our Savior, not our morals. The secret to resisting the temptations and moral entrapments of this life lie not in high standards but in Jesus Christ.



  1. Great article. I especially like your point about Satan simply taking our eyes of Jesus. Because it isn't simply making us look away for a moment. When Jesus is not at the center, everything changes - my attitude toward others and myself, a lack of humility, judging others, etc.

    1. Hey, thanks for reading and commenting, Aimee! Discussions with you helped shape my thoughts on this subject, so it's fun to see you reading the fruition of all those discussions! :)

    2. I agree! One of Satan's greatest tactics are to turn our eyes away from Jesus! To get us to think our works in our flesh is considered right and good Christian works. One of the verses I like to use to remember to keep my focus on Him, is psalm 27:8
      "When thou saidst, seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek."

    3. That's a good verse to remember for that! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Yes, yes, yes, yes! I loved how you put that, by the way, "Legalism becomes the problem when one begins applying those personal convictions to others and using them as spiritual markers..." Definitely!

    1. Thanks for reading, Lauren! You're someone else I've had quite a few discussions on this subject with!

  3. Beautifully written, and SO VERY TRUE!! Great insights Taylor!!! Keep writing to honor God, and continue to grow spiritually!!! You're an encouraging brother in Christ!!

    1. Hey, Gabrielle! Thanks for reading! I'm glad to see you've paid a visit over here!