Legalism is a Tool of the Enemy that Robs us of Grace
Legalism is the idea that we can do something in our own effort without the need of God. It is a very dangerous trap to fall into. It moves you away from the grace of God and His redemptive work into the lie that you can secure salvation by your own effort. It is the lie Satan told the first humans in the Garden of Eden. He continues to tell the lie. This is religion at its worst because it has an appearance of godliness but denies God’s power, the only source of true righteousness (2 Tim. 3:5).
He described the Galatian church as foolish and bewitched because they were drifting from grace through faith thinking that their works could gain the favor of God. Paul ends this reprimand saying “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being perfected in the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1–3). “Do you think you can secure eternal life by your own human effort” he was saying. This is a great deception and it is more prevalent than we think.
Legalism isn’t limited to the religious realm. We see it everywhere that people take things into their own hands and leave God out of the equation. We see it in political situations where a government denies free speech because they want to elevate their power while denying others. They think that human effort in the form of government is the answer. China is the best example of this travesty. China has developed a “social credit system” that uses various recognition technologies to keep track of everything people do. This system automatically tracks the words and actions of every Chinese citizen and gives them a social credit score based on their behavior in society. Those with high credit scores are given special privileges and those with low scores find life in China very difficult. This may affect their ability to hold a job, buy train or plane tickets, gain entrance to certain restaurants, colleges and many other places of need. It is legalism on fentanyl.
Imagine you are in a large church where your every action is somehow recorded and you are punished or rewarded based on the opinion of those in power. That’s the way it is in China and that’s what legalism does when it becomes the primary way of life among a people. In China’s case this has led to total state control of all information sources. Chinese citizens can never get to the truth about anything that contradicts the narrative of the Communist Party. Legalism is about power. Those who lay down the laws, whether they are church leaders or dictators in an authoritarian system gain the power over people that they crave.
I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and experienced this on a religious level. Members were expected to do a certain amount of service to earn their salvation. This included going from door to door, placing literature with people, conducting studies etc. Then we were required to fill out a form about all the things we had done during the week and put it into a box in the back of the kingdom hall. I remember the day when one of the leaders came to me and reprimanded me for not doing my required amount of “service.” This struck me as legalism even then and prompted my eventual departure from the organization and my entrance into the grace of God.
Legalism is living by rules of conduct whereby grace is living in God’s forgiving presence free from sin and the desire to please God through various religious performances. Paul put it this way: “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness is through works of law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:21). Christ did not die to give us rules, ritual and religion but to give us His life by which we are forgiven and redeemed if we will receive it (Rom. 5:10). Truly we are “. . . justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
The writer of Hebrews calls these legalistic tendencies “strange doctrines” and follows up saying “For it is good for the heart to be confirmed by grace and not by foods, which have brought no spiritual benefit to those who have been preoccupied with them” (Heb. 13:9).
Paul was adamant about avoiding legalism in our church fellowship. This is why he dealt several times with how to deal with a fellow believer who has adopted legal standards. Romans 14 is a great example. He begins the chapter saying “Receive the one who is weak in the faith, but not for divisive arguments. Now on the one hand, one believes he may eat all things that are lawful; but on the other hand, another one, who is weak, eats only vegetables” (Rom. 14:1, 2). The one who is weak is a person who has certain qualms about things like what to eat or drink, like meat, vegetables or wine. If a person is tending toward legalism Paul considered them to be weak in that area.
There will always be that tendency of some people to think God has this list of do’s and don’ts that we are able to obey in order to be saved. Sometimes we wrongly think it is a matter of what we don’t do that makes the difference. When I first became a Christian I knew some people who thought it was out of God’s will to go to a theater for a movie or to play pool at a local pool hall. Somehow that denomination had concluded that those things present an “appearance of evil,” a wrong translation of 1 Thess. 5:22. Something appearing to be evil is different from something that is a “form” of evil. But legalists will always be on the lookout for a way to enforce their standards on others.
The first few chapters of Romans make one thing very clear — that every single person except for Christ has failed miserably to meet God’s perfect standard. Most human religions somehow think they have it figured out how to please God through effort but the truth is we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We could work our whole life thinking that our effort would please God but in the end the wages we earn will be death all the while that God offers us eternal life as a free gift in Christ (Rom. 6:23).
Everyone knows this though most will not admit it. Somehow many are deluded into thinking there is no God or that His standards can be dredged up from our human judgment. God makes it clear that “. . . that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom. 1:19). Jesus sent the Holy Spirit “to convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). All issues that belong to sin, righteousness or judgment are made clear to every soul by the Holy Spirit.
Paul holds no punches on this issue: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom 1:18, 19). God has made Himself known to every person. We are the ones who suppress the truth and turn to ungodliness and unrighteousness.
This is why legalism does not work. It merely gives us a false sense of security deceiving us into thinking that our “good works” are enough to please God. He is pleased with His Son and with those who receive Him into their lives as His free gift. That freedom releases us to live by the inner source of His life which He gives to us in Christ (Gal. 2:20).