Legalism is attempting to earn salvation, God’s blessings or His favor by trying to obey God’s laws. I would encourage you not to focus on the terms “legalism” or “legalistic” because they can easily be perceived as an attempt “to label”. I have been legalistic before as a Christian and would never have wanted someone to use that term on me! As you read this article, seek to understand the concept or the idea of legalism as given to us in the scripture, rather than focus on its definition or the terms themselves.
What is legalism?
The term “legalism” in itself is not in the scriptures, but the idea is screaming so loud throughout the scriptures that you can hardly pretend not to see it. It is a term that will be better understood by our culture today. The concept or the idea, however, is as old as the New Testament scriptures themselves.
The heart and soul of legalism, as it applies to the believer in Christ today, is trying to earn God’s gifts by focusing on doing His commandment or law. The key words are “earn”, “doing” and the “law”
This is receiving what you deserve. The legalistic mindset makes us feel better about ourselves after we have done something that we think deserves a reward from God. It gives us “a stand”, and can make us even begin to lift up ourselves above others. See Mr. Pharisee below:
“Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ (Lk. 18:10-12 NLT)
The legalistic spirit makes us focus on trying to do things for God. Doing things for God, and obeying His laws are excellent virtues we must all strive for. Legalism however, makes us do these things to earn our way with God. It is not the doing, but the motive of the doing that is problematic. There was a reason the Pharisee in the Luke 18 above was fasting and paying tithes. It was not out of love and obedience to God, but to secure his place and earn higher ratings in the divine courtroom.
This is the origin of the word “legalism” in the first place. The Apostle Paul extensively discussed this issue in the epistles, and you will find the word “law” repeatedly occurring. For simplicity, the Law is really the commandments God gave to Israel( both the 10 commandments and the ceremonial laws). It is amazing to note that the laws of God are the bread and butter of legalism. The religious spirit uses the commandments of God to blind our eyes to our true relationship with God. Legalism focuses on the commandments- the very things God has commanded.
Be warned, however, that the Law to us today is not limited to the laws given to Israel. The law can be the same things we do in Christianity every day, such as bible study, praying, giving and tithing, etc. You may be surprised at how many believers may be fully captured in the legalistic spirit with giving, tithing and even Bible studies. I met with a beloved sister in the faith who was an flourishing soul winner, the kind every pastor will want to have in the church. It was not long into a discussion with her that she confided to me her misery in feeling inadequate and unworthy, and her repeated attempts to do many things for God-including evangelism. She had got to that point all legalist eventually get to-breakdown, frustration, burn out, disappointments and even “holding a grudge” against God. We should not underestimate the extent of legalism amongst us.
Legalism in the House
The epistles of Paul are replete with admonishing’s against the religious spirit-the Law in Church. I will encourage you to read the entire book of Galatians, possibly in one sitting, if you haven’t done so( It might take you about 25-30minutes). Or listen to the audio to begin with.
God was not addressing the unsaved in these epistles. Those who are not yet saved also have this problem of legalism, thinking they have to be good enough to be saved. This is a separate but related concern but not our focus in this article. The emphasis of the exhortation to beware of legalism is to the believer. Legalism can take a hold of an individual believer or an entire local church creating an entire culture in that assembly of believers. Many might also think the bulk of legalism occurs at salvation, when have to become saved by grace and not by works. However, the challenge of the religious spirit increases the more you become established in the faith. The more years you have spent in Church, the higher your risk of getting ensnared by legalism.
Legalism manifest itself in different spheres amongst us from salvation to or daily walk with Christ.
A rich man once came to Jesus and asked an interesting questions-
Someone came to Jesus with this question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16 )
There are some believers today who are uncertain of their salvation because they feel they basically did nothing other than accept Christ. The Galatian Christians were a prototype of this.
Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. (Gal. 5:2 )
These Galatian Christians had been saved by faith in Christ, but were seeking to do something else the law commanded to be right with God.
Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit
The gift of the Holy Spirit is the next sphere that legalism seeks to take a hold of our lives. Too many times, we seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit by legalism and not by grace. Believers often fall into the trap of looking at “why” God should or should not give them this Gift. I happened to me. It happened to the Galatians Christians also.
I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ. (Gal. 3:5 )
Walking by the Spirit
Our day-to-day lives, as believers, require that we depend completely on the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Babe Christians can become frightened by the apparent demands of the Christian life from the outset, because it may appear cumbersome, boring and even impossible when we try to DO IT ourselves. There might be some believers who would hardly ever share the gospel. Why? They do not feel THEY HAVE what it takes. Their eyes are still on themselves, what they can do and not do. Some would not dare to pray for the sick, because they look back at their own struggles and their personal failures are right in their faces.
Then he said to me, “This is what the LORD says to Zerubbabel: It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. (Zech. 4:6 )
Receiving God’s blessings
This is a fertile oil for legalism in the church today, as many believers are trying hard TO DO things to obtain the blessings of God in Christ. The scriptures abound with the Word telling us that Christ is the reason we are accepted and blessed, from natural blessings like healing to spiritual blessings like the gift of the Holy Spirit.
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. (Eph. 1:3 )
Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, so that we who are believers might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:14 )
A notorious offender amongst us is giving, seed sowing and tithing. The difficulty with the legalism in these things is that giving and tithing are not wrong in themselves. It is the mindset, and the action to give so that GOD WILL BLESS you that is the danger. The believer that gives is releasing the blessing to operate and NOT trying to get blessed. Sounds like a little issue to you, right? You may think so until you listen to what God says about trying to obtain by your own works what He has given to you through Christ.
Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. (Gal. 3:1-2 )
This same pattern can potentially slip into our mindset regarding God’s healing of our bodies.
Legalism- an enemy within
Legalism is the archenemy of grace and God’s plan for salvation and the Christian life. If it were possible to extinguish the Church on earth, or the Christian life, the most powerful “potential enemy” to do this is not what many of us might think. It is the believer-yes, the believer, like you and me. Why? We are the only beings alive on earth that have the potential to quench God’s power and stop what He plans to do. Legalism is a lethal spiritual counter-weapon that many believers are carrying around without realizing it.
Many believers think the increasing manifestation of sin in church and the world today is one of the major threats to the survival of the church. They are greatly mistaken. Sin only rules when believers block grace from taking effect. Evil men triumph when good men do nothing. Sin, death and Satan have been made useless by the overwhelming victory of Christ’s death and resurrection. These foes only reign when, for whatever reason, the victorious power of grace is truncated in our lives, whether by our ignorance, unbelief or not submitting to the Lordship of Christ and His Spirit.
Neither is persecution able to extinguish the fire of the Church-history has proven this is an established fact. If God were to have “challenges”, the greatest challenge today will be having His way into our lives. If only He could have His way, we will reign in life as kings in every respect as His power subjects the our enemies under our feet. But He often does not. Why? Because we are mostly in charge, not Him-this is where legalism comes in. A sister weapon of “mass destruction” to legalism is carnality, which is living according to the flesh, the senses. Legalism and carnality are two deadly forces opposing God’s plan for our lives and His Church. The have the power to make grace appear “graceless”, making the Word of God of no effect.
The lethality of legalism
Legalism will truncate the power of grace in our lives. As mentioned above, we are the only beings on earth that have the ability to “stop God” in what He wants to do in our lives. The darkness of sin in the world is nothing compared to the glory of grace in us. God is not concerned about the sin of the world. He wants us to take a hold of the power of His grace and see for ourselves that the light indeed shines in darkness and the darkness cannot master it.
Legalism and its twin carnality are spiritual forces that can quench the power of grace on the earth, in our lives and the Church, if we let them. Thank God this will never happen. God always has His people and His plans and purposes will be fulfilled. Mordecai told Esther
If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14)
There are a few traits of legalism in the Church that pave a highway for its success amongst us.
An undercover foe
Many believers may be completely unaware of legalism in their lives or their local churches. It is the mindset and the attitude, and not the terms “legalism” or “religious spirit” or “legalistic” that matter. Legalism thrives on our ignorance-many do not know that they are entangled by this foe. They might think they are serving God and living the Christian live whereas in reality, they are busy attempting to build “ religious credit points” with God.
If legalism came as another religion as Islam or Buddhism, many Christians will be quick to oppose and reject it. We will be taken off guard by this foe if we are blinded to its reality. Legalism does not come as “another religion”, but as “Christianity”. It is hidden in the very things that form our daily Christian lives such as giving as mentioned above. In fact, holy living can turn out to be the most legalistic thing we can ever do!
Legalism comes in the disguise of the very commandments that we live by.
Closely related to the disguise of legalism is its subtlety. It could be hard to identity, because it comes closely related to what is right. It can comes as “Christianity”, as we know it. It will be God’s laws, not satanic commandments. It might be the commandment to pray without ceasing, which is being done out of a purely religious mindset. To an outside observer, you might see a very committed believer who is devoted to prayer. God, however, might be seeing a beloved son or daughter entangled with the chains of the law and legalism trying to become what He has already made them to be or obtain what He has already given to them in Christ. Humans we can only see thus far.
The way out of legalism is the Word of God. We will be delivered as the Word lights up our path, brings the revelation of the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection and stirs up faith in us to believe what He actually did. Know God, and learn to believe what He says in His Word, and not your experiences.
Many of us have been struggling with legalism- some are still seeking to understand what it is while others have found grace and freedom. What is your story? Share on below!
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