(Originally published in 2010 as a guest post on “The Cult Next Door.“)
Legalism. It’s one of those nasty words that everybody points to as an example of religion gone wrong. Everybody knows that you shouldn’t be a legalist. Everybody knows that legalism is unbiblical. Everybody would be affronted if you called them a legalist.
Unfortunately, “everybody” by definition includes all the legalists. All the most legalistic people I’ve ever known assure me that they’re not legalists, and that legalism is wrong, and that they know they’re not saved by works, and that you must misunderstand them if you think they’re legalists.
So who are the legalists, then? The bogeymen? Anyone whose view of religion is more than 5% stricter than the person talking? Those are lousy definitions. We need something better. If legalism is so bad, and most of the people who practice it are not even aware of it, how can we avoid it? How can we diagnose ourselves to see whether we’re legalists? How can we be free if we are?
I’ve got an idea. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Roman Road. It’s a list of verses, popular in Bible-believing™ circles, that succinctly describes the Gospel message as found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. If you can get past the kitschy name and the fact that it’s a bunch of verses taken out of context, and if you are willing to read the whole epistle to find Paul’s more in-depth explorations of the themes, it’s actually a pretty handy summary. It saves you having to read the whole epistle aloud, for one thing.
What the epistle to the Romans is to salvation by grace, the epistle to the Galatians is to freedom from legalism. I still remember the first time I read it and got the full impact of what Paul was saying. Galatians taught me three things: Legalism is not what God wants, I can be totally free from legalism, and oh yeah, up until now I was a legalist myself and didn’t even know it. This changed everything.
Writing about everything I saw that day and afterward in Galatians—the devastating logic, the exposition of Scripture, the grace and the peace, even a bad pun or two—would fill a book. But perhaps I can show you some of the paving stones along the Galatian Road. I hear Gaul is lovely this time of year.
Before we start, I should probably clarify terms. My attempt at defining “legalism,” based on what I used to think and what Galatians describes, is a simple formula: “To follow God, you have to do X, because that’s in God’s Law. Otherwise, you won’t be righteous.”
It doesn’t make much difference what X is. It could be something healthy like abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, or meat. It could be something bizarre like self-flagellation, snake-handling, or picketing funerals. It could even be something pious like prayer, fasting, and daily quiet times with the Bible. Whatever value X takes—and it’s been given hundreds throughout religious history—it centers your relationship with God on a law that you need to keep. (Hence the name legalism, obviously enough.) It’s not just for salvation but for the rest of your spiritual life.
For some teachers in the first-century church, “X” in the legalism formula was circumcision. A certain group of Jewish self-styled prophets taught that if you wanted to follow Jesus, you had to receive the sign of the Hebrew covenant—to wit, snippity-doo-dah—since it was in the Law.
It is in the Law of Moses, sure enough. But when Paul—himself a converted Jewish rabbi—heard that the teachers were teaching that to the church he’d planted in Galatia, he was verklempt and, to kvetch, he wrote the letter we have today.
Here are ten of my favorite lines. In order, they show the symptoms of legalism, its death, and the way out of it.
1. For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).
Legalism goes hand in hand with Spiritual Abuse. So does authoritarianism. Spiritually abusive leaders try to get you to earn their favor. If you do the things they like, you win their approval. If you don’t, they manipulate or punish you until you do. (This is often because they believe God is the same way. He isn’t.)
But, as Jesus said, no one can serve two masters. Either you follow Christ, or you follow something else. If your primary concern in life is to make religious leaders happy, then your primary concern in life isn’t to make Jesus happy. Only one can come first. Man’s approval or God’s, but not both.
Paul couldn’t care less what the authoritarian religious leaders thought about him. To him, serving Christ meant one thing—preaching the message of salvation by God’s grace. Not a god who makes you earn His approval; a God who offers a way to be saved and to live apart from our works.
That message has never been particularly popular with religious leaders. But maybe their favor shouldn’t concern you. Maybe there’s a better way to find freedom and approval. Maybe somebody wants to love you unconditionally.
2. …By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (Galatians 2:16b)
As the saying goes, rules were made to be broken. The Law is fantastic for showing that we can’t keep the Law. Paul described this experience vividly in Romans 7—“I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’” Put a name to it, and you see you’re doing it. See a “Keep off the grass” sign, and you want to walk on the lawn.
Then what? Does the Law make us able to live better? Does our willpower make us able to keep the Law? Does the Law make us able to love, to forgive, to know God? Does the Law help us do justly, love mercy, walk humbly? In a word, can the Law justify us?
Nope. The Law is just a list of rules. Even a list of rules from God can’t do any more than show you whether you’ve kept them. And you haven’t. For us to live the way God wants, we need something else—Someone else.
3. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)
This paradoxical—even mystical—statement expresses the mystery not just of salvation, but of life in Christ.
Jesus, the Son of God, loves me. He gave up His life for me. He was crucified for my sins.
I live by faith in Christ. That means that I completely identify with Him.
That means I gave up my life.
That means I don’t have to worry about living a holy life anymore. I’m not the one who’s doing the living.
Think on that one for a bit.
4. 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 by the flesh? (Galatians 3:2–3)
Even the strictest of legalists, at least ones familiar with Evangelical faith lingo, are quite clear on this point: Of course we’re not “saved by works”! We’re saved by faith! Paul knows this better than anyone, and here he treats it as a rhetorical question. Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the Law? Obviously not; the Holy Spirit is a gift of God to those who ask in faith (Luke 11:13, if you want it).
Does this suggest anything else? (Paul’s getting a bit testy by this point in the letter.) There’s a logical inference that legalism can keep you from seeing, but it’s really clear:
You were saved by faith, not by works. It was totally a work of God by the Spirit. It was not a work of your flesh, your strength, or your ability to keep the Law. All you did was give those up and trust in God. (This would be a great time to quote Ephesians 2:8–9.)
Since the beginning of your salvation depended totally on God, and had nothing whatever to do with works, what makes you think any other part of it has anything whatever to do with works?
Since you begin by trusting totally in God the Spirit, how can you think it makes sense to finish by trusting partly in You the Human?
Since you know you’re not saved by works, why do you think you have to live by works?
5. Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Galatians 3:6)
This begins a series of quotes from the Hebrew Bible that’s worth checking out in full. Paul makes a dazzling case that the Law itself says that the Law does not make you righteous. The nomos is antinomian. Legalism is illegal.
This particular quote comes from the Torah—Genesis 15:6—and it shows that, to God, Abraham was considered righteous simply because of faith. God made a promise to Abraham; Abraham believed God. As far as God was concerned, that made Abraham a righteous man. For Abraham, righteousness was a matter of faith, not works.
As Paul points out, Abraham came 430 years before Moses. Moses’ deliverance was part of God’s promise to Abraham, not the other way around. The Law of Moses was added to the mix because Abraham’s descendents didn’t see their need to have faith. If you could get righteousness and life through the Law, there would be no need for God to have promised righteousness and life through faith.
At least, that’s what the Law of Moses says.
6. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (Galatians 3:24–25)
So is the Law useless? Of course not. As mentioned, the Law shows us that we break it. Therefore we’re not good enough to be righteous on our own. Therefore we need Someone else to make us righteous.
The Law takes us to the point where, as C. S. Lewis described it, we “throw up the sponge.” We realize by experience that, however hard and diligently and passionately we try, there’s no way in the world we can do what the Law requires us to do. We can’t do it. We’re not good enough. We may as well give up.
Since we can’t do it by the Law, we have to trust in God’s grace. That doesn’t mean the Law is insufficient; that’s the lesson the Law was meant to teach us in the first place. Once we learn that lesson, we’ve gotten everything the Law has to teach us. Once you get your education, you don’t need a tutor.
The word “justified” (which has come up before) could be described as the inverse of forgiveness. Forgiveness says, “Your sins are taken away.” Justification says “You are righteous.” It’s not just a pardon but a change of nature. Just as with Abraham, God sees that you trust in Him, and He considers you not just forgiven but righteous.
7. Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians4:7)
Living under the Law is like slavery. By offering us salvation through faith, Jesus sets us free.
God doesn’t just take us out of slavery. He adopts us as sons and daughters. We don’t just have a Savior; we have a Father.
That means we are unconditionally and eternally loved. It means we have an inheritance of life. It means God loves us as much as He loves Jesus. Our life is no longer about avoiding sin; our life is about living in the fatherhood of God.
8. It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
Why did Jesus set us free?
Easy: so that we would be free!
Well then, it would be a bit pointless for you to go back and live like a slave. A slave to legalism. A slave to authoritarian leaders. A slave to guilt. A slave to addiction. A slave to fear, to shame, to rules, to self-righteousness, to judgmentalism, to self-pity, to pride, to self-loathing, to body image, to self-abasement, to asceticism, to approval….
So many things want to put you in a yoke.
Legalism is just another slave-driver.
That’s not for you. You’re free.
Stand firm. Be free.
9. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16)
Legalists make a big deal about sin and the flesh. All the rules are in place so we can (theoretically) keep from sinning and succumbing to our sinful tendencies. Legalists often go so far as to teach against grace; they say things like “Some people say you can do anything you want to,” or “If you let them, people will walk all over God’s grace,” or other veiled threats of falling into sin if you abandon the slavery to rules.
Nobody’s saying grace means we should go off and live in sin, though you can find a full refutation in Romans 6 if you like. As we’ve seen, the rules of legalism can’t keep us from sinning anyway. In fact, legalism itself is just as much slavery to the flesh as licentiousness is. Legalism says you can depend on your flesh—your own willpower and effort—to keep from sinning in your flesh. Good luck with that.
This is the irony of grace. The rules against sin can’t keep us from sinning. By abandoning the rules against sin, we learn to trust in the Spirit of God—who can keep us from sinning. Once you stop trying to do it yourself, you can trust in the One who can do it for you. Once you stop trying to do what God wants, you become able to do what God wants.
That’s why it’s called “the fruit of the Spirit,” not “the result of being good.”
10. But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)
Here’s the summary of everything. Legalism—authoritarianism—
Pride is a sin, so legalism is self-defeating.
The Cross is the symbol of humility, self-sacrifice, and love. It is the sign of death to sin, death to selfishness, and death to pride. It is the sign of death to the world, the flesh, and the devil. Jesus died because the Law wasn’t sufficient for us to be saved by or for us to live by. The Cross did what the Law couldn’t: it killed the sin of the world, and it killed the sin of me. We’re not just saved by the Cross; we live by the Cross.
I can’t be glad that I can keep the Law, because I can’t. But I can be glad that Jesus loved me and died for me so that I wouldn’t have to.
What’s the road out of legalism? It’s the One who said, “I am the Way.”