Legalism is lethal, but it’s also easily misunderstood. Many fall into the trap of believing that all structure or rules are legalism.
What is legalism?
Legalism can be defined as taking good things and adding them to the finished work of Jesus Christ and saying that these are additional requirements that must be met for God to fully accept and love you.
For example, the 10 Commandments are not bad – they are good things. It’s good not to steal, or murder, or sleep with your neighbor’s wife/husband. However, it becomes legalistic when we say that if you break any of these commandments, God will not love you as much. This makes God’s love about my performance instead of His character – which simply is not the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul often dealt with the idea of adding rituals to the finished work of Christ. Many Jewish followers of Jesus believed that for a Gentile to truly be made right with God, they had to take on the Jewish sign of God’s covenant with Abraham—circumcision. This is the primary issue Paul addresses in his letter to the Galatian churches. He states that adding this requirement to the gospel nullifies the cross. The same is true for anything else we try to add to the finished work of the cross.
How does this affect us today?
In our culture, legalism is much more subtle but just as devastating. Preaching is too often tainted with the implication that there are things we must do – other than believe in the finished work of Jesus – to be fully accepted and loved by God. This is legalism.
If we add just one drop of legalism to the gospel of God’s grace, then according to Paul, it is no longer the gospel at all. We go from finding our sense of worth, identity, and security in the finished work of Jesus, to attempting to “live right” to be accepted by God. The obvious problem with this way of thinking is that it allows the Enemy to continually whisper doubt into our ears – “Have you done enough? Are you sure?”
Do you see the devastating affect?
Instead of living in the true freedom of all Christ has achieved on our behalf (out of His unconditional love for us), we make it about our ability – which is really our complete inability. Legalism dooms us to a life of always trying to be something we can never be – perfect.
Here’s a link to another blog that illustrates the difference in reading the Bible through a legalistic lens versus a gospel lens. It’s so well written, rather than rewrite her thoughts I’m just going to send you to her blog – Click here for Gospel Thinking.
How can we keep from using the wrong (legalistic) lens and instead use the proper (gospel) lens when we read the Bible?
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