Legalism is where a person believes – knowingly or unknowingly – that they need to adhere to some sort of rules, codes of conduct, or other behaviour-based method in order to make themselves acceptable to God. But the real message of the Gospel is that it’s all Grace: the full, free, undeserved favour of God on us which means that Jesus has already done everything for us on the Cross, everything we need for our salvation, for living the Kingdom life, and “… for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2Pet 1:3)
I saw this comment in a discussion on the blog jesuswithoutbaggage.com recently, and wanted to share it. If you are in this position, please be assured that your freedom is close at hand and is yours for the taking – just surrender your dependence on yourself, however much you may have disguised it as religious devotion!
“In general, I’ve found that people who are very legalistic try very hard to recruit others to their ranks. My opinion is that the more insecure one is in what one believes, the more that person will need the validation of others, which is often gained by getting others to join them and by refusing to even hear any other views. I suspect they’re also jealous of those who’ve found freedom by not having to beat themselves over the head daily with guilt and shame and “laws”. Jesus made it clear he didn’t / doesn’t appreciate spiritual enforcers, those who think they’ve got such a grip on righteousness that they are hammers, and everyone who doesn’t agree with them exactly is a nail that needs to be hammered.”
Jesus said of these people in Matthew 23:15, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are!” Legalism is such a miserable place to be in, but weirdly it’s also self-propagating in that the legalist wants to drag more unfortunate victims in! Misery loves company! Ugh!
And I do know what it’s like. I was once a Legalist. And, running parallel with my love for God and my knowledge that I am His child, was an underlying feeling that actually God could easily become displeased with me. The Cross was, quite rightly, my only hope in that I relied on Jesus’s finished work there to make me ‘worthy’ – but somehow I felt that if I put a foot wrong, then God would be mightily dischuffed with me despite the Cross. Although my salvation would not be at risk – I have always believed in ‘once saved, always saved‘ – I would not be able to minister in power nor to move in the consciousness of His presence. But in His Grace, God led me out of that mindset with a real revelation of, not only just how much He loves me, but also a revelation of the joy that is in His presence when we just let go and let Him do it all. It all becomes so effortless.
I escaped from Legalism over a fifteen-year period of being outside Church, questioning what I believed in and why. I saw a quote on a blog about a year ago which said this:
“It’s hard to overexpress how much unanticipated joy I felt in being
released from the prescribed mindset that Christianity gave me; in many
ways, it gave me the opportunity see the world and respect others in
ways I had not realized the Bible had closed me off from before”.
And that is more or less exactly what happened to me. I too felt that joy, not so much about what the Bible said, but about what others told me I should believe the Bible actually means when it says, well, whatever. I was free to believe in my own way without others telling me what to believe. It’s so liberating to be what I call a ‘free Christian’ – free from others’ dogma and interpretations. While I choose to consider myself answerable to people I am close to (both in and out of Church), I am not answerable to anyone else except God.
Interestingly, about a year ago I was once again subjected to an (uninvited) barrage of accusations/doctrinal correction/call it what you will, from a ‘non-free Christian’, and it made me realise, while in the process of categorically rejecting that person’s diatribe, just how far I have come in my freedom. I never want to go back to that life. My ‘detoxification’, as it were, has released me into entirely new freedoms to love people of different views without judging them or trying to change them. And that, to me, is real freedom!
I’ve also noticed that when you start to enthuse about your freedom while talking with a Legalist – whether they know they are one or not! – the first thing they will do is to try to explain to you why you should not be free. It’s usually couched in Bible verses, and [possibly] from a good heart, but still that’s what they are doing. “He gave His word for freedom; you use it to enslave“. And they will claim that they are under Grace but their lives will not show this. I sometimes wonder if this is simple insecurity; they feel threatened to see someone operating out of freedom instead of Law. And I get that.
But, Legalist, you too can be free, if you just let Jesus take over. There is no place for both Law and Grace in a believer; the Law has fulfilled its purpose in that it has brought you to the point – probably some years ago – where you realised the futility of trying to impress God in your own strength. So just let go. Don’t strive; just relax in Him and all that He has already done! It was for you that Jesus said in Matthew 11:28 (Message), “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (MSG translation) There is complete security, and indeed Divine permission, in your freedom; you do not have to be afraid of it!
For those looking for Biblical support for the exercise of their freedom, well, the Bible is full of it. Begin by reading the entire book of Galatians, in the light of freedom rather than that of legalism. It’s set out there more plainly than in any other book of the Bible. And in Jesus’s declaration in Luke 4:18, He said He was here to ‘proclaim release for the captives’. Freedom is what the Kingdom is all about; it is your birthright as a child of God – which means you are entitled to it – and you are missing out on the whole point of the Gospel if you don’t grab your freedom with both hands! Liberty is huge, it’s free, it’s amazing, and it’s yours for the taking if you’ll just let go and trust God. What are you afraid of? God will uphold you no matter what. I know it’s hard to let go. It’s like you’re clinging to the side of the swimming pool; the water is deep and there’s people out there where they can’t touch the bottom, enjoying themselves. And you want to tell them it’s not safe – you want to exhort them to come back to the side and hang on where they’ll know what they’re holding on to. Isn’t it dangerous out there in the deep water? No, it’s not. Because Jesus is the Lifeguard on duty, and He will not let any harm befall any of His own.
So relax, let go, and let God!
I heartily recommend that you get the whole picture by following the links in red in this article. In those links, I explain more about the background for my thinking on these points. You may well find in those links the keys to your freedom.
2 thoughts on “The Misery of Legalism”
Hi Tony. Nice post!
Thanks for the mention; do you happen to know the location of the comment on JWOB that you reference?
Yep, it’s on the ‘About this Blog’ page, posted by ‘Jack B’, and was dated 16th February of this year.