Legalism refers to people trying to connect with God on the basis of following religious “laws” or rules. It was a common belief in Bible times and continues to be a common belief today.
Legalism and Salvation
For some, legalism means that they believe a person can only find salvation if they follow certain laws or rules. These rules might be about certain religious ceremonies, what church you join, what you eat or drink, or even what you wear. This type of legalism teaches that unless you follow certain rules, whatever they might be for that group of people, then you can not be forgiven of your sin and go to Heaven.
Legalism and Blessing
For others, legalism is not so much about salvation, but about how pleased God is or is not with you and how much He may or may not bless your life. This type of legalism believes that there are certain rules that a good Christian will follow, usually related to outward acts of obedience, and if you don’t, then God is displeased with you and may not bless your life. People who adhere to this type of legalism usually look down on others who do not follow the same rules or hold the same convictions that they do. An example of this is with the consumption of alcohol. Some people believe that it is absolutely wrong for a Christian to drink any alcohol at all. They believe that this dishonors God and that people who do drink alcohol are sinning in the eyes of God. While the Bible never forbids drinking alcohol, only drunkenness, legalism can lead people to look down on those who do drink, even in moderation.
Legalism and Grace
The problem with legalism is that it denies the grace of God. For those that believe that following rules will save them, they completely ignore the Bible’s teaching that salvation is a gift we receive, not a wage we earn. The word grace means “gift” and the Bible is clear that our salvation comes as a gift from God when we believe – not when we start following certain religious laws. For those who believe salvation is by grace, but still believe we need to follow certain rules to stay on God’s good side, they misunderstand grace as well. Certainly there are commandments to which we are called to obey as Christians. But we obey out of gratitude for the grace of God, not out of obligation or fear. Also, we need to make sure that any commandment we call others to follow is clearly taught in the Bible. There are many issues that are black and white in the Bible, but there are many that are gray as well. Usually legalism creeps in when we take a gray issue and try to make it black and white, or when we take a personal conviction and try to make it universal.
Legalism and Pride
Legalism is an ongoing problem because it appeals to our prideful desires to be in control. We want to be able to be in control of our own salvation and our connection with God. If we believe that we can check off boxes on a list, then we can pat ourselves on the back for our ability to follow the rules and please God. It is humbling and goes against our human nature to recognize that we can’t control our salvation and that we are completely dependent on the mercy and grace of God.
Legalism and the Gospel
The best way to combat legalism is to understand the true biblical gospel. The gospel states that humans are sinners and unable to do anything on their own to earn their salvation. The only way we can be forgiven is to trust in what Jesus did for us through His life, death and resurrection. When we trust in Jesus, we receive forgiveness as a gift from God. As we continue to live as Christians, we don’t turn to following rules to please God, we live lives of obedience because we love the one who has blessed us with His grace.
- Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
- What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
- Have you ever struggled with legalism? Explain. How did you get delivered from it?
- In your own words, explain how legalism stands against grace.
- In your own words, explain how legalism is rooted in pride.
- Some people misunderstand the issue of legalism and swing to liberalism – disregarding God’s way with an “anything goes” attitude. Where have you seen this?
- Write a personal action step based on this conversation.