June 9, 2014

The Pitfall of Legalism

For some people, the reason why they can never change is because all they do is scold their heart. ~Tim Keller
Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will. ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer  
Legalism: Focusing on and crediting your own obedience as the main source of your [practical] holiness. -Darrin Patrick
Justification and sanctification are so deeply interwoven that the two are married together. We cannot try to live one without the other. When we separate them apart from their interdependence, we screw ourselves up and we don't grow in the deep abiding relationship that Christ wants from us.

One result of this tearing apart makes it's appearance in the form of legalism. As a girl who has dabbled in legalism herself, allow me to share with you it's value: It has none. It makes people self-righteous jerks, which as far as I can tell in reading the Bible, was not one of the marching orders Jesus gave us before he left Earth. 

The root of legalism is pride, and we know that God says that pride is a human's downfall. It's even worse when we inflict others with it; expecting them to live our standard rather than Christ's. And Christ's standard is Himself. Legalism is self-atonement, not Christ's atonement. It does a great disservice to Christ's work on the cross, and wounds others, including ourselves. J. Stowell points out these 10 flaws of legalism:
  1. New laws continually need to be invented for new situations.
  2. Accountability to God is replaced by accountability to men.
  3. It reduces a person’s ability to personally discern.
  4. It creates a judgmental spirit.
  5. It confuses personal preferences with the divine will of God.
  6. It produces inconsistencies.
  7. It creates a false standard of righteousness.
  8. It becomes a burden.
  9. It is strictly external, never internal. 
  10. And it was and is rejected by Christ.

Likewise, C.J. Mahney really hit the nail on the head in summing up what it looks when a Christian is living in legalism:
  1. You are more aware of and effected by your past sins than the finished work of Christ.
  2. You are more aware of areas you need to grow in than the finished work of Christ. In other words, you figure that if you can just spin enough "discs" (Bible reading, prayer life, meditation, family worship, serving others, church ministry) on your fingers then you’re more accepted with God.
  3. You live thinking, believing, and feeling that God is disappointed with you.
  4. You assume His acceptance is dependent upon your obedience.
  5. You experience regular condemnation.
  6. Your sin in the morning ruins/condemns everything you might seek to do for the Lord that day.
  7. You have an undue concern of what others think about you.
  8. You lack joy. You think that joy in the Christian life is based on your worthiness rather than the finished work of Christ.

Living in legalism always reveals that one's heart is not in a good posture before the Creator. It shows the forgetfulness or misunderstanding of the gift of grace that's been bestowed upon on a person. It reveals that that sight of what's been forgiven has been lost... so much so that a person will even go to the length of withholding grace and forgiveness from not only themselves, but from others as well. It preaches a skewed gospel to onlookers. It hardens and damages hearts, and it pushes us away from Christ, not towards Him. 

The remedy goes back to gaining a right understanding of the gospel, and how sanctification then plays out, which if you missed that mega post, here it is. In regards to oneself, it's so imperative that we're immersing ourselves in the message of the gospel rather than immersing in a lot of silliness Christian culture that is indeed legalism. Legalism is anti-gospel point blank.

I have done some terrible things in my life. Certain things about my life have been jacked with at the hands of others, yes, (I think we all have some of that) but primarily it's been done with my own.  In the wake of that, the lies and promises that legalism whispers honestly at times are somewhat appealing to me, because legalism says do, and I'm doer personality. I like doing something and taking pride in my work in that. But in that very statement who is central there? Me. Not God. So actually doing can become a form of idolatry, an addiction for many Christians.

I find it so interesting that in Matthew 5:8, Jesus tells us "blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." He didn't use the word 'perfect' but 'pure.' No one is perfect, but scripture does talks about the Lord purifying His people through a refining fire--a process

Legalism says you and I do, but grace, justification and sanctification, say it's already done, and now the refining work begins. That means no more living a life of loud attention seeking over how great my works are, but rather living a life of loud desperation for Jesus. No more making up for my brokenness, but letting the King bind my broken heart.


Four questions for this week to reflect on (from The Cure):
  1. Do I measure my closeness to God by how little I'm sinning or by my trust that, to the extent that the Father loves Jesus, Jesus loves me?
  2. Do I see myself primarily as a "saved sinner" or a "saint who sins"?
  3. When I talk to God, do I spend more time rehearsing my failures or enjoying His presence?
  4. Am I drawn to authors and preachers who challenge me to "get serious about my sin" or those who encourage me to trust in my new identity in Christ?
Let's not live out of legalism today. Let's live out the grace given to us. If you need more encouragement take the time to listen to this.
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. -2Cor. 5:21


  1. Hi friend. :) I'm reminded of all the reasons I miss fellowshipping in your corner of the online world--blog and social medias alike. I'm sorry I've been scarce! Busyness with responsibilities has kept me from doing much online at all, which is sad when it deprives me of community with like-minded brethren. :(

    This post unearthed a complexity of struggles within me, some of which weren't even your premise. Thank you for sharing this, and if you think of it, please pray for me? These issues are in need of intensive prayer and "loud desperate" surrender to Christ. I appreciate the iron that you lovingly convey. Its sharpening and spurring (Heb 10:24, NIV).

    1. I'll definitely be keeping you in my prayers sweet friend! Live under a His wing of grace always Jen =)

  2. For some people, the reason why they can never change is because all they do is scold their heart. ~Tim Keller

    This post. Thank you so much for writing it. I needed to hear this truth. Legalism is something so easy to fall into, and just when we think we're free from it, we find it infested in another way in our hearts. Like Jen, could you pray for me? That quote by Keller cut right to my heart because it shouted of my struggle as of late. Thank you for your convicting, truth-filled, gracious posts!


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