Legalism is a damaging man-made religion that draws us away from relying on Jesus’ work to relying on our own work. It is defined as an excessive and improper use of the Law, which occurs when we use the Law either to attain or maintain our salvation.
Using the Law to attain or maintain our salvation is not wise, nor good because all those who rely on the works of the law for salvation are under a curse and must keep all of them (Gal. 3:10; James 2:10). Of course, that is not something we can do because none of us are, nor will we ever be perfect.
While we may know the dangers of legalism, we may still find ourselves slipping into legalistic tendencies from time to time, which means it’s important we understand how to break free from legalism.
(1) We must know the signs of legalistic living
(2) We must know and preach the true gospel to ourselves often.
Galatians is a book I often turn to when talking or teaching on the incompatibility of the gospel and legalistic thoughts and actions. I find Galatians helpful because Paul is specifically employing the gospel against legalism. Reading through the book, several big ideas come to light. Let’s explore those with an eye on the gospel and legalism.
A. The gospel tells us we are saved by grace and justified by faith (1:6-8; 2:15-21; 3:7-9; 10-14; 15-18; 5:2-6).
Salvation is an unmerited free gift of God. Our faith in Christ’s work, which is given to us by God (Eph. 2:8-9), makes us righteous, not our own work. At no time in the past, has our works ever been God’s plan of salvation. His plan has always been justification through faith.
Not understanding that we are saved by grace and justified by faith is particularly harmful because those who attempt to justify themselves through their own works must keep the whole Law, which they cannot do.
B. The gospel sanctifies us by providing us the Holy Spirit, changing our desires, and motivating us to live for God out of gratitude (2:19b-20; 3:2-3; 5:16-26).
We don’t grow by trying harder, isolating ourselves, disciplining ourselves, or getting down on ourselves, instead we grow through the gospel. One of the benefits of the gospel is the Holy Spirit. When we believe the gospel, the Holy Spirit takes up resident in our lives. It’s the Holy Spirit who makes us aware of the sin and idols in our lives, empowers us to battle them, and reminds us of the gospel so that we desire to please God out of gratitude.
As well as our desire for self-gain and control are crushed by the gospel as we are made a new creation, whose heart is changed. In this way, our obedience is no longer masked rebellion (we aren’t trying to control God or put Him in our debt), rather our obedience is done out of gratitude, which means it is pleasing and acceptable to God.
C. The gospel frees us to see legalism as slavery, and the gospel as freedom (2:4; 11-14; 3:22-26; 4:8-11; 4:21-5:1).
In the gospel, we are free from performance driven living, anxiety about acceptance, the need to please others, sin, satan, and death.
D. The gospel frees us to use the law for its intended purpose (2:19; 3:19-22).
The Law was designed to point us to our need for a Savior by showing us that we are unable to keep it at all points. Even the idea of sacrifices, which are built into the Law, are meant to point beyond ourselves to a future sacrifice which is final and complete. Standing on this side of the cross, we know that sacrifice to be Jesus.
The Law also acts a guide. As a guide, the Law tells us how we can flourish as a people and please God.
As well as the Law reveals to us God’s character and for what He cares. As His people, we should care about the same things as God, and we should long to learn more about His character.
Reflecting on the intended purpose of the Law allows us to delight in it instead of seeing it as oppressive and something to be rejected.
E. The gospel frees us to see ourselves for who we really are (4:1-7).
We are made righteous and accepted by God through our faith in Christ, not through our works. Being made righteous in Christ results in our adoption as Sons of God. As adopted sons, we are made heirs along with Christ.
F. The gospel frees us to love others instead of use them to make ourselves seem more righteous than we are (2:11-14; 3:27-29; 5:13-15).
The gospel kills the need for prejudice, racism, classicism, pride, and self-loathing, which makes it possible for us to truly love others and God.
G. The gospel frees us to live for God, not man (2:11-14).
We don’t have to work to keep a certain image because we are already accepted by God, which means we can confess sin, ask for prayer, and seek accountability.
(3) We must listen to and read gospel-centered resources.
We will naturally want to run to a works based salvation. One way to guard ourselves is to surround ourselves with those things that constantly draw us to the gospel instead of away from it. There are thousands of good gospel-centered resources available. Here are a few to get your started.
Books: See my book recommendations page for several resources that are near and dear to me.
(4) We must allow Scripture to guide our spiritual life, not our own or the world’s thoughts and ideas.
The Bible is where we must turn in order to learn how we are saved, how we are to live with God as our King, and what should motivate us to live as God has called us to live.
Question for Reflection
- What are some other ways to break free from legalism?