Why Do We Continue to Struggle with Legalism?

If you think about it, the world is full of untrue, unsound, unbiblical theology. It is important we know where it comes from, so we can better understand it, speak against it, and protect ourselves and others from it.

Paul was doing just that in the church at Ephesus. He was speaking out against bad theology in order help the Ephesians protect themselves from it.

With What Specific Bad Theology is Paul Dealing?

Paul is dealing with Legalism.

Legalism is essentially a form of works based salvation.

It tells us that we have to do certain things in order to attain or maintain a relationship with God. Look at verse 3 in 1 Timothy 4, speaking of the false teachers in Ephesus, Paul says,

“who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” (1 Ti 4:3)

This verse tells us what the false teachers in Ephesus were teaching, and that is they were teaching that you couldn’t get married and you had to abstain from certain foods in order to be a true Christian.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with being single or abstaining from certain foods. God calls people to a life of singleness and to give up certain foods for a while. Paul was one such person (1 Cor. 7:8; 8:13). So there is nothing wrong with these things in principle, but the trouble comes when we tell others they have to do these things in order to be a true Christian. When we do that, we are practicing legalism.

Christianity and Legalism don’t mix.

In fact, Christianity teaches the exact opposite of Legalism. It teaches us that we can’t work to attain or maintain our salvation. Salvation, then, is gained and kept by Jesus working on our behalf. It is His death on the cross that paid the price for our past, present, and future sins. When we believe that, we are freed from having to work to earn and keep our salvation. In fact, there is nothing for us to work for, there is no record for God to keep, there is no debt for us to pay. It has been paid for us.

That’s the distinguishing mark of Christianity.

We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone.

But other world religions don’t believe or teach the same. They don’t believe God saves us. Instead, they believe we save ourselves. In that way, most all world religions are built on a form of legalism.

  • Buddhist’s believe in an eight-fold path that you must follow in order to reach a state of Nirvana.
  • Hindu’s believe you must work through a cycle of reincarnation until you are ultimately absorbed into Brahman.
  • Muslim’s believe your good must outweigh your bad in order to enter into heaven.
  • And many others such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons believe that it is your works that provide you with salvation.

But you know, while Christianity differs from other world religions, even we, as Christians, can fall back into a form of legalism. We can fall back into the idea that we are the ones who have to earn or keep our salvation. Why is that?

Why do we continue to struggle with Legalism?

(1) I believe we struggle with legalism because we don’t think we are that bad. 

Sure, we might sin a little here and there, but we don’t see ourselves as totally depraved sinners who are on a highway to hell. And because we don’t see ourselves that way, we tend to focus on the good things we do. Thinking we can earn favor with God through our works.

(2) I believe we can easily fall back into legalism because we want things to be simple. 

We want a 12 step program that takes us from sinner to saint with black and white rules we are to follow to get there.

(3) We don’t want to have to depend on God to help us discern the gray areas of life. 

We want it fast and easy. And waiting on God is not always fast nor easy.

(4) We want to know who’s good and who’s bad. 

Most of the time we want to know this about others because we want to be able to judge them based on what they are or aren’t doing.

So those are some of the reasons I believe we continue to struggle with and continually put on the chains legalism.

But life’s not that simple. God wants us to depend on Him, to study His Word, to seek Him in prayer. He wants us to rely on Christ and not our own work. He wants us to be set apart from how the world does things. So instead of running back to legalism, we need to continue to run to Christ, remembering our distinguishing mark — that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone.

In order to motivate you to continue to run to Christ, in my next post we will discuss what those who practice legalism fail to recognize.

Question for Reflection

  1. Do you struggle with the chains of legalism?



Post adapted from my sermon: Legalism — A Joyless, Worship Killing, Bad Theology We Should Avoid At All Costs

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Continue to Struggle with Legalism?

  1. Jared

    Wanting things to be simple resonates! How often do we draw black and white legal lines where none exist, just to feel in control and that things are easy.

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