What do Those who Practice Legalism Fail to Recognize?

While wearing the chains of legalism is difficult, it’s easy for us to continue to put them on. After all, it’s what’s most comfortable and with what we are most familiar. God, however, doesn’t want us to wear those chains. Instead, God wants us to depend on Him, to study His Word, to seek Him in prayer. In short, He wants us to rely on Christ and not our own work. 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, let’s look at what those who practice legalism fail to recognize.

What do those who practice legalism fail to recognize?

(1) Those who practice legalism fail to recognize that God’s creation is good and something to be enjoyed. 

This is what Paul tells us starting in verse 4 when he says,

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Ti 4:4–5)

While this is Paul’s view, those He was speaking against primarily saw the world as bad and something to be rejected, which is what led them to their teaching on marriage, sex, and food.

The world, however, is not all bad. In Genesis 1, after God created all things, we are told that:

“…God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Ge 1:31)

Along with telling us that creation is good, God also instituted marriage. Within in the union of marriage, God gave Adam and Eve sex not just for procreation but as a gift to be enjoyed.

Furthermore, Jesus, through His death on the cross, fulfilled the Law, making food that was once unclean clean. So to say that we have to abstain from marriage, sex, and food in order to be Christian is unbiblical. It goes against God’s proclamation that creation is good. As well as it misses the fact that God has given us good gifts for our enjoyment.

This, then, tells us that we don’t have to reject everything this world has to offer. We can enjoy a good meal, a nice home, movies, music, and technology. We can take vacations, read good books, and enjoy our culture. Certainly, we need to do these things in a balanced way, taking into account a biblical worldview. But we don’t have to outright reject all these things as bad. God has given them for our enjoyment because He loves us, so we should enjoy them.

(2) Those who practice legalism fail to recognize that we are supposed to praise God for what He has given us.

This is what Paul is getting at in the second half of verse 4 when he says,

“and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4b)

We are to see the good things we have not as hindrances to salvation or growth in Christ but as gifts God has given us. For those gifts, we are to praise God. But when we think that all creation is bad and is to be rejected, we are not going to give God the thanks He deserves. Which means we aren’t worshipping God in a way He has designed for us to worship Him.  And that’s a problem.

Conclusion

As you can see, then, Legalism and Christianity are like oil and water, they don’t mix. Which means that we shouldn’t try to earn or keep our relationship with God through our own works. Instead, we should turn and run to Jesus. He is One who both saves and sanctifies. He is the author and finisher of our faith. He is the One who provides us with a relationship with God, and both allows us to enjoy and praise God for His good creation.

So let’s not get taken by bad theology, which is the product of demons and insincere liars. Instead, let’s believe and practice the truth so that we can protect both ourselves and others from those seeking to deceive.

Legalism is a joyless, worship killing, bad Theology we should avoid at all costs.

Question for Reflection

  1. What else do those who practice legalism fail to recognize?

Resources

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

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?

Resources

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

How to Break Free From Legalism

This is a continuation of my last two posts, which can be found here and here

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

See my last two posts here and here.

(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.

Blogs: For the Church, The Gospel Coalition, Challies.com, 9Marks, Ligioner Ministries, Albert Mohler, Desiring God

Podcasts: Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler, Acts 29The Austin Stone, Albert Mohler’s – The Briefing

(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

  1. What are some other ways to break free from legalism?

Resources

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10 More Signs We Are Living As A Legalist

This is a continuation of my last post

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 are aware of the signs that point to legalistic living.

10 More Signs We Are Living As A Legalist

(11) When life doesn’t go as planned we become angry, bitter, or even depressed – This happens because we believe God owes us for our good behavior. When God doesn’t deliver, our world is turned upside down.

(12) We are prejudiced or classist – When we are living as a legalistic, we feel superior to others because we think well of ourselves, believing that our class or ethnicity is superior and worthy of acceptance.

(13) We are prideful – Those who believe they are accepted by God because they are living up to their man-made standards often have an inflated view of self.

(14) We are insecure and never feel assured of our salvation – Those who believe they aren’t accepted by God because they aren’t living up to their man-made standards often fight insecurity, low self-esteem, and thoughts of self-loathing, as well as they never feel assured of their salvation.1

(15) We are not gracious or merciful to others – Because we haven’t experienced God’s grace and mercy, we find it difficult or even impossible to be gracious and merciful to others.

(16) We believe an unanswered prayer or something going wrong means we haven’t done enough for God – We believe God’s inactivity is punishment for our bad behavior.1

(17) Our prayer life is dry – Prayer is done strictly out of duty resulting in a lack of wonder, awe, intimacy, or delight in God when we meet with Him in prayer.1

(18) We obey out of fear instead of delight or gratitude – We don’t obey because we delight in the law, knowing it is what is best for us, or to please God out of gratitude, instead we obey out of fear of punishment.

(19) We believe we must work to pay Jesus back for our salvation – In some sense we believe Jesus changed our heart and desires when He saved us, but we miss the point of the change. We think it is so we can now work to pay Him back for our salvation.

(20) We fail to recognize we can never be perfect – Instead of resting in Jesus’ work for us, we work toward the unattainable, thinking one day we will reach perfection and thus acceptance with God.

Question for Reflection

  1. Does any of these signs resonate with you?

Resources

[1] Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 63-64

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10 Signs We Are Living As A Legalist

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 are aware of the signs that point to legalistic living.

10 Signs We Are Living As A Legalist

(1) We misuse the Spiritual Disciplines – This occurs when we base our worth, as well as God’s love and acceptance of us on whether we have read the Bible, prayed, attended church, or witnessed to X number of people in any given day or week.

(2) We judge or criticize other Christians for not keeping certain codes of conduct we deem necessary to be a good Christian  Codes of conduct may include dress, appearance, type of entertainment, how we use our money, food and drink we partake of, etc.

(3) We live by certain codes of conduct because we believe they provide us with God’s approval or acceptance.

(4) We live in constant condemnation or criticism of our own mistakes – As a result, we live with an irresolvable guilt that we can’t shake because we believe we must be perfect to continue our relationship with God.

(5) We struggle to or never confess our sins to God or others  This occurs because our identity is wrapped up in our own manufactured righteousness. Admitting we are not as righteous as what we are working to be, undercuts all our efforts, so we remain silent in regard to our sin hoping they will go away on their own.

(6) We are easily angered, become defensive, or are devastated when others criticize us – This occurs because our identity is wrapped up in producing a righteous persona for others and God to see.2

(7) We volunteer because we believe it earns us greater favor with God, not because we love others and want to serve them. 

(8) We separate ourselves from anything worldly, including friends, co-workers, and neighbors.1

(9) We blame others for our wrong attitude, thoughts, or actions – If others caused us to do it, we can’t be held responsible, which means we are still righteous and acceptable to others and God.2

(10) We are an obsessive rule follower – Following rules is not always a bad thing, it could show submission to authority and a desire to please God. But being obsessive about following rules could be a sign you are living as a legalist.

For 10 more signs see my next post.

Question for Reflection

  1. Does any of these signs resonate with you?

Resources

[1] 4 Signs You Might Be a Legalist

[2] Fighting Legalism in Your Heart

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Faith + Nothing = Salvation

The gospel presents a radically different idea of salvation than most people believe, even among those who call themselves Christians. Salvation is either thought of something you earn, or as a belief only. These two forms of salvation are called Moralism and Relativism.

Depending on where you life, Moralism or Relativism may be more or less popular. To generalize, Moralism is often popular in the red states, while Relativism is more popular in the blue states. On the surface, Moralism appears more dangerous because there is a perceived goodness in the individual that provides them with salvation, while it is often clear the Relativist is living in sin. In reality, they are both just as dangerous and need to be corrected by the gospel.

What is Relativism and Moralism? How does the gospel correct them both? Let’s start with the former of the two questions.

Relativism and Moralism

Relativism stresses grace without truth. God accepts us all, sin has no bearing on us, and we have to decide what is true for us. While the Moralist creates additional laws, the Relativist cast off law completely, thinking they can do whatever they like because they have been extended God’s grace.

In doing so, they create a god of their own making. A god they only have to believe in, not one who is the Lord of their life. The reason they do this is to appease their conscience and their fleshly desires at the same time. Belief in God provides their conscience with comfort, while a license to sin provides for their flesh. The gospel, however, tells us we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

Moralism stresses truth without grace. Salvation is obtained by obedience only. Grace is thrown out for proper behavior and additional self-imposed laws, which are believed to help them earn God’s grace.

The Moralist, just like the Relativist, creates a god of their own making, even though their god is completely different. Instead of allowing them to live how they want, the god of the Moralist only accepts them based on their works. Legalism then dominates Moralistic societies.

The Gospel: A Third and Better Way

In contrast to both Moralism and Relativism, lies the gospel, which is not a set of rules. Rather, it is an understanding that believing in Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for salvation.

How the Gospel Differs from Both Moralism and Relativism

The gospel differs from Moralism in that it does not require someone to earn their salvation. Rather than earning their salvation, they are saved through Christ’s sacrifice alone, which means they are then freed to live out their righteousness. In other words, their righteous actions become a product of their salvation, not a way to earn or keep their salvation [1].

The gospel differs from Relativism in that it does not give one a license to sin. Paul makes this explicit in Romans 6 when he says,

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:1-4)

God’s grace is not to be abused. Rather, His grace frees us to walk in newness of life. It frees us from the grip of sin. It allows us for the first time in our life to live according to God’s commandments.

Conclusion

Relativism and Moralism show us that man has a tendency to distort the Bible’s teaching in an effort to save himself independent of God. The biblical model of salvation, however, leaves no room for either Relativism or Moralism. The Bible heralds the message of justification by faith alone apart from any works of the Law. A message that is radically different than the world’s, but one that is radically freeing. Through the gospel alone we are free to live out our righteousness without seeking to earn our salvation, as well as we are freed from the grip of sin to live in accordance with God’s commandments. Therefore, the Bible’s message of salvation is: Faith + Nothing = Salvation.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Do you see yourself obeying God’s Word in order to earn something from Him?
  2. After reading Romans 6, do you think you abuse God’s grace?
  3. How does the gospel radically change your idea of salvation?
  4. Why do you would obey God’s Word?

Resources

[1] Thoughts on Moralism, Relativism, and the Gospel taken from The Centrality of the Gospel by Tim Keller

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