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.


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?



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?



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?