Defining Legalism

I don’t think I can actually count the amount of times I have been labeled a “legalist” in the last 30 years. So I have had to do a little soul-searching through the years.  Am I a legalist?  Is that label appropriate for me and my family because we stand for what the Bible teaches?  The following is what I discovered.

First and foremost, legalism is the belief that you have to do something in order to be reconciled to God. gives this definition officially:

Legalism– the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.

This goes completely against scripture where it clearly states in Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

Clearly, we are not saved by our own works and if I believed that we were, then I would be a heretic officially.  So do I adhere to the doctrine of legalism? Certainly not!

But if Christianity is made up of just saying a prayer asking the Lord to “come into your heart”, then what is the cost?  Why wouldn’t everyone take this “fire insurance” from hell?

It is because Christianity is more than a prayer.  With true belief comes sacrifice.  With true belief comes a desire to grow in holiness and purity. And this is where we get confused.

You see, I don’t think I should have high standards and keep myself separate from the world to be saved.  I believe I should have high standards and keep myself separate from the world because I am saved.

All Christians agree that we should love each other and help the poor.  There is no argument there, so let’s talk about this separation from the world thing a bit more.

If scripture clearly teaches that we are to be separate from the world, that we are to desire to grow in holiness and purity, the question becomes not: “what am I allowed to do?” but, instead, “why would I want to?”

The more mature we grow in Christ, the less we should actually desire to see two people fornicating on a movie screen, or listen to a song about the ecstasy of drug use, or hear the crude language of our friends.  It is not “Can I?”… It becomes “I don’t desire to.”

It is true that all believers are at a different point in their Christian growth.  I remember a friend who had no problem wearing a bikini as a college student.  I have no doubt that she was saved but, in the area of immodesty, she was blind. However, as she has grown as a believer, she has seen that immodesty does not please the Lord, and has since changed not only how she dresses personally but how she and her husband allow their daughters to dress, as well.  We all have blind spots in our walks with God.  This is not about pointing fingers.

And while it is not our job to place rules on others, it is our place to stand for what is right and wrong.  Here in America, there seems to be a race going on as to who can call themselves Christians and still be the most worldly.  Holding to absolutes is frowned upon, not only in the world, but even in our churches.  Everything has become wishy-washy and up for grabs.  But I want you to know that we serve a God of absolutes! Yes, He is loving and He has shown us grace and mercy.  But He is also just and He hates sin.  He stands for what is right and wrong and I am to do no less.

If God makes it clear in His Word that He hates adultery, fornication, strife, orgies, drinking parties, drunkenness, crude and profane language, lewdness, taking His name in vain, sorcery, and immodesty then why in the world would we even desire to make any of that a part of our life- whether by actually doing those things, or by wasting our precious time watching movies, listening to music, playing video games, or reading things filled with these things God hates?

You see, being a Christian is a sacrifice.  It is not some fun journey we are on to find our personal purpose in life and live however we want with the promise of heaven. Christianity is hard.  We are going to be hated in this world – not loved.  Jesus was persecuted and we should expect no less (Matthew 5:10-12; John 15:18-20; 2 Timothy 3:12). Standing for the Truth is not for cowards. It will mean great sacrifice.  In America, we are fortunate – it doesn’t mean losing our homes, or prison, or death.  But it can possibly cost us jobs, relationships, and our reputations.

I write all of this with a humble heart, knowing I have much growing to do in my own Christian walk…knowing that I am blind, too, in areas that are not pleasing to my heavenly Father. These blind spots are why it is so very important that we regularly confess our sins, study God’s Word, and ask the Lord to help us walk in the Spirit.  We need to continually be checking our desires, our thoughts, and our longings (2 Corinthians 13:5). Are they in tune with the works of God or the works of the flesh? May we desire to be in tune with God and keep working towards this goal until the day we die.  Not to be saved…but because we are saved.



12 thoughts on “Defining Legalism”

  1. Hi Leslie – Right on Sister! You said this with grace, love and conviction. God continually works on all of His Children. He will continue to mold us into the image of Christ until the day we leave this planet. He has recently asked me to give up something as a discipline to grow closer to Him – all alcohol, which for me was generally the occasional glass of wine. He revealed this to me on Sunday and then Monday I had to go out of town for the week to my corporate office. The first day my co-workers wanted to go out after hours and get a meal and have drinks! In my mind, I was like, “Really God? Wow.” I elected to go with them to eat the meal, but stayed outside ministering to a friend by phone until our table was ready as they were pounding them down in the bar. I did not condemn them, just told them I didn’t drink anymore and to let me know when the table was ready. Standing on my principles has allowed God to use me to witness to many of them throughout this week as the question has been asked, “Tracy – why do you not drink anymore?” Many of them already knew I was a Christian. When we as believers “come out of Babylon” our unsaved friends take notice. When handled with love, it is a beautiful testimony for our Lord and truly shows that Christianity is not a label, it is a lifestyle. Blessings, Tracy

    1. What a wonderful testimony! Thank you. He has really been working on my heart about the same issue. Alcohol seems to cause great confusion among Christians and it may be better to just abstain totally, and thus show ourselves to be truly be different than the world. Thank you so much for sharing your heart.

  2. So often we look for that line that divides what is right and what is wrong. We spend so much of our time looking at that line that we end up stepping on it. God is no where near that line. He is infininately holy. We should not be worried about what we can get away with. We should love what God loves and hate what God hates. If we are looking at that line we are not looking at God. If we are looking at God, we will continually drift away from that line and become more Christ-like. When we are trying to figure out what we can get away with it shows a heart problem that needs fixed.

  3. Phillip Yowell

    Thank you for your very timely insight into an area that many of today’s Christians are ignorant of. As a Pastor I too have been called legalist many times. My wife recently came across a book in our public library titled: “What’s the least I can believe and still be called a Christian”. Sounds like a book that many will rush out to purchase. I still preach that God desires “holiness” in the lives of His children.

  4. Many folks still go with what they wore years ago as far as dress is concerned. Also we have to think about George Washington and his era. Our men certainly do not dress in the way he and the people of his time dressed. I do think that our women have far stretched the right way to dress. Our young women are dressing in a way that makes other women embarrassed that have to be around them. There are many perfectly beautiful attire that women can choose nowadays that cover their intimate parts of the body, and still look modest and pretty. God expects us to be obedient to Him and that is what I am stiving to do. He has done too much for me and mine to dress unbecoming in front of the men and other women’s men. You cannot blame a man who looks when you are dressed immodestly. The Hollywood crowd has influenced our young men and women to be the way some of them are, today. Judgment is coming and our Great Judge will see all of us as we give account to Him of our lives and the way we have conduct-
    ed ourselves and the things we have done in our short short lives for Him. The Good Book says ” without holiness (holy living) no man shall see the Lord. That says Be Careful,

  5. “We all have blind spots in our walks with God.” My friend, I pray that you will be open to recognizing one area of blindness, which I extend to you for the Lord’s sake, and you and your readers’ sakes, and that is with regard to the Second Commandment, which your article image violates. That picture is not Jesus, but it claims to be, and thus it taints the minds of all who see it. God has made Himself clear: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). Pictures of Jesus have been condemned by Reformed churches since the Reformation, though lately many have greatly relaxed many convictions. Please take the time to hear the arguments here:

    It is not fitting that a good clarification on legalism be tainted and compromised by such a blatant violation of God’s law.

    Grace and peace to you

    1. Funny. I was actually thinking of this very thing a few days ago but didn’t even consider it in regards to the photo attached to this post. Thanks so much for your comment. The photo has been changed!

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