Grace is what every person needs. Without grace, no one can be saved, nor can anyone walk in the fullness of a transformed life in Jesus Christ. Grace is God’s unmerited transforming power working in and through us by the Holy Spirit. God’s grace is a saving grace that also transforms and empowers us to live God-pleasing lives. We realize how desperately we need God’s grace but what keeps us from living in the fullness of grace? What makes us ‘grace challenged’ or steals our grace as followers of Jesus?
Legalism is a very common ‘grace destroyer’ or ‘grace challenger.’ It is older than Christianity itself. In fact, legalism is one reason the religious leaders of Jesus time could not accept Him as the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus did not keep the Scriptures to their accepted standards. Paul deals with legalism in the book of Galatians because it was being taught that to be a follower of Jesus one must not only trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior but must also keep the law according to the religious leaders standards. Galatians 5:4 states, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” When one is caught up in legalism the Scriptures say that they are in a precarious way, alienated from Christ or have fallen away from grace. Scary!!!! Yet legalism is so pervasive in the church and so destructive to the body of Jesus Christ.
Legalism takes on different forms in different situation. In my generation, legalism was usually a set of rules that was supposed to help followers of Jesus be more Christ-like. The Bible teaches not to get drunk so we had a rule to never drink or have alcohol. The Bible teaches to be morally pure so we had a rule to never dance or go to movies to be led astray. The rules were man’s way to supposedly protect us from sin. But instead they entangled us in more external rules that were not God’s law. We become law-focused, not grace-driven in Jesus. Earning salvation and supposedly growing in maturity by keeping the external rules and not growing in Christ-likeness through the transforming power of grace will keep people from growing in a relationship to Jesus and from the ability to know and follow Jesus. Keeping the rules keeps a person from knowing Jesus.
Legalism can also take the form of having to live up to the way God has called another person to live out their Christian walk. In other words, having to live up to another person’s standard when they have not been told by God to live that way. Examples of this include (but not limited to): the way to personally study the Scriptures, how to practice the spiritual disciplines of Sabbath, fasting, prayer, and solitude, and the way to dress as a Christian. The list can go on and on. I had a lady who right after she placed her trust in Jesus as her Savior and Lord asked me, “Do I have to quit smoking now?” I asked if God had told her to, and she said “No.” I told her, “You have the answer.” About a year later she came back to me, very upset. She said you told me I did not have to give up my smoking when I trusted in Jesus. I reminded her that is what God told her, but she said in her prayer time yesterday God told her it was time to quite her smoking. I told her now it was God who by His grace would give her the victory to quit and He did. Our responsibility is not to tell people what we think God wants them to do, which is legalism, but to help them know God so that they can hear from Him and then be empowered by His grace to be transformed into Christ-likeness
Another form of legalism is the litmus test of Christians. This occurs when we take one of our pet biblical teachings and use a principle from it to judge whether other people or Christians are as faithful as we are? Some litmus test examples are: are you willing to stand at an abortion clinic and be arrested for your stand, are you Gospel-centered, are you truly missional? As you see the litmus test is used to show how committed we are and to make others fit our standard and understanding of what it means to be fully committed to Jesus.
I find myself sliding back into legalism very easily and when I do, I start playing god because I judge people by my standards and preferences and not God’s. I hinder God’s grace from working in me because God will not share His glory with another person, specifically me and my idols. Surely this makes it almost impossible for me to give grace to other followers of Jesus who He died for and for me to model following Jesus by grace, which we are called to do.
In what ways do you struggle with legalism? The book Accidental Pharisees by Larry Osborne helped me to start dealing with legalism and the pride. I would highly recommend it.