Grace · Legalism · Love · Mercy · Pharisees · Salvation

What is Christian Legalism?

There is a lot we could say about legalism and how to define it. Legalism comes in many shapes and sizes and can’t be easily pinpointed. In short, legalism is man-centered, performance-based faith – and is not God-dependent. It says that everything is earned through keeping rules. Or we could define legalism as “adding” to the gospel of how I get saved or develop as a Christian. 

This gets a little more complicated by what we mean when we say performance-based. At times, this can actually mean doing things that God commands, which doesn’t seem like a problem. Other times this means that we are keeping man’s law.


There are two distinct kinds of legalism found within Christianity today: salvation-based legalism and sanctification-based legalism. First, let’s talk about salvation-based legalism. This is the legalism that says that you can earn your salvation. 

If you do enough good things, or enough God things, or if you do more good things than bad things, you can obtain eternal life. The apostle Paul addresses this in Ephesians 2:8-9 where he says, “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one can boast.” He’s pretty clear that you cannot earn your salvation.


The other kind of legalism is a little more tricky to understand. It is a sanctification-based legalism. In more modern terms, it is spiritual growth through legalism. These people believe that salvation only comes by faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, but then they think that they can continue to earn God’s love after that by doing good works. But God doesn’t work like that. He loves His children no matter what. It doesn’t mean that He would never get upset with us or angry over our sin.

We can’t be more loved by a God who has saved us by doing good works. Now, we can bring God more pleasure by our obedience, but that is different than being more loved by God.


To split hairs even further, legalists not only attempt to earn God’s love by God’s rules, but many of them live by their own rules. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they come up with things they say God wants, even though God never requested us to do X or abstain from Y. This puts even more of a burden on Christians as this list of rules is ever changing, depending on who you are with and their personal list.


We do not want to cast off God’s law thinking that we are defeating legalism. Some Christians who grew up in legalism have done this. The Christian life of living by God’s grace and mercy doesn’t mean that we are not to obey God’s law.

The question isn’t “if” we are to obey what God says, but “why” are we obeying it? Are we obeying because we are trying to earn God’s love, or because we love God. We cannot earn God’s salvation through works. His salvation is provided through His work, not our’s. We cannot earn God’s love through obedience. If we are His children, He loves us no matter what.

While we can’t earn God’s favor through obedience, we should obey because we love God. His grace and mercy and love for us should drive us to obey Him. This is why Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” in John 14:15. This is grace-based obedience. God calls us to obedience, because, like James says, “so also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:7).” Again, the question is not whether we should obey, but who we are obeying, and why?

Just because we are saved, kept, and loved by God’s grace, doesn’t mean that we should take advantage of it. It is not legalism to obey what God says and to follow His rules, if we are doing it with the right motive. 


Do you need to repent of your legalism? Are you trying to earn God’s love for salvation, or even after, through a works-based performance? Why are you following God and obeying Him? Are you following His laws or man’s laws? Have you added to the gospel?

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