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Legalism––What does the Bible say? How can a Christian avoid legalism?

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Christians use the word "legalism" to describe the belief that rule-following is necessary for salvation and sanctification. A legalist is someone who depends upon good behavior, rather than God's grace, for assurance of their own salvation and that of other people. One of the main reasons for legalism is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the Mosaic law. Upon a cursory reading, it does seem that the law is meant to be followed, but upon closer reading of the biblical texts, it becomes clear that the law was given so that man would understand his need for Christ and turn and be saved by faith (Galatians 3:24; Ephesians 2:8-9).

A person caught in the trap of legalism may give lip service to these truths, but inwardly they still rely on their good behavior as the means of salvation. Legalism often becomes obvious when a legalistic person sees bad behavior in themselves or someone else. When the bad behavior is seen in themselves, they tend to be filled with shame, regret and guilt, punishing themselves or even doubting their salvation. When they see it others, they tend to become judgmental and overly harsh. Oddly enough, this kind of person often lives a double life, indulging secretly in sin while maintaining a shiny exterior. Jesus called out the Pharisees for this kind of legalism, saying: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence" (Matthew 23:25).

Believers can fall into the trap of legalism, especially because this particular attitude seems to spread easily within a group. A legalist, especially in leadership in a church, can infect his whole congregation with legalism by exerting subtle peer-pressure on behavior. Rules against drinking alcohol, dancing, avoiding certain books or movies, or certain social activities is an especially good way for legalism to spread. This was happening within the Galatian church, and Paul reprimanded them, saying "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Galatians 3:1-3).

Legalism is caused by fear and pride. Fear, when we think that Jesus' blood is not enough to save us. And pride, when we take undue pleasure in our own morality and look down on the failings of others in order to make ourselves feel better about our own failings. We should remember that "the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17) and "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 may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Legalism is pointless, as rules like "Do not handle" or "do not taste" or "do not touch" and other regulations have "an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence" (Colossians 2:20-23 NIV). In the end, legalism does nothing to improve a person's moral state, and often leads to hypocrisy.

Knowing the pitfalls of legalism, we should remember to be gracious to our brothers and sisters, for "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:4). "Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God" (Romans 14:10).

That said, it is also important not to fear legalism to the point that we tolerate sin and lawlessness. We should all depend on God to help us be both just and kind, and to walk according to the truth (Micah 6:8).

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What must I do to please God?

How can I walk in the Spirit?

What does it mean for Christians to be in the world but not of the world?

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