The Essence of Legalism

By Grant Hawley

When we talk about legalism, it is very easy for the conversation to quickly turn toward defining legalism by how many rules we have and what kinds of rules they are. It's as if there's some line, a limit of how many rules you have for yourself, and as long as you don't cross that line, you're not legalistic. But that misses the point entirely.

The essence of legalism is not how many rules you have. You can be a legalist with a thousand rules, or you can be a legalist with one. Even if your only rule for yourself is something Biblical and very non-pharisaical sounding like, "Love your neighbor as yourself" you could still be a legalist. Legalism and liberty do not divide on the line of dancing, or alcohol, or dating. It comes down to the source of power.

In whom do you trust?

Everything in existence can be divided into two categories:

1) God (Father, Son, and Spirit)

2) Everything Else

Everything good has its source in God. Everything else is sourced in everything else. Legalism is forgetting this simple fact.

Paul tells us about an intense and ongoing struggle with sin Romans chapter 7. He said that when he put himself under the commandment "you shall not covet" the aching desire to sin revived and dominated him. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't win that fight. Take a moment to read the chapter when you get a chance, it is perhaps the most honest and revealing look into human nature I've ever seen.

Does God want us to covet? Of course not. But on our own we are covetous by nature. But here's the key—God isn't. And this truth can be expressed in so many ways. On our own we are selfish; but God isn't.1 On our own we are loveless; but God is love.

Knowing this, the value of Gal 2:20 should be apparent:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

Legalism is trying to be strong and obey the Lord in our natural might; that's why it isn't really about how many rules you have or what those rules are.

The essence of living in grace, on the other hand, is found in 2 Cor 12:9-10:

And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The only real strength to obey is found in Him. He is the source and the sum of everything spiritual and good. And He lives in us with great strength when we stop trying to be strong.

"...He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

1 Some theological perspectives see God as righteously selfish, but this ignores the true meaning of the Trinity. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit all love each other with a perfect love and are thus Each humbly seeking to exalt the Others, see John 16:7-15; Phil 2:5-11.