Messy Faith,  Personal and Spiritual Ramblings,  Recovering Perfectionist

what is “legalism”?

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This post is part 1 in a new blog series that I have entitled “the wilderness between legalism and grace,” in which I talk about the part of my life when I struggled between rejection of legalism and fully embracing God’s grace in my life. You can read the introduction to this series here this post, “some self-observations about legalism.” My intent with this series is to share how I came to realize that I had an incorrect view of God and self and how I became free of the system of legalism whereby I was trying to earn God’s favor.

It is my prayer that Christians who are grappling with these concepts can find clarity, hurting Christians can find comfort, broken Christians can find healing, and tired Christians can find rest in God’s grace by walking through my story with me.

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After some prayerful consideration of the objective and direction of this series, I feel that it is necessary to share what I mean when I use the term “legalism.”

When I was living a legalistic lifestyle, I never would have called myself legalistic.

Instead, it was words like these that ruled my life:

what is legalism

Some of these words come straight out of the Bible. And inherently, it’s not the actions of these phrases that I am denouncing in this series. Rather, it is the motivation and intention behind those actions.

One of the best phrases on the list that is used to mask legalism is “trying to please God,” because it touches on the true motivation of most people entrapped in legalism.

We WANT the approval, the love, and the acceptance of God. And forgetting that Christ earned that acceptance for us, we try to earn it through our actions.

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We know that we are saved by grace, and that there is nothing we can do to earn salvation, eternal life, our place in heaven:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

And we can spout off the true meaning of justification (knowing that God views our eternal standing as “just as if” we had never sinned because he sees the righteousness of God).

Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: (Romans 5:1)

But when it comes to our “Christian walk” – we don’t live our lives like we are justified. We know we can’t lose our salvation, but we obsess constantly about losing our fellowship with God.

Verses like “your iniquities have separated between you and your God” (Is. 59:2) and “if I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps. 66:18) ring loud in our minds every time we do something that the Bible or others deem as sinful.

So, inevitably, we become bound by the guilt and shame of knowing we can’t measure up to God’s holiness, constantly worrying about our standing before Him, forgetting that we are His, forever – already chosen, holy, and dearly loved (Col. 3:12).

So, for purposes of this series, I define Christian legalism this way:

Legalism is a system whereby a Christian believes he must earn God’s every-day favor, acceptance, and fellowship through strict adherence to a behavioral code which most often is based on fallen man’s interpretation of Scripture.

This legalistic system originates within the mind of the believer, but is perpetuated by external sources, especially Christian authority figures. The desire for God’s acceptance within the believer is so strong that he becomes more vulnerable to the disapproval of man, especially those who are in authority over him and assert said authority. Often this system leads believers to confuse the favor of God with the acceptance of man, or even blend them completely.

I’m not claiming to have the perfect or the best definition of legalism- I’m simply trying to define the term for purposes of this blog series. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing my story of how I came to realize that I was living a legalistic life and how God brought me freedom and led me into His grace.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you feel like this definition is accurate? What would you add or detract? Have you ever hidden behind some of those “good” phrases only to realize that you were really just trying to earn God’s acceptance?

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To view all the posts in this blog series, visit the landing page.

Next post, part 2: standing under the broken heart

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