Even Grace Can Lead to Legalism

It is human nature to distort God’s glorious truths. And twisted up truth becomes a trap and a hindrance to godly living.

Like when we misuse grace.

We know that it is by grace that we are saved — it is a free gift of God: “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 may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8–10).

As you taste the preciousness of this gift of salvation by grace alone — knowing that you are completely undeserving — you want everyone to taste and savor this truth, too.

Legalistic Grace

Unfortunately, we’re tempted to turn the grace we love on its head into legalistic-grace. For instance, instead of extending grace to others who have different convictions than our own, we can instead assume that they’re living in submission to the law.

I remember a friend sharing with me that she had decided to homeschool her children. She made it clear that it was a decision that she and her husband had prayed about and that she was in no way suggesting that all Christians ought to do the same. I, however, assumed in my heart that she was likely struggling with legalism. I figured she was likely not as “free” as I was to make “other” decisions. How arrogant of me! I now see that I was taking my freedom and making it a law. I was judging my friend based on my experience and my convictions.

In other words, we may wrongly assume that one Christian’s obedience is not motivated by a genuine love for the Savior. Any serious act of obedience begins to look like sinful legalism rather than genuine obedience motivated and sustained by God’s grace. In the attempt to protect grace, we can assume the worst motives in one another. And as we judge others, commanding similar living and communication styles, we essentially turn our beautiful gift of grace into law.

Legalistic Living

The flipside of legalistic-grace is legalistic living. We know from Scripture that God has given us all we need for godliness. Peter reminds us: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3).

We have a desire to live for the Lord and have deep convictions that our sin dishonors God. But somewhere in our pursuit of godliness we forget that it’s only by God’s grace that we can live for him. It is God who has granted us all things that pertain to life and godliness. Only “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Unfortunately, when we forget that any godliness — any progress or growth — we see or experience comes from our Father, we can become puffed up and begin to project our standards on others. It can be especially toxic when we make moral standards out of decisions and priorities not described in Scripture. We so easily begin to judge and pressure people to conform to a lifestyle God never commanded. We forget about the good principles in the Bible that are foundational to our faith, and instead begin to make our own preferences and practices the law.

Living by Grace

We need to balance the realities that our faith is through grace alone by faith alone and yet we are called to do all things to the glory of God. Admittedly, that will never be easy. Living this out consistently and biblically is no small challenge.

The same grace that is unmerited favor with God is the same grace that teaches us to “renounce” (arnēsamenoi), literally “disown,” the ungodly ways of the world in Titus 2:11–12. Grace teaches us to distinguish and discern and separate ourselves from cultural sin, but never to then use ourselves as the standard. No, we must be disowning sin: starting first with the sin we see in ourselves (Matthew 7:3–5), and then also the sins we see in others around us, without becoming self-righteous. It is a great tension in the Christian life.

As we strive to live by grace, let’s ask God to give us his eyes for people. Let’s ask him to remind us of the incredible free gift of grace we’ve been given, of our complete dependence on him for godly living and the humility to recognize our weaknesses. May we look to Christ — not ourselves — as the standard we project on others. May we be trained by grace to give grace to others.