Legalism or Love? Religious or Radical?

If you’re struggling with legalism, don’t fight it by quitting your quiet times. That’s the good advice I remember once hearing from a pastor.

In other words, there’s a temptation to presumably fight legalism by running away from good things, whether Bible reading or acts of love, because we mistake them to be part of the problem.

We women are susceptible to this temptation. We are bombarded with choices. Between schooling options, birthing styles, what we should wear, and even what we should or shouldn’t eat, it is easy to confuse principle and practice. A confusion can set in on whether we are really living for God’s glory, or if we’re shackled to legalism. But I think where the confusion starts is with the definition of legalism.

What Is Legalism?

Legalism is pursuing good works with the intention of earning God’s favor. The point is to save one’s self. It is good works without believing that God justifies us by faith alone. John Piper explains it this way: “The essence of legalism is when faith is not the engine of obedience” (“The Anatomy of Legalism and the Discipline of Prayer”).

When we work hard for God in order to earn his favor, we are not operating with faith. Instead, we are saying that we must add to the finished work of Jesus on the cross. His work wasn’t enough, and therefore we must work to make him happy — we must take it into our own hands to be accepted by God.

But the Bible says that we are justified by grace through faith alone, and it is not a work of our own but a free gift of God. Our salvation is, and never will be, a result of our works (Ephesians 2:8). There is nothing we could ever do to earn God’s saving favor. If we are in Christ we have his favor, forever!

I know when I have been tempted to legalism, it is motivated by selfish ambition. I want to take my good works and show them off to God. That’s why Ephesians 2:9 is so important. The reason that our salvation is a gift is so that no man may boast. Our salvation isn’t ultimately about us, but about God. God does the work, and he receives the glory. A legalist wants to do the work, earn the favor, and I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say, get the glory.

What’s Not Legalism?

This is where the confusion comes in. Equating the pursuit of godliness to legalism can cause a world of problems. This mistake eventually leads to projecting judgment on others and even living licentiously. But pursuing godliness and legalism are not the same. Legalism is a matter of the heart, not obedience to God and radical love for others. Legalism is when we’re trying to earn God’s favor to be saved, not when we’re following Jesus because we’re saved by grace.

Again Piper explains:

Note well: legalism is not simply the pursuit of the law. It is pursuing the law in the wrong way — with some other engine than faith. The law of God should be pursued. The Son of God “condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). We should seek to fulfill the law — by the Spirit. Let’s call this good pursuit the “obedience of faith.”

This news is freeing. We can pursue Jesus, love Jesus, learn about God, and we can do it as an act of faith-filled obedience. When we wake up in the morning and bow desperate before God, it’s an act of expressing our need for him. When we open our Bibles to hear his voice, we can do it not to procure his acceptance, but to walk in his fellowship.

What Are We Really Pursuing?

Earlier I gave a snapshot of all the choices we have out there. We sure do have many. But are any of those really what pursuing Jesus boils down to — things like whether we eat organic or give birth naturally? We can spend tons of energy in various activities, but God calls us to pursue something altogether more amazing and in some ways simpler. He calls us to be holy (1 Peter 1:14–16).

Just as a daughter obeys her father, we are urged to be obedient children to our heavenly Father. We pursue God because we know that we were “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [our] forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18). Peter’s instruction sounds like war. We prepare our minds for action and set our hope fully on the grace we have in Christ (1 Peter 1:13) — which is not legalism, but faith.

We should certainly be aware of the temptation towards legalism. But let’s remember that pursuing God, specifically through battling sin, should not be neglected because our hearts are tempted to err. How do we fight any temptation? We recall what God has done in Jesus and what he promises to do, which is all by his grace, not by our works.