A man who had been born and raised in a country
ruled by a strict military dictatorship immigrated to
the United States and became a citizen of this country.
The man decided to celebrate his new citizenship by
doing some sightseeing around the city where he was
living. He was enjoying himself so much that he didn't
notice that sundown was approaching. But as soon as
the sunlight faded and darkness began to descend, the
new American panicked.
He ran up to a car and begged the driver to take him
home as quickly as possible. The driver was taken aback
and tried to calm the man down. When asked why he
had to get home so quickly, the man cried out, "Because
I don't want to violate curfew and be arrested."
The problem was that in the man's previous country,
the military had imposed a strict curfew. Everyone had
to be off the streets by sundown or risk arrest.
The man in the car smiled when he realized the
problem. He calmly explained that since the United
States has no curfew, the man wasn't in any trouble. The
new citizen simply had not yet learned to cast off the
bondage of the old country. He was free, but he wasn't
living like it.
A lot of Christians, citizens of heaven who have been
set free by the grace of God in Christ, have not learned
how to cast off the bondage of
their birth in Adam. They sing
and talk about freedom, but
they are living under an oppressive
system of religious
rules that sends them running
home at sundown, so to speak.
This oppressive religious
system is called legalism, and it's absolutely contrary to
our freedom in Christ. But many Christians are being
held hostage to the old regime.
If there is one overarching truth I want to get across
to you in this booklet, it is this: When you got saved,
you were brought into a new regime. You have been liberated
by God's magnificent grace, and the old rules no longer apply.
Now I realize that applying the truth we know can
be another story. So we need to understand what legalism
is, and how it shackles us, before we can understand
how to break its chains and fully appreciate the freedom
we possess in Christ.
The Bible goes to great lengths to combat legalism
and establish us in grace. So let's find out how to shed
the shackles and be truly free.
The Bondage of Legalism
The apostle Paul gives us a definition of legalism in
Galatians 3:3, stated in the form of a question. "Having
begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the
Legalism is trying to please God "by the flesh," by
attempting to keep a list of laws and rules that we think
will earn us God's favor and keep us in good standing
with Him. It is identity based on performance rather
than relationship. It makes rule-keeping the basis of
The problem with this should be obvious. We can't
earn our salvation. We didn't begin with Christ by doing
works of the flesh but by the grace of God administered
by the Holy Spirit.
This is such a serious matter that Paul used the
strongest language possible in addressing the Galatians,
who had fallen victim to legalism. He began his letter by
saying, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting
Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different
gospel" (Galatians 1:6). Even though Paul called legalism
a "gospel," he was using the word to shock his
readers. He quickly added that it was not really another
gospel but a distortion of the true message (v. 7).
You see, wherever Paul went he was followed by
Jewish teachers called Judaizers, who sought to subject
Gentile Christians to the bondage of the Law of Moses
(Galatians 2:4; see also 5:10). This is why Paul used such
strong language. "You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched
you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly
portrayed as crucified?" (3:1). The answer was the
A Few Good Questions
Then Paul asked another series of questions in Galatians
3:2-5, all of which contrast grace with works. The
correct answer in each case is that the Christian life,
symbolized by the giving of the Holy Spirit, is of grace
and not of works.
Allow me to ask you a few
questions. Were you saved by
keeping the Ten Commandments?
Are you going to heaven
because you're better than
your neighbor? Are you hoping
to please God by trying
your very hardest to be good?
I hope your answer to each of these is no, because
no one will ever be saved or please God by these means.
When you try to mix human effort with God's grace,
you're trying to mix oil and water.
Now, don't misunderstand me. Legalism is not merely
the presence of the Law. God's Law is "holy and righteous
and good" (Romans 7:12). The problem is that the
Law provides no power to obey it.
Legalism is not the presence of rules but the wrongattitude toward the rules. Legalism assigns to the rules a
power to produce obedience that God never gave them.
Victory and true liberty cannot be found in human effort.
A Guilt-Driven System
You see, legalism is a guilt-motivated system. We either
allow others to put us in bondage to their list of
rules, or we shackle ourselves to our own list.
Here's how it works. A Christian who tends toward
legalism goes to church one Sunday and hears the
preacher say, "You need to read your Bible and pray."
This Christian feels guilty because he hasn't been reading
his Bible and praying. So he sets his alarm back an
hour that night. But when the alarm goes off the next
morning, this guy doesn't really want to get up. He's
kind of grumpy, but he dutifully staggers out of bed to
read his Bible and pray because he feels that he has to.
Is there anything wrong with a preacher telling his
people they ought to read their Bibles and pray? No, and
I'll be the first one to say it. And it's not necessarily bad
that this Christian feels guilty for neglecting his spiritual
life. That could be the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The
problem comes in the way he deals with his need.
Grace-based Christians obey because it's their delight.
Law-based Christians obey because it's their duty.
Grace-based Christians obey and love it. Law-based
Christians obey and resent it. To grace-based Christians,
the spiritual life is the lifting of a burden (see
Matthew 11:30). But to legalistic Christians, living for
God feels like carrying a heavy load.
Suppose both partners in a marriage carried around
checklists of each other's duties and checked each duty
off as it was done. If the whole marriage worked on that
basis, I'd soon be seeing that couple in my office for counseling.
Husbands and wives who love each other help each
other, but the doing has to grow out of the loving. God
wants nothing less from us. If your Christian life is just a
list, you're missing it-not necessarily because the
things on your list are bad. It's just that living by a list is
a faulty approach to victory in the Christian life.
The Confusion Behind Legalism
Now that we know something about the nature of
legalism, we need to ask an important question. If spiritual
legalism is so confining and guilt-producing, why
are so many Christians falling into this trap?
In many cases, the answer is that believers are confused
about this fundamental truth: "Sin shall not be
master over you, for you are not under law but under
grace" (Romans 6:14).
A lot of Christians would say, "Come on, Tony, I
know that. That's one of the most basic principles of the
Christian life. I'm not confused about that."
But I have to wonder how many believers really understand
grace. If they did, they would realize they are
free to follow Christ. But freedom scares some folk, like
the freed slaves who wanted to stay with their slave masters
because slavery was all they had ever known.
God wants us to understand that we are completelyfree from the Law. Not free to live any way we want, but
free from trying to save ourselves by measuring up to
God's perfect standard.
In Romans 7:1-4, Paul used the death of a spouse to
illustrate our freedom from the Law. A woman whose
husband has died is free to remarry. The Law was our
old "husband," but that relationship is dead, and we are
in a new union with Christ. "Therefore, my brethren,
you also were made to die to the Law through the body
of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to
Him who was raised from the dead" (v. 4). A Christian
who is trying to please God by legalism while joined to
Christ in grace is living an absurdity.
It's like the woman who went on a trip to Europe after
her husband died and she had gone through a period
of grieving. On the trip she met a wonderful man. They
fell in love, got married, and came back to the United
States to live in her house.
But when the happy newlyweds arrived home, the
man's jaw dropped. Propped up on the living room sofa
was the corpse of the woman's first husband. She quickly
explained, "I love you, but you must understand; I
lived with this man for so long that I can't really function
without him. I need to keep him nearby."
The woman's new husband let her know in no uncertain
terms that he wasn't about to live with a dead man
in the house. She would have to choose between her deceased
husband and her new love.
I told you this was an absurdity! But this is what we
do spiritually when we try to live by the Law after
Christ has forgiven and received us by grace. Let's bury
that corpse and move on, because mixing law and grace
will never work.
If many believers are confused about the true relationship
between law and grace, some are also confused
about the nature and the role of God's Law.
The first thing we need to restate and reinforce is
that the problem is not in the Law itself. The Law of
God is good-but if it can't save us, what is its purpose?
Paul gave its purpose in Galatians 3:24. "The Law has
become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may
be justified by faith."
The apostle also explained with a personal example
in Romans 7:7-11. Paul's problem was coveting. He
didn't feel the sinfulness of coveting until the Law told
him, "You shall not covet." But he also discovered that
law gave him no power to obey God. He found himself
coveting worse than ever.
In other words, the Law doesn't exist to make us better
but to show us how helpless we are so that we will
run to Christ. The Law is the speed-limit sign on the
highway. It can't force you to slow down, but it gives the
police officer the authority to write you a ticket when
you fail to meet the standard.
The Law also arouses sin (see Romans 7:8). By arousing
the sinful nature we had before we came to Christ,
the Law showed us how much we needed Christ. But the
Law serves the same function for us now that we know
Christ. Our old nature may be dead in Christ, but our
new nature is still encased in a sin-ravaged body called
the flesh. And our flesh still wants to rebel against God.
The Law is the mirror that shows us how bad we
look without Christ. But a mirror doesn't comb our hair
or brush our teeth. The Law reveals God's good and perfect
standard and shows us how messed up we are, but
the Law can't fix what it reveals.
The Consequences of Legalism
When you came to Jesus Christ, you died to the
Law, so that it no longer has any authority over you. But
the legalist who casts aside that freedom and puts himself
back under the Law suffers the consequences. Paul
explained in Galatians 5:
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep
standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of
slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify
again to every man who receives circumcision, that
he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have
been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified
by law; you have fallen from grace. (vv. 1-4)
Legalism puts people under an impossible load.
Who could possibly keep the whole Law? One consequence
of legalism is the joyless bondage of trying harder,
yet continually falling short.
Another consequence is even more serious. What
does it mean to be "severed from Christ" and "fallen
from grace"? These are two
ways of saying the same thing.
Legalism cuts us off from the
flow of God's grace.
It's no coincidence that cult
leaders control their people by
putting them in bondage to
their list of dos and don'ts. Pretty soon the followers are
so dependent on the leader that they're incapable of relating
to God or anyone else on their own.
Legalists have the same basic problem. That is, they
never know when they've done enough to earn God's favor.
Legalism takes you backward in your relationship
with God. It is not a way to please God but a problem to
The Correction for Legalism
Simply stated, the way to correct legalism is to
maintain a relationship with God based on grace. Now,
let me emphasize that such a relationship does not mean
the absence of rules. It means that the rules grow out of
the relationship, rather than being the basis of the relationship.
It is love that sustains a godly life (see John
14:15; 1 John 5:3).
When God saved you, He wrote His Law in your
heart and mind (Hebrews 10:16). He wants to relate to
you from the inside. What was previously merely an external
code is now a matter of the heart, and it comes
with the desire to obey and please God.
Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 3:7-13 that when
Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the old
covenant, or the Law, his face glowed with God's glory.
But the glory faded, so Moses had to hide his face behind
But the new covenant of God's grace isn't like that.
The Bible says, "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where
the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with
unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the
Lord, are being transformed into the same image from
glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit" (2 Corinthians
In the new covenant, Christ comes to live within us
and brings His unfading glory. If we will keep our eyes
on Christ, His glory will rub off on us and produce glory
Anyone who has truly tasted of God's grace will not
want to go back to the Law. That's why the great
Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis said what he
did when he walked into a room one day where a group
of men were debating what makes Christianity unique
among all the world's religions.
When the question was posed to him, Lewis answered
right away. "That's easy. It's grace."