Why Do We Continue to Struggle with Legalism?

by Casey Lewis September 8, 2017

If you think about it, the world is full of untrue, unsound, unbiblical theology. It is important we know where it comes from so we can better understand it, speak against it, and protect ourselves and others from it.

Paul did just that in the church at Ephesus. He spoke out against bad theology to help the Ephesians protect themselves from it.

What Bad Theology Did Paul Deal With?

Paul dealt with legalism. Legalism is essentially a form of works-based salvation. It tells us that we have to do certain things in order to attain or maintain a relationship with God. Look at 1 Timothy 4:3. About the false teachers in Ephesus Paul says:

“who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” (1 Timothy 4:3)

We see that the false teachers in Ephesus taught that you couldn’t get married and you had to abstain from certain foods in order to be a true Christian.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with singleness or abstention from certain foods. God calls people to a life of singleness and to give up certain foods for a while. Paul was one such person (1 Cor. 7:8; 8:13). The trouble comes when we tell others they have to do works in order to be a true Christian. When we do that, we practice legalism.

Christianity and Legalism don’t mix.

Christianity teaches the exact opposite of legalism. It teaches us that we can’t work to attain or maintain our salvation. Salvation, then, is gained and kept by Jesus' work on our behalf. It is His death on the cross that paid the price for our past, present, and future sins. When we believe that, we are freed from having to work to earn and keep our salvation. There is nothing for us to work for, there is no record for God to keep, there is no debt for us to pay. It has been paid for us. That’s the distinguishing mark of Christianity. We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone.

But other world religions don’t believe or teach the same. They don’t believe God saves us. Instead, they believe we save ourselves. In that way, most world religions are built on a form of legalism.

Buddhist’s believe in an eight-fold path that you must follow in order to reach a state of Nirvana.

Hindu’s believe you must work through a cycle of reincarnation until you are ultimately absorbed into Brahman.

Muslim’s believe your good must outweigh your bad in order to enter into heaven.

And many others like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons believe it is your works that provide salvation.

While Christianity differs from other world religions, even we can fall back into a form of legalism. We can fall back into the idea that we are the ones who have to earn or keep our salvation. Why is that?

Why do we continue to struggle with Legalism?

1. I believe we struggle with legalism because we don’t think we are that bad. 

Sure, we might sin a little here and there, but we don’t see ourselves as totally depraved sinners who are on a highway to hell. Because we don’t see ourselves that way, we tend to focus on the good things we do. We think we can earn favor with God through our works.

2. I believe we can easily fall back into legalism because we want things to be simple. 

We want a 12 step program that takes us from sinner to saint with black and white rules to get there.

3. We don’t want to depend on God to help us discern the gray areas of life. 

We want it fast and easy. And waiting on God is not always fast nor easy.

4. We want to know who’s good and who’s bad. 

Most of the time we want to know this about others because we want to be able to judge them based on what they are or aren’t doing.

Those are some of the reasons I believe we continue to struggle with and continually put on the chains legalism.

But life’s not that simple. God wants us to depend on Him, to study His Word, to seek Him in prayer. He wants us to rely on Christ and not our own work. He wants us to be set apart from how the world does things. Instead of running back to legalism, we need to continue to run to Christ, remembering our distinguishing mark — that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone.