Legalism is adding our laws to God’s laws as if He missed something or needed our help. Legalists see only the demands and commands of Scripture and make long lists of rules by which to judge people and enslave them to the law of duty that kills delight. They also overlook all that Jesus has done to fulfill the demands of the law in our place, so that our hope and trust is in our own efforts and not Jesus’ finished work, which is a disgrace to grace.
Rebuking such erroneous teaching, Paul condemns legalists, saying, “You have fallen away from grace” to people who basically thought that they were saved by grace but kept by their own works and law-keeping so that God would love them.57 They wrongly believed that if they obeyed, God would love them, rather than believe the truth of grace, which is that God loves us so that we will obey. That is why Paul says that the entire domain in which true Christians live is no longer works but grace, “this grace in which we stand.”58
The self-efforts of works that dominate every religion but Christianity focus legalistically on what we must do so that God will accept us, forgive us, embrace us, or, in a word, love us. Conversely, Christianity alone says that human works done apart from God’s Spirit are antithetical to God’s grace. Romans 11:6 declares that “if [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Indeed, we are saved by God’s saving grace and are saved to good works. Nonetheless, those good works are also by God’s grace through us:
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.59
The issue is not whether Christians should do good works, such as loving their city, feeding the poor, caring for single mothers and their children, loving their enemies, or telling the truth, but rather how and why. The answer is not that we do good works so that God will love us or because we have to do them. Rather, we do good works because by grace in Jesus Christ, God does love us by grace. Furthermore, God’s saving grace has so utterly transformed us that we no longer have to do good works, but rather we get to do good works by the empowering grace of God the Holy Spirit, who is at work in our regenerated hearts.
To be sure, it is acceptable for us to make rules for ourselves that serve as guardrails to keep us from sin where we are weak. This is what the Bible means by living according to our conscience. So, a recovering alcoholic may choose to avoid social settings where there is alcohol or someone struggling with a pornography addiction may decide to remove Internet access from their home at least for a season. But, when we take our rules and impose them on other people as if they were God’s laws, that’s when legalism has set in and begun a war against grace.
Are there any areas in your life where you have started to take your personal rules and to push them onto others along with God’s laws? Is there anyone in your life seeking to do this very thing to you?
57 Gal. 5:4.
58 Rom. 5:2.
59 Eph. 2:8–10.