Fighting the Bonds of Legalism


“Hello, my name is Zach, and I am a recovering legalist.”

“Hello Zach,” responds a group of people sitting in a semi-circle, “thank you for sharing with us tonight.”

Thus begins a typical meeting at the local Legalists Anonymous Weekly (“L.A.W”) meeting. The only problem is…this meeting doesn’t exist.

But maybe it should. I know that there are many Christians, like myself, who struggle with trying to earn God’s favor (which is how I’m defining “legalism” in this post).

I know my identity is not as a legalist but as an adopted child of God. However, as a perfectionist who grew up in a church that didn’t properly teach about grace, I’m always striving to earn God’s favor. Therefore, I wanted to write a blog to help recovering legalists like me.

Before I begin I want to mention that there is no “silver bullet” or “quick fix” to killing legalism in your life. The only true solution is the glorious grace of the gospel. God is putting the world back to rights as he establishes his kingdom through Christ, and the way we become kingdom citizens is only by grace. We cannot earn it. We cannot do good enough. We cannot conquer our own sin. Salvation is 100% a gift, through and through, both before and after conversion.

With that in mind, I want to give some tips on ways to fight legalism in your life:

1. Focus on the parts of the Bible that emphasize God’s grace.

It is easy for a legalist to emphasize the parts of the Bible that promote judgment and minimize the passages that talk about grace. This causes us to misread the Bible. Find stories of people who have failed to whom God has shown grace, find passages that talk about being saved by grace, and find passages that talk about God’s loving character and mercy. To read the Bible without assuming that God is out for your good is to misread it.

2. Hang out with people who love grace.

It is easy to get into “self-condemnation mode” when you are by yourself. Find people who have ruined their life in sin only to be saved by Christ later on. The more one has been forgiven the more they love God (Luke 7:47). Find people who love grace and hang out with them all the time.

3. Have fun.

Martin Luther mentioned that one of the ways he fought against the devil when he felt condemned was to hang out with people, laugh, and play games. Why? Because it is a reminder that God is good and that he gives good gifts. Find the things that make you love Jesus and do them all the time. Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you are to do all to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

4. Serve.

Humans are happiest when we are serving. There is something about service that gets our eyes off of ourselves and back on Christ. Find places to serve and practice showing grace to other people (1 Pet 4:10 or John 13:14-1).

5. Hang out with lost people.

This is helpful for three reasons. First, they might actually get saved due to your influence. Second, it gets you to see what is really important. It is easy to correct someone for some small, minor sin when you are with “church people,” but when you are hanging out with an atheist, drug addict, or someone engaged in a same-sex relationship, you start to care less about legalisms and care more about that person getting saved. Third, it will affirm that you are a believer because you will see the contrast between your life and theirs.

6. Realize that God is not the one telling you to try harder.

The reason legalism is so difficult to defeat is because you feel like it is God that wants you to “do better.” However, the gospel teaches that Jesus has already “done better” on your behalf. God wants you to rest in Christ, not to try harder in your own strength.

7. Listen to worship music.

For some reason when I’m doing any other spiritual activity I “try” to do better. But there are times in my life when I have gotten together with other believers and turned on some worship music and just sat under the truth of God’s word as it was sung over me. Listening to worship music allows God to minister to us and fights our desire to minister to him as though he needs something (Acts 17:25).

8. Realize that legalism is sin.

The irony in being a legalist is that you want to keep all the rules to please God…except those rules that tell you not to be a legalist. Legalism is not righteous; it is sin. Legalism is not godly; it is demonic. It seeks to have you justify yourself instead of trusting Christ for all your righteousness. If you really want to please God then stop trying to please him. Romans 4:5 says that righteousness is credited to the unrighteous by faith, not by your “doing better.” Romans 4:3-4says we please God not by trying to please him but by faith. Jeremiah 17:5 is so bold as to say, “…Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD…” To trust in oneself is to try to put yourself under a curse and to turn away from God.

9. Don’t read passages that tell you to do good works out of context.

“But Zach,” some will say, “what about all those passages that tell us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), to be perfect (Matt 5:48), to strive for holiness (Heb 12:14), to show our faith by our works (James 2:18), and so many more?” Here is what you have to keep in mind – every single passage that encourages you to do works is meant to be applied by someone who already understands that they are saved by faith alone! As a legalist, I have a tendency to not be able to rest in grace because I will remember passages that tell me to do good deeds and use those to fight against passages that teach me about grace. However, these commands can only be applied to Christians who have already heard and embraced the gospel of grace. I don’t give my son commands so he can become my son. I give him commands because he is already my son and I already love him. We cannot get those two things backwards.

10. Realize your own depravity.

Now, this sounds counterintuitive. Shouldn’t someone who struggles with grace not think about how bad they are? Well, actually, the person who struggles with legalism only sees themselves as “kinda bad” and not “really bad.” They see themselves as only bad enough that it can be conquered through their efforts. What you must do is see that your condition is actually way worse than you think it is. It is not as though you only sin now and then - rather you are committing sins all the time. The hope here is that you would get so discouraged that you would stop trying to “be better” and cry out to Christ as your only hope. Or, as Tim Keller says, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

11. Lastly, admit that you don’t really want to be free of legalism.

There is something inside of us that finds a comfort in trying to earn God’s favor. It is almost like we are creating a safety net of our own good works in case God doesn’t catch us. If you are a Christian, you can walk in freedom from legalism. The bigger question is, why do you not want to? Deep down you may see that you just don’t think that God loves you as much as his word says he does.

So I’ll end with this. Fail, give up, tap out, stop, rest, breathe. Some people reading this blog will want to walk in more freedom but just are not tired enough or have not had their legalism hit them hard enough to where they want to tap out. You must tap out. You must not “do” but must rest. Resting is faith. Sometimes God will make you hit rock bottom so you have to learn that he loves you at your worst before you will let go. You cannot do this; he has to do it through you. But if you’ll let go now, you might not have to go through that painful process.

Here is the good news. If you know Christ then the Spirit is going to continue to shape you and teach you about grace whether you understand it or not; legalist or not, Christ is going to shape you. The more you can see that your spiritual growth is out of your hands, the more you will be able to rest. You are not waiting for freedom from legalism. The freedom has already been purchased by Christ. You are just learning to believe that you are free.

Zach Lee