Christianity Faith

Why Legalism Just Plain Sucks

The law is good but there is something it cannot do. It cannot save me. Francis SchaefferOften there’s no other way to say things than to just say them out loud: nothing makes me want to behave rebelliously more than legalism does.

Of course, the truth is that I am prone to rebel. Like you, it’s in my DNA and, while they may differ, you and I have triggers. Little (or big) things that send us off on a path of building up or tearing down.

When it comes to Christian legalism, I believe it calls for both. Uproot and tear down the causes of legalism and replace them by building up an authentic relationship with Christ.

Sounds simple, right? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either.

The Doctrine of Legalism

In a judicial environment, legalism is an adherence to law, especially the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.

In Christian theology, legalism takes on many forms and has countless expressions. Basically, it’s improperly using the law in excess. Legalism often teaches that salvation is gained, maintained, or can be improved by what you do. Maybe you’ve heard it called the “doctrine of good works.” In times past, this “legalist” would teach that salvation is gained by adherence to the letter of a system of laws, usually Mosaic Law.

Some add that your salvation can even be made better if you adhere closely enough to whatever tradition or teaching is being emphasized.

In most Christian circles where you’ll experience “legalism,” it usually includes a proclamation that “we would never fall into that!” Or would we?


Most, if not all, religions have long lists of customs, traditions and rituals that all fall soundly into the scope of legalism. Even within the Christian faith. Let’s call this stuff what it is: extra-biblical baggage.

These things can be innocent and can even be good. They can also be as sharp and deadly as imposing control over others. Beliefs or practices that place unusual or abnormal restrictions on the lives of believers tend to be the building blocks of legalism. This can include teaching that only baptism into a certain denomination is valid. Things like style of worship, which Bible translation to use, tithing, circumcision and even communion can land here.

And he said to them, “You splendidly ignore the commandment of God so that you can keep your tradition.

Mark 7:9

Here’s another example that is easily encountered: church attendance. Sadly, on more than one occasion I have seen expected attendance used as a weapon to shame and guilt people. Let’s open that one up…

Legalism vs. Obedience

How many times did you miss church only to have it addressed by some well-meaning person? How often have you seen otherwise miserable people put on their Sunday best and fix a smile to their face for a few hours a week for the sake of meeting an attendance expectation?

I’m not saying that church attendance is a bad thing or that it should be optional to the believer. I am saying though that while we are not to “forsake the gathering of the saints” (Hebrews 10:25), we must also remember that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, and that “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27; Mark 2:23-28) and it does not always look like Sunday morning.

When one puts on the good shoes and struts out to church each and every Sunday morning simply and only because there is shame involved, either from another person or from past experience, we may begin to encounter a nasty flavor of legalism.

Obedience to Christ

Again, don’t pick up what I’m not putting down: we do what we do out of love and obedience for Christ, not out of obligation to the law. Sometimes that means we go to church every Sunday because that is the service of some, but is it always the service of all?

What I am trying to say here is this: worship in the company of fellow believers is healthy and should be something we want to be a part of out of love for Christ and is included in being a part of his body.

And they were devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.

Acts 2:42

Here’s another angle. I’m not ready to say that occasionally not attending church because of a special event, or even for an inactive day of rest isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But skipping out on church at every opportunity probably is. Fellowship in a local church is indeed crucial, and serving in your place of worship is essential.

Here’s another side to that, though.

On the other hand, skipping your occasional event or downtime and calling it Christian obligation doesn’t seem like a healthy approach, either. This is a symptom of legalism called self-denial, and efforts to partake in that with the hope of scoring extra points with God will fall flat and ultimately result in puffing you up with pride.

The Gospel of Grace Above the Letter of Law

Remember that legalism defined means that something you do (or do not do) grants, maintains, or improves your salvation. Doing things under this system creates resentment for the church, towards leaders, and even towards other believers. Ultimately though, legalism creates resentment towards God and his word.

And you already know that’s a bad thing.


In his article How Christ Fulfilled and Ended the Old Testament Regimeauthor and pastor John Piper said of Matthew 5:17-18, “Jesus came to fulfill all that was written in the Law and the Prophets. All of it was pointing to him even where it is not explicitly prophetic. He accomplishes what the Law required.”

In Christ, we have the only avenue to salvation and according to Romans 10:4, Jesus Christ is the completion and the end of the law to those who believe in his righteousness.

Nothing more can be added.

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4 thoughts on “Why Legalism Just Plain Sucks

  1. Excellent article and well written! Keep up the good work. I appreciate the way your articles provide food for thought while opening dialogue about serious issues.

    1. Thank you, Audrie, I appreciate your encouragement! What other issues do you think should be opened up?

    2. I want to avoid becoming legalistic at all costs. I prefer to “error” on the side of grace verses legalistism. Jesus didn’t take issue with sinners it was time and time again that He was correcting the religious leaders who misinterpreted the scripture, or used cultural traditions to control others as if those traiditions were equal to Biblical law (Matt 12:1-14). If we look at the fruit or result of a teaching in our modern day churches then we can determine if it is a distorted truth or an actual truth (Matt 12:33). The fruit of the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit [result] in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [not man control](Galatians 5:22) We can manufacture some of those qualities but the more time we spend listening to the still small voice of the Holy Spirit and doing what He guides us to do the more we develop these good traits and allow them to grow and take over.

  2. Gene, Personally I would like to have more discussions about how women of the Bible were used of God and how they could be encouraged to be better utilized in today’s church. If God leads you to write about this that would greatly intrigue me! But of course only do it if you feel lead by the Lord. The previous articles that you have been inspired to write have been a blessing.

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