Is Your Church Guilty of Legalism?

Throughout history, there have been churches that were licentious and loose, but there have also been churches run rampant with legalism.


Editor’s Note: This article is part one of two on “Is Your Church Guilty of Legalism?” Part two can be read here.

It is true to this day, for legalism isn’t a practice that was restricted only to the confines of the 1st century Phariseeism that Jesus confronted in His day. Legalism thrives in churches around the world and is damaging to the Christian faith.

If you are a Christian, you’ve probably heard that term before? What exactly is legalism?

Legalism is simply the adding and enforcing of extra-biblical laws or expectations for salvation and/or godly living. Whereas licentiousness is the abuse of God’s Law by doing away with its practice, legalism is the abuse of God’s Law whereby a form of holiness is forced or manipulated into the life of a believer through a standard that the Bible does not explicitly endorse. Issues that are not condemned or spoken against in the Bible are considered “gray areas,” “liberty practices,” “wisdom issues,” or cultural and social “traditions.” If it is not spoken of as sin in the Bible, it falls into one of the four categories above, and is left to the individual’s conscience and motives when practicing these things. Legalism puts into law matters that are considered freedom or traditions and treats it as it were sin, and sometimes going so far as church disciplining those who do not abide by that standard.

Before outlining what legalism is, it is important for us to know what legalism is not. Legalism is not diligently obeying the word of God, especially in wanting to live a life that is pleasing onto God. Scripture commands us to obey the Lord and to strive to be holy in keeping with our identity as children of God (John 17:17; 1 Peter 1:15). A Christian who reads the Bible everyday, keeps his speech clean, guards his conscience, attends church every Sunday, and does weekly evangelism does not fall under legalism. It is gospel-centered obedience. Some have criticized devoted Christian living as a means to justify their disobedient and rebellious lifestyle.

Legalism is also not a social way of life. It is not looking at a Christian and disagreeing with his style of clothes or music. Legalism does not equate to a conservative way of life. When a Christian forces or disciplines another for his social or preferential way of life, that is legalism. But to simply have your own likes and inclinations – no matter how conservative or foreign it is – is not legalism.

With that said, true legalism is manifested in three ways: 1. Legalism to gain salvation; 2. Legalism to maintain salvation; and 3. Legalism to testify of salvation.

We’ll take a closer look at these three main manifestations of legalism more in Part Two of Is Your Church Guilty of Legalism?

Steve Cha is the teaching pastor of Grace City LA.




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