While I doubt the average Christian would say, “Avoiding legalism and lawlessness are among my greatest struggles,” they remain a crucial issue in every Christian walk, since the Christian life can never be set on autopilot. The Christian life requires day-by-day, moment-by-moment re-calibrating of our hearts. It also requires a willingness to continue learning and growing in our knowledge of God along with how He wants to be served. But what is the immovable standard by which everything else must be calibrated? The Gospel.

The great cure for every sin is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So we avoid legalism by focusing on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We also avoid lawlessness by focusing on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In this post, we will consider the pitfalls of legalism, and how the Gospel lifts us out of them. The next post will look at the dangers of lawlessness, and how the Gospel guards us against them.

Avoiding Legalism

Legalism is displayed in many ways. Here are just three examples of how it can crop up in our lives:

1) Adding rules to God’s rules.

It is easy to scoff at the Pharisees adding hundreds of rules to God’s actual law, but we can be guilty of the same thing oftentimes, whether we formally codify our rules or not. When we do this, we are in effect saying we are more righteous than God. As just one instance, the Bible defies many Christians’ legalistic approach to alcohol. In 1 Timothy 5:23 we find Paul’s instruction to the young minister Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” We cannot help but notice how illuminating it is when we have a direct contrast of modern-day legalism with clear Scripture!

The Bible makes it plain that drunkenness is a sin. That is undisputed. But some denominations require that a prospective minister not drink any alcohol; meanwhile Paul the Apostle writes to the leader of the church at Ephesus and says, “Drink a little wine” (1 Timothy 5:23). Are we better Christians than Paul? Are we better teachers or church leaders than Paul? Are we more concerned about sin’s dangers than Paul? Do we consider ourselves wiser about sanctification than Paul?

If you just want to avoid the temptation to sin, it is perfectly appropriate never to touch alcohol. But we step over the line when we pretend that our personal standard or choices are on a par with the law and Word of God, and then try to make everyone else submit to it as though it is God’s Word.

We must not add our own set of rules or standards to God’s perfect standard, in his Word.

2) Requiring others to agree with us on every Bible interpretation, or worldview issue.

It is so easy to see how a zealous person in the early church could make the issue in 1 Corinthians 8 (about food offered to idols) sound like a major concern, even a test of Christian orthodoxy. The logic could go like this: the first and second commandments say we are to love only God and not make idols; the pagan people around us are offering food to idols before serving it to us; therefore, any Christian must refuse idol-food, or they are breaking the Ten Commandments.

Ironically, Paul calls those who had a problem with eating idol-foods the “weak” ones. Those who were stronger and Gospel-centered were those who realized that idols are nothing, Christians don’t need to be superstitious like their pagan counterparts, and so the Gospel frees us from worrying about whether our food was set before a carved image before it was set before us.

It is right and appropriate to draw conclusions and principles from the clear teaching of Scripture, but when we make our interpretation of Scripture the standard by which others are judged, we are in effect saying that we, not God’s Word, are the perfect standard. We must also not require others to agree with us on every point of doctrine or practice to recognize them as Christians and treat them accordingly.

For what it’s worth, a helpful rule of thumb for me has been to ask this: could a well-meaning Christian, who believes in the inerrancy of Scripture and is seeking to obey Jesus as their Lord and Savior, understand this passage/issue differently than I do? If so, then I probably ought to be patient with those who disagree with me; if not, it may be a more important issue about which a stand must be made -– but even then it ought to be done graciously, in a way that adorns the gospel I am defending.

3) Thinking that we are more or less beautiful to God when we’ve had a good or bad day.

The beautiful truth of the Gospel is God never hears us because of how good we’ve been; we are always received and heard and blessed because of how good Jesus is, for us. Giving in to the lie that God will hear me, or not hear me, because of how good or bad I’ve been today is legalism.

Applying the Gospel

So how do we avoid falling into all the different traps of legalism, when they come so naturally to us?

The Gospel is the cure for every form of legalism that threatens to creep into our hearts. God is good, we are not, and so Jesus was good for us; He died on our behalf (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Ephesians 5:2; 1 Peter 2:24; Revelation 1:5-6). This is the Gospel. When we are trusting in Christ’s righteousness on our behalf we do the following:

  • We do not need to add more rules to make ourselves feel more righteous.
  • We won’t judge people by our own standards, and we will treat them with the grace we have enjoyed ourselves.
  • We will be reminded, as Tim Keller as so well puts it, that “what makes me beautiful to God is Jesus.”

The Gospel lifts us out of the many pitfalls of legalism, and grounds God’s people in the goodness of God, for us, in Christ.