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Distinguishing Between Sanctification and Legalism

Posted On October 27, 2019

Fear of being accused of legalism has, in some circles of Evangelicalism, led to decreasing calls for personal holiness. This is, I believe, particularly true among younger Christians. Many of them have grown up in a form of hyper-fundamentalism that was marked by all sorts of legalism. One can appreciate, then, and even applaud their disdain for it. Yet, I am increasingly concerned that this fear has caused many of us to be suspicious of all holiness talk. We must remind ourselves that sanctification and legalism are not the same thing.

The Hole in Our Holiness

Several years ago, Pastor Kevin DeYoung wrote about the “Hole in Holiness”, describing a kind of Evangelicalism that is exceedingly reluctant to speak about, and fight for, personal holiness in the life of the believer. He says:

Among conservative Christians there is sometimes the mistaken notion that if we are truly gospel-centered we won’t talk about rules or imperatives or moral exertion. We are so eager not to confuse indicatives (what God has done) and imperatives (what we should do) that we get leery of letting biblical commands lead uncomfortably to conviction of sin. We’re scared of words like diligence, effort, and duty. Pastors don’t know how to preach the good news in their sermons and still strongly exhort churchgoers to cleanse themselves from every defilement of body and spirit (2nd Corinthians 7:1). We know legalism (salvation by law keeping) and antinomianism (salvation without need for law keeping) are both wrong, but antinomianism feels like a much safer danger. (The Hole in Our Holiness, 19)

Out of fear that we will promote—or at least be accused of promoting—legalism, many Christians can no longer talk about the pursuit of godliness. Worse still, godliness itself is very poor in the church. Brad Waggoner and his team at B&H surveyed 2500 Protestants who attend church on a regular basis. Their research and the results of their surveys revealed some disappointing trends.

They asked the participants ten questions to gauge obedience in the Christian life and found that “only 2 percent of the respondents, about 50 of the 2500, gave an ideal response to all ten questions” (The Shape of Faith to Come, 84). So, for example, on the question/statement, “A Christian must learn to deny himself/herself in order to serve Christ”, only twenty-eight percent “agreed strongly”. On the question/statement, “When I come to realize that some aspect of my life is not right in God’s eyes, I make the necessary changes”, only twenty-three percent “agreed strongly”. Thirty-two percent of their sample pray “irregularly or seldom”. Fifty-one percent “rarely or never” memorize Scripture, and only thirty-seven percent of their sample says that “one of the main reasons I live my life the way I do is to please and honor God”. Needless to say, pursuit of godliness is an issue in the church.

Distinguishing Between Legalism and Sanctification

If godliness is poor in church pastors, leaders, and Christians in general, we must find a healthy way to talk about sanctification. We can start by distinguishing clearly between it and legalism. Several helpful steps can allow us to make this distinction clear.

First, we should clearly define legalism. Some of the confusion lies in our understanding of the terminology. Many Christians assume all forms of intentional obedience are legalism. Obedience that happens “accidentally” is acceptable. But attempts to purposefully obey God are perceived as attempts to be legalistic. Legalism, however, is specifically self-righteousness. It ascribes more merit to my good deeds than they are worth. It attempts to attain a high level of morality apart from God. Not all obedience works this way. My daughter might obey me in order to make her brother look bad. She might obey me in order to try and get something from me later. But sometimes she obeys me simply because she loves me and wants to please me. Christian obedience works this way too. Not all obedience is legalism. When we clarify the terms, we can begin to see the difference.

Second, we need to understand our role in sanctification. Salvation is all by grace through faith, and this is not of our own doing (Ephesians 2:8). There is no denying that salvation is a monergistic act. Yet, once we become believers, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we are commanded to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called” (Ephesians 4:1; Colossians 1:10). The New Testament is replete with imperatives. We are commanded, as followers of Christ to do all sorts of things. Our spiritual growth involves our obedience. Christians are not free to do whatever they want; we are under the law of Christ (1st Corinthians 9:21). Love of Jesus demands obedience to His commands (John 14:15; 1st John 5:3). When some people speak of legalism, it is evident that they do not understand our role in the process of sanctification. Teaching on this and studying this can help clarify much.

Finally, we ought to remind ourselves that even in our obedience we are dependent upon God. We have a role in our own sanctification, and yet the Bible tells us that, ultimately, even this is God’s work. So Paul says tells the Philippians to work and that ultimately it is God who works.

Philippians 2:12-13 explains, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Work out your salvation “for it is God who works in you”. We work, but ultimately it is God who accomplishes the work. There are other examples, too. We are being transformed in degrees by the Spirit (2nd Corinthians 3:18). The Lord makes us increase in holiness (1st Thessalonians 3:12-13). God is the one who sanctifies us completely (1st Thessalonians 5:23). Sanctification is by the Spirit (2nd Thessalonians 2:13). God works in us that which is pleasing in His sight (Hebrews 13:20-21). He who began a good work will see it to completion (Philippians 1:6). Yes, we must work, we must obey, we must strive towards godliness, and yet, even this is dependent upon the Lord. It is not legalism when we depend upon God to transform us. Remembering this frees us. As we depend upon God for sanctification, we do not need to fear legalism.

Holiness is important to the Christian and to the Church as a whole. The threat of legalism cannot keep us from addressing the subject. Distinguishing between sanctification and legalism can help us move in the right direction.

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