The Beauty of Holiness vs. the Bondage of Legalism

By Michael Brown Published on June 9, 2023

A central theme of the Bible is that God desires holiness for His people. No honest student of the Word can doubt this for a moment, and no honest child of God should want to doubt it for a moment. Holiness is beautiful!

Holiness is our goal, our destiny, our portion. It expresses the very essence of the nature and character of God and describes the highest level of spirituality attainable by man. Holiness is just plain wonderful. Certainly no genuine believer would ever argue with that, right?

Wrong! There are plenty of believers who recoil at “holiness teaching,” finding it unscriptural and contrary to the gospel. How can this be?

For some, it is a simple reaction of the flesh. They don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want to be shaken out of their comfort zone or called to take up their cross and deny their own wills and desires. They don’t want to be confronted with the high standards of God and would rather live in their snug (and smug) shelter of self-justification than come out and hear the truth.

Some Mistake Holiness for Joyless Judgmentalism

But for other believers, rebellion, self-will, and love of the world are not the problems at all. The problem for them is that they equate holiness with legalism, finding it binding and not beautiful. In their minds, it is a system based on fear and characterized by joyless judgmentalism, producing futility instead of freedom. They perceive the “holiness message” to be a man-made brand of religion governed by law and not love, a mere following of rules without a relationship. That is not holiness! Holiness is being like Jesus, in thought, word, and deed. As Samuel Lucas noted, “The essence of true holiness consists in conformity to the nature and will of God.”

What are some of the antidotes to legalism? Returning to and remaining in our first love for the Lord. Maintaining intimacy with God. Showing the same mercy to others that He has shown to us. Keeping the cross central. Being full of the Spirit.

Legalism grasps part of this truth, rightly understanding that holiness requires us to put away sin and uncleanness, calling for a change of conduct and attitude. But legalism is more wrong than right, failing miserably to understand the essence of holiness (it concentrates on outward forms and not inner realities) and the process of holiness (emphasizing human effort without the grace and power of the Holy Spirit). Legalism kills!

Pastor Chuck Swindoll pulled no punches in his 1990 book The Grace Awakening. He warned that “there are grace killers on the loose!” Their effect, according to Swindoll, is devastating, wreaking havoc on other believers:

Bound and shackled by legalists’ lists of do’s and don’ts, intimidated and immobilized by others’ demands and expectations, far too many in God’s family merely exist in the tight radius of bondage dictated by those who have appointed themselves our judge and jury. Long enough have we lived like frightened deer in a restrictive thicket of negative regulations. Long enough have we submitted to the do’s and don’ts of religious kings of the mountain. Long enough have we been asleep while all around us the grace killers do their sinister nighttime work. No longer! It’s time to awaken. The dawn is bright with grace.

Legalism is Religion Without Relationship

But what exactly is legalism? It has several different forms, but all of them flow from the same source, namely, religion without relationship, emphasizing standards more than the Savior.

To a non-believer, the legalist preaches justification by works, saying, “You’re a wicked sinner and you need to get rid of all your filthy habits if you want the Lord to accept you.” There is no grace in this message, no exalting of the life-changing, sin-cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, no clear proclamation of mercy. The declaration of God’s love expressed through the cross is muffled — if it is even heard at all. Consequently, the proof of the new birth is seen almost entirely in what someone no longer does.

Emphasizing Standards More Than the Savior

Let me illustrate this with the amusing story of two farmers who had a talk about Christianity. One of them said to his friend, “I hear that you’re a Christian.”

“That’s right,” the other replied.

“Well, what does it mean to be a Christian?” the curious farmer asked.

“Well,” came the reply, “I don’t drink, smoke, or run around with women.”

“In that case,” the friend responded, “my mule must be a Christian too, because my mule doesn’t drink, smoke, or run around with women!”

That’s legalism in a nutshell, and that’s how it makes Christianity sound to many a sinner.

Legalism Leads to Despair or Arrogance

Within the church, legalism is also easy to spot. It judges almost entirely by externals — and boy does it judge! — quickly condemning those who don’t immediately conform to the particular group’s outward norm. And, generally speaking, the more legalistic a church group is, the more particular they will be about one or two specific aspects of behavior or dress, making those the standard by which everything else is measured.

Interestingly, as Max Lucado observed in his 1996 book In the Grip of Grace, legalists end up in “either despair or arrogance” with remarkable predictability. “They either give up or become stuck-up. They think they’ll never make it, or they think they are the only ones who’ll ever make it.” What an apt summary of the two-fold perils of legalism!

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“But doesn’t the Bible hold us to high standards?” you may ask. “Isn’t the whole purpose of your book to call believers to live up to the standards of God?”

Of course, God has high standards and of course, He calls us to live up to those standards, as we will see throughout this book.

The problem with legalists is that: (1) they try to change a person from the outside in (whereas God deals with us from the inside out); (2) they fail to present a balanced picture of the Lord, putting too little stress on His mercy and too much emphasis on His wrath; (3) they do not point the struggling sinner (or believer) to the Lord’s supernatural empowerment, making holiness a matter of human effort alone; and (4) they add laws, standards, commandments, customs, and traditions that are not found in the Word, making them even more important than the biblical commandments themselves.

The Legalist Doesn’t Emphasize What God Emphasizes and Doesn’t Trust God to Change People

So, the legalistic Christian can mockingly rail on those who don’t live as he does, feeling that his lack of love is fine. Yet he will be quick to condemn a loving, gentle-hearted Christian who wears a wristwatch or wedding ring. The minors become major (even in cases where the minors are purely human issues that are of no concern to the Lord at all) and the majors (which are of great concern to the Lord) become minor.

More ominously, because the legalist is firmly convinced that he is doing God’s service, he is full of passion, often acting as a modern-day inquisitor. And because legalism is driven by the flesh and not the Spirit, it finds it necessary to enforce its religion on others. The legalist cannot prayerfully depend on God to change people; he must change them himself!

All this stands in stark contrast to the biblical message and method of holiness. Biblical holiness begins with the heart and flows from an encounter with God and His Word. It calls for repentance in response to the Lord’s gracious offer of salvation and it offers a way to be holy — the blood of Jesus and the Spirit of God. Biblical holiness is free, although it requires discipline and perseverance. For the legalist, nothing is free. Everything must be earned! Legalism leads to bondage; holiness leads to liberty.

Where Does Legalism Come From?

What are the roots of legalism? It tends to arise when the inner core of true religion grows cold but the outward form of religion is maintained. Legalism is loveless. It remembers what true spirituality produced in the previous generation of believers — including turning from sin and embracing a holy lifestyle — and then imposes those end-results on those who have not had that same experience. And inevitably, it tries to take those standards even further, attempting to please God by demonstrating an even greater zeal than that displayed by the previous generation (or, trying to safeguard those standards by putting a protective hedge around them).

The Medicine for Legalism

What are some of the antidotes to legalism? Returning to and remaining in our first love for the Lord. Maintaining intimacy with God. Showing the same mercy to others that He has shown to us. Keeping the cross central. Being full of the Spirit.

Stay fresh, and you will never grow stale — or legalistic.

(Excerpted and adapted from Michael L. Brown, Go and Sin No More: A Call to Holiness.)

 

Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is Why So Many Christians Have Left the Faith. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

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