Loving Legalism – No Such Thing!


From the time the first human beings walked the face of the earth, literally billions of people have been living lives of religious legalism—attempting to do for themselves what God has already done for them—trying to replace God’s infinitely powerful grace with empty, useless human effort.

After Jesus came to us, telling us about and showing us God’s unconditional love, and after establishing his church, it seems we should have gotten the point. But even though Jesus, God in the flesh, came as one of us revealing the Father, religious legalism continues even among people who claim to be Christians.

In fact legalism, as a counterfeit and hopelessly flawed way of relating to God, has so insinuated itself into Christ-less religion many defend it by calling it “loving legalism.” In nominally Christian churches and homes all over the world, children are raised in an abusive environment which many consider to be one and the same as God’s love.

Thankfully, by God’s grace, many manage to escape the bonds of legalistic religion. Yet many religious refugees continue experiencing long-term effects—many who have been rescued from spiritual tyranny continue to feel they are not good enough because they are no longer following the religious rules, regulations, regimentation and rituals that they once learned.

They may attend Christ-centered, grace-based fellowships, but oftentimes the shame, guilt and oppression of their past just won’t go away. They feel condemned. They feel like they must work and work and “stop sinning” before God will accept them.

The truth is that there is no such thing as “loving legalism,” as distinct from the realistic definition of guilt / shame-based Christ-less religion.

“Loving legalism” (and again, there is no such thing) is spiritually toxic, for it flourishes, almost undetected, often counterfeiting biblical grace.

Abuse or Love?

Shelters that offer care, resources and counseling to battered wives (and, though far less frequent, battered husbands) are filled with people whose spouses abused them “in the name of love.” Battered, bruised and beaten people often become convinced, in a horribly twisted and perverted way, that the physical violence they receive from their spouse (or in the case of children, their parents) is actually an expression of love. This same dynamic is pervasive within oppressive, big business religion. People by the hundreds of millions have come to believe in a god (or gods) who wants them to suffer—a god (or gods) who delights in pain, who is appeased by the abuse of its followers. Spiritual abuse in the guise of Christendom is justified in the name of rules and laws—the idea that people must please and appease God by their performance.

A friend of mine once put it this way: “My own experiences have shown me that I am far more likely to be deeply wounded in my spirit and my heart by a brother or sister in Christ than a non-believer. I am more likely to find safety outside the four walls of a brick-and-mortar church and feel love and acceptance from people who don’t attend ‘church’ at all (whether they believe themselves to be Christ-followers or not) than I am from within the institutional trappings, programs and procedures of organized religion. I have found that when I have endured pain and suffering, my ‘friends’ who were members of an organized church would quickly condemn me and decide that I deserved the heartaches I was going through because God was ‘teaching me a lesson!'”

Legalism assures its followers that abuse and condemnation are part of the way God expresses his love. Thus, some speak of the horrible contradiction, “loving legalism.” There is, my friends, nothing loving about legalism!

No one can read the teachings of Jesus and conclude that he was a mean-spirited preacher of hatred, condemnation and intolerance. Somewhere along the way Christendom has been so infiltrated by the false gospel of legalism that members of churches are convinced that they should form lynch mobs and goon squads to convince “bad people” of their sins. Jesus would not, indeed, he does not, get along with legalism.

“Knowing About” Grace and Experiencing Grace

You see, legalism, and its resulting shame and guilt-based motivations, is the basic make up of all human beings. We react to a quid-pro-quo logic—you do something for me and I will do something for you. You fail to do something for me, therefore I will not reward you, like you or love you. That is the basic foundation of all human relationships—we are hard-wired that way. Everyone struggles with this issue—and many are completely unaware of their natural inclination and orientation to legalism.

Legalistic logic seems rationally compelling. It appeals to our basic idea of “how things work.” Paul called these things the “principles of this world”—see Galatians 4:3, 9 and Colossians 2:20. These chapters, in the context of the entire books of Colossians and Galatians, can give us greater clarity and vision about God’s grace. And, of course, God’s grace is the answer and solution to the toxic evils of Christ-less legalism.

There are two different ways to know grace. One is to know about it academically—to have a cognitive grasp of what the Bible says about God’s grace.

The other way of knowing grace is built on revelation or academic knowledge, but it goes beyond mere facts about grace. Knowing God’s grace is daring to trust him, implicitly, and live—no, luxuriate— in his grace.

We can contrast the two ways of knowing God’s grace with someone who is standing by the side of a swimming pool or lake—perhaps dipping their toes in the water to ascertain the temperature, noting the depth of the water, but never jumping in. Standing there and making observations is “knowing about” God’s grace. On the other hand, another person decides to take “the leap of faith.” They jump in. Consequently, they are fully immersed in God’s grace. They don’t just “know about” God’s grace, they experience it. They immerse themselves in it and with it. They luxuriate in God’s grace.