Legalism, and How It Can Kill Your Faith

14 Jan

Hello again!

Today, and possibly for two-four more days, I’ve decided to take a break from the normal transquotation and temporarily move on to a different subject: legalism. I wrote this particular thing last night, and only have had a chance to review it once today, so please don’t be surprised if it has a few spelling errors:

What is legalism?

One of the main problems is Church society today is the misunderstanding of what legalism really is. Through this misunderstanding, Christians all across America have fallen into a legalistic pattern of life. Perhaps the following even description of a legalist even describes you:

A legalist is someone who believes that by doing something; they can be made right with God. The thing that they do may seem to be something as innocent as reading the Bible, or it may even be praying, or mediating on Scripture, or attending a weekly prayer meeting, even going to Church. Now, in of themselves, all these things are, of course, very good and right. It’s when you get that ‘sense of pride’ after accomplishing all those things that is the problem. Take a minute and examine yourself in as much honesty as possible; why do you read the Bible? Do you do it out of a sense of duty, or out of your pure love of God? Why do you pray? Why is it you go to Church? Is it because you think that by going to Church you someone become closer to God? We all must take an honest look at ourselves every now and again and examine to see why it is we do things.

Legalism is, basically, the act of taking Jesus’ death out of play, and putting our deeds and actions forefront. Sadly, when it’s us behind the wheel and not Jesus, we often find ourselves crashing into obstacles and hitting roadblocks of temptation which we can’t seem to pass. – Legalism, to put it in terms a Christian can easily understand, is kicking Jesus off the cross and attempting to put our works there. With that understood, what’s a practical example of legalism? Surely it hasn’t truly infested the Church.

Let’s bring a fake character into play, let’s call him John.  John is a new convert to Christianity; he’s eagerly, if a little timidly, taking his first step into a Church service today. All he really knows right now is that he’s been saved by faith in the Jesus Christ.

Today the pastor has chosen to preach on the need for every member of his congregation to spend at least half an hour every-day in Bible reading. John listens attentively, and when he goes home that morning he eagerly erases his schedule and fits in half an hour every day to give wholly to Bible reading; he starts right then to read his bible. Today John and his wife, also a new convert, are having Tim and his wife, Sarah, over for dinner. Tim rings the door bell, and John opens the door. They exchange greetings, and soon get to eating. After they finish, Tim puts his bible on the table and looks expectantly at John. John stands up, stretches a little, and then decides to go get himself some more coffee. “Wait John,” calls Tim. “Aren’t we going to have a devotional?” John had never considered this before, so he decides from then on to have a devotional every night. After Tim leaves, John erases his calendar again and writes in his new schedule. Feeling a sense of pride coming up inside of him at how well he’s already doing at being a Christian, he breaks out whistling.

The next day, John gets up and goes about his day. At about ten Tim calls, “Hey John, when you prayed last night I noticed you were hesitant and didn’t really know what to say. I’ve got this great book that I think you should read that will really help you along with your personal and public praying. Along with reading the book, I’d also suggest you set aside fifteen minutes or so a day to pray to God. I have, and it’s really helped me with my prayer!” So later that day John drives over, picks up the book, drives back to his house, and starts to read.

Now John, though he’s a little worried at how little free time he now seems to have, what with work and all, feels he must now really be a good Christian. After all, look at everything he’s been doing? And, now that he thinks of it, didn’t the pastor also mention something about a weekly prayer meeting? Might as well go to that too! Maybe other Christians would even be impressed at how fast he learned to pray.

One year later, and John is horribly depressed. By the end of his first month, John had been a very busy man. Soon though, he simply couldn’t keep up with it all. He took up smoking again to try to cope with the stress, started drinking, left Church and has decided to never think of being a Christian again. He simply couldn’t worship God when he forgot to pray for fifteen minutes, or accidentally shaved off a couple of minutes from his Bible reading, or missed the prayer meeting. He felt like he couldn’t go before God if he missed out on anything on his schedule, soon it all became too much for him, and he simply left.

Now then, we all know John had a problem. But you and I may have different viewpoints on what that problem was. Some people may say, “He was simply too busy, if he’d done fewer things, he wouldn’t have left!” Another may claim, “He needed to start taking antidepressants, if he’d done that surely he would’ve stayed in the Church and wouldn’t have ever even felt the need to start smoking or drinking!” None of these is the solution. The problem is that John became a legalist; he didn’t think he could go before God if he’d messed up.  He was looking at things wrong; he stopped looking at things as a way to build his faith with God, and began looking at things as a way to be right with God.

Muslims believe that by bowing five times towards the east in the morning, and that by washing themselves (and by doing other things as well) they become right with God. Jews believe in keeping the law to be right with God; they’re both legalists. Yet, the sad truth is; so are a large majority of Christians, if perhaps in a less dramatic fashion.

Paul tells us in his second Epistle to the Corinthians to examine ourselves:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5)

We need to examine ourselves to make sure we are indeed living upright, non-legalistic lives (we’ll find out in detail section why it’s important not to be legalistic). Otherwise, we’ll end up like John: depressed, without hope, figuring we’re too bad to come before God because of failure to deliver on our part. What we must realize is that God has already delivered; delivered His son to a horrible death on a cross in order to save us.

You are Loved!

Joshua Cleveland


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8 responses to “Legalism, and How It Can Kill Your Faith

  1. tacticianjenro

    January 16, 2012 at 1:26 PM

    I just read your post and I agree with everything. God is good! Just wanted to ask. This is why Christians just don’t seem to get it. Some may continue in the Church, but in the inside legalism is killing them. I have also been blindly walking in legalism back then until I found out about it.
    Seriously, people should know a lot about this.

    To move forward, I am sure people would ask questions concerning sin. If we’re not sinning out of a sense of duty, that is legalism as well, right? If so, must we unveil our sin even if others find that terrible?

    (BTW, both of us were given the Kreativ Blogger Award by the same person!)

    • Joshua Cleveland

      January 16, 2012 at 2:26 PM

      Hello tacticianjenro, I’m glad you agreed with what I said: legalism is a killer in the church.

      To answer your question-on-behalf-of-other-readers (QOBOOR), yes; trying (and failing) to ‘not sin’ out of sense of duty instead of love for God is legalism. And no, that doesn’t mean we should simply let our sin run rampant (that’s what I interpreted you meant when you said ‘unveil’, please correct me if I’m wrong):

      1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1-4)

      We shouldn’t keep sinning simply because our ‘duty to God’ isn’t holding us back anymore, instead, we now should let God’s power keep us safe from temptation.

      P.S. Congratulations on receiving the award as well, I looked at your blog and you certainly deserve it :).

      • tacticianjenro

        January 16, 2012 at 3:29 PM

        Wow! You’re welcome 🙂

        BTW I just added a new blog post, and shared this post on mine. I’m sure people being open about legalism will be a great help.

      • Joshua Cleveland

        January 16, 2012 at 7:41 PM

        Thank you, I appreciate it :).

  2. Mike

    January 14, 2012 at 5:18 PM

    Joshua, this is extremely enlightening, and is a warning for us all who are doing much Bible reading, prayer, etc. Thank you for your ministry!


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