One of the most widely debated concepts in the modern Church involves holiness and legalism. While “legalism” is certainly a buzzword in today’s Christian world, it is important that we truly understand the difference in taking a legalistic approach to Christian living and living a life of holiness according to God’s Word. While God does not take a legalistic approach to His relationship with us, He does have standards that He expects His people to pursue. Understanding the difference is an important part of Christian living in today’s society.
One of the hottest topics in the world of Christianity is that of legalism. Unfortunately, many of the people who throw this term around fail to understand what it truly means. There are some truths that we know about our Heavenly Father. One of the greatest themes of Scripture concerns the holiness of God. Dating back to the Old Testament, God’s holiness precluded the “common man” from entering into His dwelling place into the temple. In fact, the High Priest, who was considered the spiritual advocate for the entire nation, was only allowed to go into the Holy of Holies once a year, and even then, he was required to go through a rigorous purification process.
The entire basis for these rules and requirements revolved around God’s holy nature. If someone who had unrepentant sin in their lives, they would be struck dead if they came into God’s presence.
As we transitioned into the New Testament, the concept of being able to encounter God changed. When Christ came to the world, He was both fully human and fully divine. The purpose for this was to create a way for fallen humanity to have a relationship with God. When Christ died, the Bible teaches us that the veil of the temple, the thick curtain that separated God from humanity was torn from top to bottom. This was symbolic of God removing the divide that existed between Him and His people. When Christ rose again, we were given the opportunity to live every day in communion with God.
Unfortunately, the concept of God’s standard of living (holiness) has been misconstrued over the years. Today, when many people hear about holy living, they claim that people are trying to lead them into a place of legalistic bondage in which we earn God’s grace. Conversely, there are people who abuse Scripture in order to lead people into lives of fear concerning their relationship with God. When you begin to focus on more on what you do instead of what God has done, you run the risk of crossing into legalism.
Obviously, we do not have the time in a single day or the space in a single study that would be necessary to completely settle the debate between holiness and legalism. However, we can look at some passages of Scripture to gain a better understanding on the topic.
The Struggle Against Legalism Isn’t New
Galatians 5:4 (TPT)
If you want to be made right with God by fulfilling the obligations of the law, you have cut off more than your flesh-you have cut yourselves off from Christ and have fallen away from the revelation of grace!
The Galatian Church was facing a crisis. While most of the congregation had received the message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, there were some influences in the city who were trying to draw the congregation back into life under the Old Testament law. Paul made the truth about this concept very plain.
In his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul said that anyone who was trying to make themselves right in the eyes of God by fulfilling the obligations of the law, they had cut themselves off from Christ and had fallen away from the revelation of grace. That’s a harsh statement, but Paul recognized the importance of relying on grace instead of works.
Your relationship with God is not due to anything that you could ever do. Grace, by its very definition, is an undeserved gift from a giver to the recipient. In the same way that you like to give people you love gifts, God revels in giving His people grace.
But Grace Isn’t an Excuse for Sin
Romans 6:1-2 (TPT)
So what do we do, then? Do we persist in sin so that God’s kindness and grace will increase? What a terrible thought! We have died to sin once and for all, as a dead man passes away form this life. So how could we live under sin’s rule a moment longer?
When you read this passage, which was also written by Paul after reading the verse from Galatians, you may assume that the two verses contradict each other. That’s simply not the case.
Before we dive into this passage, take a look back at Galatians 5:4 at what Paul didn’t say. He said that we cannot be justified in the eyes of God by our own works, but he doesn’t say that God’s grace gives us a free license to live however we want to live.
In his letter to the Roman Church, Paul had to address some people who were living on the opposite end of the spectrum than those whom he addressed in Galatians. While the Galatian Church was facing opposition from those who wanted to drag them back into legalism, the Roman Church was apparently facing people who were teaching them that they could live however they wanted to and then ask God for forgiveness.
Within three passages of Scripture, Paul perfectly outlined the importance of finding the balance between legalism and grace. Let’s take a look at two more passages.
The Call to Holiness
1 Peter 1:16 (TPT)
For Scripture says: “You are to be holy, because I am holy.”
God’s standard of living for His people is holiness. This point is not debatable, nor is it legalistic. While there are extremists on both sides of the “Grace vs. Law” debate, it is important to understand that God wants His people to live lives that align with His holy Word.
Holiness isn’t about fulfilling every law of the Old Testament. It’s important to note that there are more than 600 commandments in the Old Testament. Christ’s purpose was to fulfill the Old Testament law, but not to abolish it.
Just because we have received grace from God, it does not preclude us from pursuing holiness. However, His grace surrounds us when we miss the mark in those pursuits.
God’s Got You Covered
1 John 2:1 (TPT)
You are my dear children, and I write these things to you so that you won’t sin. But if anyone does sin, we continually have a forgiving redeemer who is face-to-face with the Father: Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
This verse from 1 John serves to settle the debate between holiness and legalism. First of all, Scripture is clear about the fact that we should not sin. God, while forgiving, doesn’t give us a license to live however we please so we can then yell, “Grace” and expect to be forgiven.
Instead, this verse paints the picture of someone who doesn’t want to sin, but still occasionally falls prey to the desires of their flesh. God knows that we are not going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t want us to pursue righteous, holy living.
In the same way that you wouldn’t purposely break the heart of someone you love, God doesn’t want us to pursue sin, as it breaks His heart. However, when we earnestly try to live holy, but miss the mark, God is quick to forgive because we have a Redeemer who stands face-to-face with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
Legalism is not God’s design for His people. However, He does expect us to pursue holiness. When we strive to live holy, God is pleased and is quick to forgive us when we ask for grace.
A Closing Prayer:
Heavenly Father, help me to pursue holiness in my daily life. I know that I cannot be justified through any of my own works, but I also know that You have a standard. Help me to meet that. In Christ’s name, Amen.