Published: 24 April 2016

Grace vs. Legalism


It’s difficult for people to find biblically sound middle ground on some topics. If cheap grace is at one extreme, then legalism is at the other. Although legalism is not a word found in the Bible, the concept of legalism certainly is. Legalism is the heresy that motivated Paul’s letter to the disciples in Galatia. The dictionary defines legalism as:

a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.

As we’ll see, this dictionary definition fits very well with Paul’s definition. What was going on in the churches in Galatia?

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. Gal. 1:6-7 NIV

What perverts the gospel?

They were being taught a different gospel. What about it was different? They had been taught that something in addition to the gospel was required to be saved. We find out in chapter five that this additional requirement was circumcision. The very first Christians were all Jews whose male children were circumcised. Circumcision was a part of the covenant that God made with Abraham more than 1000 years earlier. Years later, gentiles also became Christians and some Jewish Christians who were zealous for the old ways mistakenly believed that gentile converts would need to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. At this time, not all Christians understood that these requirements were no longer imposed upon God’s people under the New Covenant.

2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. Gal. 5:2-4 NIV

This passage from Acts helps to clarify the situation.

1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” Acts 15:1, 5 NIV

Like these people in the passage from Acts, somebody was going around upsetting the faith of the gentile Christians falsely telling them that in addition to believing the gospel, they must also be circumcised and keep the law of Moses to be saved. Paul quite clearly tells them that to comply with this false teaching would cause them to be severed from Christ and cut off from grace. It was a spiritual death sentence!

Why is this the result? Paul says that you can’t just keep one part of the law in an attempt to be saved. It’s a package deal; keeping one part of the law means you have to keep it all. Since no one is able to perfectly obey the law, then anyone who abandons grace in favor of law will be lost.

…a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. Gal. 2:16 NIV

The addition of even one condition to the gospel is enough to change it into something else that was powerless to save. In teaching that circumcision was required, the Galatians were being sold the lie that they must work to obtain and maintain their salvation. Paul says that grace and works are complete opposites. Salvation is not sustained by a mixture of grace and works. It is one or the other.

What are works?

What does “works” mean in the bible?

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Eph. 2:8-10 ESV

There are three kinds of works called out in this passage.

  1. Our own works that we do to earn salvation: …not your own doing…not a result of works
  2. God’s works: …we are his workmanship
  3. Good works that we do as a result of being a new creature: …created in Christ Jesus for good works

Clearly there isn’t a problem with the second kind of work – God’s works, nor is there a problem with us doing the third kind of works – good works which God has prepared for us to do. It’s the first kind of work that created the Galatian Heresy.

“Work” or “law” includes anything we attempt to do to maintain our salvation that is over and above acceptance of the gospel through faith, repentance and baptism.

Paul says anything that is added to the gospel as a requirement for salvation results in us trying to obtain our salvation through human effort. Salvation based on works is alive and well in many religious denominations.

Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? Gal. 3:3 NET

And in so attempting, we will fail because no one was able to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:10, Jas 2:10, Gal 3:10), nor can we even live up to our own standards of right and wrong (Rom 2:12-15).

Shouldn’t we obey the commands of God?

Legalism isn’t about obeying the commandments, but is about the reason we obey the commandments. A legalist believes that he must strictly obey God’s commandments in order to retain his or her salvation. The focus of the legalist is on the rules rather than the relationship with God. God gives us commandments intending them to shape our lives to help us become more like Him. The legalist misuses or even abuses the commandments by applying them in ways God did not intend. Earnestly trying to obey the commandments isn’t the problem. The problem comes in when we think that our salvation depends upon rule keeping. 

The legalist’s religious perspective is such that he really can’t tell the difference between matters of opinion and matters that are of primary importance to our faith. While you and I might not be able to participate in some activity because our conscience won’t permit it, we understand this is based upon our personal point of view. We don’t attempt to force it upon other Christians who don’t share that same conviction. This is a distinction that the legalist is simply unable to see. For the legalist, if it’s wrong for him it is wrong for everyone.

Because of this, the legalist’s opinions take on the same importance as commandments of God. After all, if you can’t tell the difference between opinions (which are built upon interpretations and inferences) from the actual statements in scripture, every conclusion one reaches about a Bible topic is the final word on the matter! In a legalistic mind all sort sorts of man-made doctrines exist that simply aren’t in the Bible.

Jesus’ sacrifice insufficient to save?

The inescapable implication of legalism is that Jesus’ sacrifice was not adequate to save. The legalist believes there is more that must be done. Whether at a conscious level or not, the legalist cannot believe Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient. Otherwise there would be no reason for the legalist to think there are things he must do to maintain his standing before God through his own works. By virtue of his own effort, the legalist believes that his works are securing his salvation.

Legalists, perhaps subconsciously, believe the more obedient they are, the more God loves them and the more they deserve to go to Heaven. Ironically, a legalists never feels secure in his salvation. In spite of all the effort that is expended to secure his salvation, the legalist knows he hasn’t lived up to his own standards. When asked the often repeated question, “If you died right now would you go to Heaven”, the legalist never can say, “Yes”. He never feels that he has done enough to merit his salvation. For meriting his salvation is exactly what he is trying to do rather than relying upon the generosity (grace) of God to bestow it upon him as the gift that it is.

As a result, the legalist typically has a strange mix of emotions. He is often a miserable person full of guilt and fear since he feels no eternal security for himself. At the same time he has feelings of arrogance, pride, superiority and condemns others who do not share his views.

Salvation isn’t about rule keeping

Legalism and grace do not mix. In fact, a legalist doesn’t comprehend grace, doesn’t depend on grace, and can’t even have a cogent discussion about grace. Grace simply isn’t a factor in the spiritual world of a legalist for he doesn’t understand it in the slightest. In the mind of the legalist, spiritual blessings depend upon strict rule keeping.

Salvation is about relationship; God is our Father. Over and over again the scriptures portray our relationship with God as that of a family. In any family there are rules of course, but the family is not defined by the rules.

It’s like marriage. Husbands and wives will have certain rules they agree on (I get the TV for Monday night football. She gets the TV for “So You Think You Can Dance.” We pray that they never move “So You Think You Can Dance” to Mondays.) And there are certain rules inherent in marriage, imposed by God himself (sexual faithfulness, for example). But if you define your marriage in terms of rules, you’re a deeply confused person. Imagine your wife saying, “I love being married to Hank. He has found and strictly enforces exactly the right rules. I know he’s the man for me!”

If we were to compare the marriages of friends of ours, trying to decide which couple has the healthiest, most godly marriage, we’d not start by asking what the rules in their marriages are. Of course, if the spouses were cheating on each other, we’d know they have a very unhealthy marriage. But non-cheating isn’t the definition of a healthy marriage. It’s necessary. But it’s not nearly enough.

No, we’d start by looking at their relationships. Do they love each other? Do they support each other? Do they cooperate? Do they resolve conflict in healthy, productive ways, or are they passive aggressive? Do they enjoy being around each other? Is their relationship harmonious and peaceful? Do they retaliate for perceived wrongs or do they work those things out with forgiveness, apologies, and reconciliation?

Jay Guin, One In Jesus blog 

Grace can’t be earned

Grace can only be accepted. Our response to God, who is generous enough to give us eternal life, is to try to become more like Him. The more like Him we become the more we’ll do the things that He does. Those who understand this recognize that we don’t do good works in order to be saved, but because we are saved.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10 NIV)