By Simon Presland
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts (Ephesians 4:17, 18).
The apostle Paul encouraged the Ephesian Christians to separate themselves from the world’s ways of thinking and doing.
Biblical exhortations like this often cause me to examine my own life. Am I acting in the same way the world acts? Do I talk like those of the world? Do my thoughts line up with Scripture (see Philippians 4:8)?
As a seasoned believer, I like to think I’ve put some distance between the world’s way and mine. However, this can lead me to an even greater problem. I must ask myself, “Have I changed because I want to be a good Christian, or am I changing because the Holy Spirit is at work within me?” Wanting to be good means I follow the rules. Doing so can easily lead me to feel smug: “I’m a better person than he is,” or “She’s not as good as I am.”
When this happens I’m venturing into a legalistic lifestyle marked by competition and comparison. In contrast, when my eyes are fixed on Christ, the author and finisher of my faith (Hebrews 12:2), I’m drawn into a life of personal holiness.
How can I tell when I’m living in legalism or simply desiring to live a holy life? What signs can I look to that point to legalistic standards or to a life lived in holiness?
Legalism has been defined as dependence on moral law or moral living in order to gain right standing with God. This runs contrary to depending on my faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ for acceptance. It is an overdependence on disciplining my conduct while basking in the pride of good behavior.
For example, if someone comments on the fact that I don’t use foul language, it is easy to feel prideful, knowing that I’m following Paul’s words, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth” (Ephesians 4:29). I’ve bridled my tongue; isn’t that what James tells me to do (James 1:26)? I must be a good person.
Whenever pride rises up over something I’ve done or not done, said or not said, and I hear myself saying, “Hey, I’m a good guy,” then I know I’m being legalistic. In reality I’m saying, “Hey, God, look at me and my righteousness!” I’m counting on my own goodness to justify me before him. And I’m forgetting that Paul said, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17).
The lawyer who approached Jesus in Luke 10:25-37 demonstrated an attitude of legalism through self-justification. He asked Jesus what he needed to do to go to Heaven. In effect he was asking, “What good deeds must I do to earn my way into Heaven?” Jesus told him to love God and love his neighbor with all of his heart. In verse 29 the lawyer, seeking to justify himself, replied, “And who is my neighbor?” As with this lawyer, anytime I seek to justify myself by what I should or shouldn’t do, rather than by who I am through the grace of God, my goal is to gain as many “points” with God as I can to make myself look good.
In the Hebrew language, one of the words for holy is qadosh (kah-dosh), which means, “to be set apart, dedicated to sacred purposes, clean, morally or ceremonially pure.” Like most Christians, I strive to set myself apart—apart from the world’s ways of acting, of thinking, of doing. I desire to submit myself to God and honor him by keeping my thoughts pure, acting righteously, and being kind. The writer of Hebrews tells me to “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
The fact is that my personal holiness does not come from me, but from the Holy Spirit who lives in me. God has set me apart for himself. Whenever I do something out of kindness, whenever I think good things, whenever I act in a benevolent way, I do so because he is working in and through me.
My minister once told me, “If you really love someone, you’ll do everything you can not to hurt them.” My desire for personal holiness is sparked by the Holy Spirit and is a product of my love for God. In Colossians 3:8 Paul instructs the church, “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” I pray that the Holy Spirit will remove these things from my life because I love God and I don’t want to hurt him or his reputation. Why do I love God? Because he loved me first and his love consumes my selfish desires—when I submit to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life.
My personal holiness isn’t about restrictions; it isn’t about what I have to do. It’s about where I want to go, what I get to do. I want to honor God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I get to do things, say things, and act in ways that please him. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve the living God!
When I’m struggling in my pursuit of holiness, I often think about the prophet Daniel. As a young boy, chosen to serve the king because of his good looks and intelligence, he could have taken the best the world at that time had to offer. But he loved God. When offered the finest cuisine, “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way” (Daniel 1:8). When his enemies deceived the king into making a 30-day proclamation that all should bow down to him only, Daniel continued to pray to God three times a day, as was his custom. Why did Daniel act in such holy ways, even when to do so put his life in danger? Because he loved God.
Compare and Contrast
In trying to understand when I’m subscribing to legalism and when I’m choosing a holy lifestyle, I’ve found that it comes down to examining the motives of my heart. Do I want to please myself and look good to others? Or do I want to honor God? Here is a truth: legalism looks to self while holiness looks to God. Pursuing holiness becomes legalism when we focus on the have-tos and the rules, rather than on the condition of our hearts and the love we have for God.
For the one who loves God, pursuing holiness and obeying his commands are born out of a desire to see God glorified, to see his name lifted up, and to see others drawn to him. When we follow his commands in order to gain his acceptance or to avoid his anger, we are doing so out of legalism. When we do these things for selfish gain, we are also motivated by legalism. Do we read our Bibles to get to know God better, or because we have to? Do we pray for 30 minutes a day because “that’s what good Christians do”? Or do we pray to deepen our relationship with our Savior? Do we proclaim our righteousness before God and others as the Pharisees did in Matthew 6:1-4 and Luke 18:9-14? Or do we yoke ourselves with our gentle and lowly master? We must ask ourselves questions like these in order to understand our motives. Then we can begin to discern if we are acting as legalistic Christians or holy God pursuers.
Proverbs 4:23, 24 declares, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it springs the issues of life. Put away from you a deceitful mouth, and put perverse lips far from you” (New King James Version). Legalism and holiness are issues of life for a Christian. The former leads us to bondage and distances us from God. The latter brings us into his presence and allows his light and love to shine through us. The good news is that we get to choose the way we live our lives.
Simon Presland is a freelance writer in Clinton Township, Michigan.
Radicalism, Legalism, and the Middle Ground
Radical Christianity: A Call to Legalism
or a Cause to Live?
by Ed Stetzer
This essay examines a simmering debate among churches today. At the heart of the issue is how we live out our faith. Is a hold-nothing-back, no-holds-barred, extreme life what God is looking for? And if so, what does that mean in the details of your life? Stetzer culls ideas from across the discussion and gives readers a good cross section of Christian thought to guide their own thoughts on the question.