Holy Living 3: Legalism- Counterfeit Holiness

In Part 1 of our study, we have discussed God’s command for all Christians to live holy lives. In Part 2 we discussed the wonderful experience of sanctification and how the work in making us holy is ultimately God’s, not ours. As we conclude, the next question becomes “What does a holy life look like?”

The answer may very well be much different than you have been taught. Yes, it does involve denying ourselves the pleasures of sin (and yes, sin is pleasurable, but only for a season-Hebrews 11:25-26). However, the call to holiness is not a call to asceticism. There is nothing spiritual about living your life in a bubble. In fact, the Bible calls this a sign of spiritual immaturity (see Galatians 5:1, Colossians 2:20‭-‬23). God gives us life to be enjoyed to His glory:

The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it in abundance [to the full, till it overflows].
John 10:10 Amplified Bible

Failure to walk in this wonderful freedom is what we call legalism and it’s effects can be devastating. Legalism attempts to focus on feeble human merit and, in doing this, demeans God’s grace and glory. Furthermore, it destroys creativity and individuality. In fact, cults could not survive without it.

The definition of legalism is multi faceted. Broadly, it refers to attempting to earn God’s favor through our own merit, rather than receiving it by His grace. This does not only mean trying to earn salvation. Some genuine Christians, solidly affirming salvation by grace through faith, still fall prey to legalism in other areas. It can also describe observing religious or moral duties in an unloving or ungracious manner. It has been further described as “laws without love.” Jesus dealt with these types of people constantly. In Matthew 23, He offers the following descriptions of legalists:

  • …they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger (verses 3‭-‬4, ESV)
  • You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (verse 24, ESV)
  • Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (verses 27‭-‬28, ESV).

I know from personal experience the dangers of legalism, as I once went through a very legalistic stage in my own Christian life. I meant well, but my “holier than thou” attitude led me to embrace some ideas that, in retrospect, were downright weird. It also led me into serious pride and self righteousness. Due to my over estimation of myself, I set myself up for some serious falls!

Some will say things like “It’s not about keeping rules.” Ultimately this is true. As we have previously discussed, holiness is about God’s grace, not our own efforts. Nonetheless, a part of this does involve growing in our desire to obey God’s commandments. However, as we go through the process of sanctification we learn more about God’s character. As we experience this, obedience becomes a joy rather than a drudgery.

The Torah contains roughly 612 commandments, which are summarized in the Ten that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20). Later, Jesus would further condense these down to two, loving God and loving your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). Unfortunately, legalism can occur when we miss out on the tremendous practicality of God’s commandments.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? Deuteronomy 10:12‭-‬13 ESV

Pay special attention to the qualifier “…for your good.” People often misunderstand why God gives us rules to live by. Young children may not always understand why their parents tell them not to play in traffic. Nonetheless, they hopefully trust in their parents love, wisdom and desire to keep them from harm.

Similarly, a part of trusting God is trusting that He knows what is best for us and when He tells us to do or not to do something it is for our own protection.

Take, for example, the Bible’s often ridiculed teachings about marriage and sexuality. Before you dismiss them as being bigoted or outdated, I urge you to consider their practical benefits. A world in which the Biblical sexual ethic was universally followed would be a world with no AIDS. It would be a world with no sexual assault and no human trafficking. There would be few, if any other sexually transmitted diseases and their would be far fewer unplanned pregnancies, abortions and dIvorces.

There are, of course, things that are neither commanded nor prohibited by Scripture. They are, generally speaking, spiritually neutral. The theological term for this is adiaphora. They might be thought of as “grey areas” and are matters of conscience for individual believers (pertinent Scriptures on this would include Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8 and Colossians 2).

This is where freedom can admittedly become messy. There is a saying that “I cannot make my conviction another person’s command.” In areas where the Bible is silent or ambiguous, well meaning believers can often come into conflict. This is why Christian love requires us to be considerate of others. For example, a Christian may believe he should not eat meat. While the Bible does call this a sign of weak faith (Romans 14:1-4), he is nonetheless to be welcomed as a brother in Christ. Other areas would include things like:

  • DRINKING: Generally not a sin unless done to excess, but it is still something that I have always felt that I am better off without.
  • SMOKING: Maybe not an outright sin but obviously an unwise thing to do.
  • “CUSSING:” The Bible does not give us a list of “forbidden words” and in fact uses some rather crude language itself in places (more on that here). However, it does tell us that our conversation should be worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27-30), which is an even higher standard.
  • FOOD: There are no unclean foods in the New Testament, but some are obviously healthier than others.
  • CLOTHING STYLES: The only rule is modesty
  • MUSIC: The Bible does not call any genre of music sinful in itself, although we should certainly use discernment with the lyrical content
  • MOVIES/TV: Same criteria as music

Again, being non-legalistic is not the same as being lawless. Nor does it mean we should be cavalier about sin and worldliness. Much that is casually brushed off as legalism today was once simply considered normative Christian behavior.

Regardless, God’s commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). They are for our own benefit and for the benefit of society as a whole (Proverbs 14:34). As we conclude this study, I hope you have been challenged to look past the dour, prudish stereotypes that are often mistaken for true holiness. As previously stated, we need to recognize that the Christian life is in God’s grace, from start to finish. When we understand this simple truth, we begin to see that:

Holiness is beautiful.

Holiness is practical.

Holiness is life-affirming.

Holiness glorifies God.

In other words, holy living truly is wholly living!

Keep It Real,


James H Boyd Gospel Ministries:
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