Why Legalism Isn’t What You Think

Everything in Paul’s letter to the Galatians aims at Galatians 5:1:

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.” Or one could translate it: “Christ liberated us into liberation!”

Legalism aborts liberation or sidetracks liberation or blunts the glory of liberation, but it’s not because of the idea of liberation. Legalism does this to liberation because it attacks Christ and the Spirit. Freedom is freedom from “works of the law” in order to be admitted into the good company of God, symbolized in full fellowship in the Body of Christ.

Legalism always ends up adding something to the gospel.

What might those things be? Laws, rules, regulations, experiences, education, cultural taboos or political parties.

So, yes, legalism is about laws or practices or beliefs that are added to the gospel, and the result of the addition is that it compromises the sufficiency of Christ or jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit. And, again, it requires folks to join some group’s special markers.

Legalism often is noted by an overemphasis on performance

…that, in some way, calls into question the sufficiency of what Christ has done and what the Spirit can do.

Legalism always erects boundaries between people

…and puts a boundary between people who are designed by God and called by God to be as one. For Paul, this was seen in the Judaizing believers wanting the Gentiles to become Jews, and if they didn’t, then they were not accepted. Paul’s simple word against all of this is one: We are one in Christ (Gal 3:28).

Legalism creates an atmosphere that is pervaded by judgmentalism.

Judgment, yes; discernment, yes.

But legalism ramps this up and a judgmental spirit pervades a person—always judging others—or the church—always assigning who is in and who is out.

Yes, discernment: The issue here is whether or not a person is accepted because of what Christ has done and how the Spirit can lead.

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Scot McKnight
Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.