The church has found religious ways to mask its penchant for handing out the Bible’s commands like prescriptions for what ails the congregation and society. But legalism by any other name is still legalism. Piety, sanctification, and biblical application are three common areas where the church tends to pull out its legal pads.

When Piety Is Legalism

Holiness is a noble pursuit and a requirement for seeing the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). The way we strive for that holiness is the way that a right and commanded endeavor creeps into legalism. Moral performance is a tangible, simple metric, and if there is one thing we humans crave, it’s a way to measure performance. Piety allows us to chart the progress of our reform, set benchmarks, and take the supposed moral high ground.

We often frame repentance and growth in righteousness within our congregations as mustering the will to reverse our mindsets and actions into alignment with God’s law. Pursuing holiness is ultimately pursuing Christ, who is our only righteousness. We like to pick out the verses that point us toward living in holiness yet seem to forget the chapters that preceded them, building the very foundation of Christianity: free, meritless, eternal forgiveness to all who place their faith in Christ. Piety is legalism when our efforts in pursuing holiness eclipse Christ’s all-sufficient atonement.

When Sanctification Is Legalism

Is sanctification the work of God or the work of the Christian? Yes, but our role is ultimately passive. Philippians 2:12-13 powerfully teaches us how this works. Followers of Christ work out their salvation by pursuing obedience precisely because of Christ’s obedience to the point of death (Philippians 2:8) and God’s work in us both to “will and work for His good pleasure.” It is Christ who began the good work and will bring it to completion, and the fruit of righteousness comes through Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:6, 10).

When we imagine sanctification as a linear process with tiered levels and create preprogrammed steps to climb the spiritual ladder, then we’ve starting merging sanctification with justification. Sanctification is a lifelong process and much more turbulent than tidy. If it were a graph, it would look more like a scatter plot than a line graph. By God’s grace, the scatter plot will have a positive correlation but don’t mistake your efforts as one of the contributing variables. Sanctification becomes legalism when we try to surpass the sufficiency of Christ’s obedience unto death on our behalf as failing Christians.

When Biblical Application Is Legalism

Applying the word of God to our lives is a worthy aim. However, the posture of that application is equally important. One of the most common ways this is seen is through the weekly sermon, where the gold standard in many congregations has become applicability to life. People crave practical steps connected to their spiritual journeys to increase their productivity and give them a feeling of accomplishment.

Practical application in the sermon can easily fall into the trap of becoming browbeating congregants with the law as they are reminded that their performance could always be better. They could still be doing more or at least be doing it more efficiently or more closely aligned with scripture. That can be a good thing so long as it is immediately followed with the good news that we’re covered by Christ’s once and for all atoning work despite our constant falling short. Biblical application is legalism when our efforts to make Scripture relevant to daily life become just another way to berate and beat our flesh into submission.

The Law Is Good 

The law of God is good, but it is bad news. It reveals the wickedness, hardness, rebelliousness, and deceitfulness of our hearts. The law was our guardian meant to lead us to Christ, but now the law is a companion that reveals the character of our God (Galatians 3:24). The law condemns and kills, Christ brings forgiveness and salvation, and then the law transitions to being our consistent reminder that our salvation is outside ourselves because we cannot measure up to God’s holiness.

The Gospel Is Good News

Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the law but are considered sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:25-26). To all who have transgressed the law of God in countless ways and with fierce indignation comes a blessed announcement so good and free that it offends the hearer as well as all civilized religious people. Despite our undeniable guilt before a holy God, if we put our faith outside ourselves and our efforts solely in Christ, we are freely forgiven!

Neither piety, sanctification, nor practical application secures our righteousness. Only Christ does. Seeking holiness, spiritual growth, and ways to apply God’s word to our lives are all good things, but they are not ultimate or salvific things. When we allow those good things to drift into a meritocracy, then it’s legalism, no matter what we call it.

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