Holiness is beautiful; legalism is binding; holiness brings life; legalism brings death. They are as different as night and day, and yet at first glance, they can seem similar, because they both stand against sinful behavior and call for holy living. How can we distinguish between the two? Let me first present some thoughts on holiness before defining legalism and its dangers.
According to Samuel Logan Brengle, holiness is “pure love.” According to Samuel Lucas, “The essence of true holiness consists in conformity to the nature and will of God.” Stated another way, holiness is becoming like Jesus in thought, word, and deed, in heart, mind, and conduct. Holiness is something beautiful and wonderful!
God is holy, and so His very being reflects the perfection of righteousness and goodness and purity and wholesomeness and compassion and mercy and justice. As expressed by Ralph Finlayson, “The sum of all God’s attributes, the outshining of all that God is, is holiness” – and we are called to emulate that holiness. As is it written in 1 Pet 1:15 (quoting Lev 19:2), “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
To be holy is to be separated from sin and to be separated to God, which means to be separated fromthat which is bad and destructive and evil and unclean and polluting and to be separated to that which is like the Lord. Sin is spiritual poison; holiness is spiritual health. As William Jenkyn explained, “There is nothing destroyed by sanctification but that which would destroy us.” In short, everything holy is good; nothing unholy is good. Everything unholy is bad; nothing holy is bad.
And yet there’s more: Holiness is our goal, our destiny, our portion. It expresses the very essence of the nature and character of God and describes the highest level of spirituality attainable by man. Listen to the testimony of the Word:
“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph 1:4). “Husbands, love your wives, just as Messiah loved the congregation [or, church] and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant congregation [or, church], without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:25-27).
That’s why Joseph Caryl could say, “Perfect holiness is the aim of the saints on earth, and it is the reward of the saints in heaven.” Or, as expressed by John Whitlock, “. . . the Christian’s . . . way is holiness, his end happiness.” Oswald Chambers understood this too, stating that “God has one destined end for mankind – holiness! His one aim is the production of saints. God is not an eternal blessing-machine for men. He did not come to save men out of pity. He came to save men because He had created them to be holy.”
William Gurnall was therefore entirely right when he wrote, “Say not that thou hast royal blood in thy veins, and art born of God, except thou canst prove thy pedigree by daring to be holy.” (You might want to stop for a moment and read that again. What a godly challenge!)
Why then do many believers resist holiness? One major reason is that many of them have been hurt by legalism, and so they immediately associate holiness with legalism.
What then is legalism? Legalism is rules without relationship, emphasizing standards more than the Savior and laws more than love. It is a system based on fear and characterized by joyless judgmentalism, producing futility instead of freedom.
To an unsaved person the legalist preaches justification by works, saying, “You’re a wicked sinner and you need to get rid of all your filthy habits if you want the Lord to accept you.” There is no grace in this message, no exalting of the life-changing, sin-cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, no clear proclamation of mercy.
The declaration of God’s love expressed through the cross is muffled – if it is even heard at all. Consequently, the proof of the new birth is seen almost entirely in what someone no longer does, and this continues to be the pattern for believers within the church: They are judged almost entirely by a few external standards (which, in many cases, are not even expressly mentioned in the Word) and they are monitored by conformity to the particular group’s code of conduct. And the result is external conformity rather than inward transformation – and that means either self-righteousness of self-condemnation (or both!).
Of course, it is absolutely true that God has very high standards, and for anyone honestly reading the Word, there can be no doubt that He calls us to live by very high standards – in our thoughts, words, and deeds; in our attitudes; in our sexuality; in our families; in our relationships; and much, much more. Passages like this are common in the New Testament:
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph 5:1-6).
Tragically, legalists, despite their best intentions, get things tragically wrong. First, they try to change a person from the outside in (whereas God deals with us from the inside out); second, they fail to present a balanced picture of the Lord, putting too little stress on His mercy and too much emphasis on His wrath; third, they do not point the struggling sinner (or believer) to the Lord’s supernatural empowerment, making holiness a matter of human effort alone; and fourth, they add laws, standards, commandments, customs, and traditions that are not found in the Word, making those things even more important than the biblical commandments themselves.
In contrast, true, scriptural holiness begins with the heart and flows from an encounter with God and His Word. It calls for repentance in response to the Lord’s gracious offer of salvation and it offers a way to be holy – the blood of Jesus and the Spirit of God. Biblical holiness is free, although it requires discipline and perseverance. For the legalist, nothing is free. Everything must be earned! That’s why legalism leads to bondage and holiness leads to liberty.
As Ralph Cudworth explained many years ago, “I do not mean by holiness the mere performance of outward duties of religion, coldly acted over, as a task; not our habitual prayings, hearings, fastings, multiplied one upon another (though these be all good, as subservient to a higher end); but I mean an inward soul and principle of divine life (Romans 8:1-5), that spiriteth all these.”
It is that inward spiritual principle that must be cultivated, the principle of intimacy with Jesus, the principle of being renewed in our minds by His Word and Spirit, the principle of being conformed to His image and character, hating what He hates and loving what He loves. As Dr. Kent Hughes expressed in his book Disciplines of a Godly Man, “There is a universe of difference between the motivations behind legalism and discipline. Legalism says, ‘I will do this thing to gain merit with God,’ while discipline says, “I will do this because I love God and want to please him.’ Legalism is man-centered; discipline is God-centered.”
To quote Oswald Chambers again, “A bird flies persistently and easily because the air is its domain and its world. A legal Christian is one who is trying to live in a rarer world than is natural to him. Our Lord said, ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed,’ i.e., free from the inside, born from above, lifted into another world where there is no strenuous effort to live in a world not natural to us, but where we can soar continually higher and higher because we are in the natural domain of spiritual life.”
Unfortunately, the moment you preach biblical holiness, many Christians put their hands over their ears and say, “That’s legalism! That’s condemnation! That’s manmade religion! That’s the dead letter of the law! You won’t put me in bondage! I won’t listen to stuff like that!” As Robert Brimstead observed, “The idea of living strictly by what the Bible says has been branded as legalism.”
And so, these Christians run from the dangerous clutches of legalism and fall into the deadly grasp of license, that self-deceived state of fleshly liberty, catering to their carnality rather than crucifying it. What a terrible error!
Whatever comes naturally to these “liberated” believers is accepted as normal (and “understood,” of course, by the Lord), while biblical commandments are brought down to the level of their own experience, and anything that brings any kind of spiritual pressure to bear on them is rejected as not being the easy yoke and light burden of Jesus. And when the Holy Spirit brings conviction on people like this, they rebuke the devil for trying to condemn them – ultimately at the expense of their own souls.
To quote Oswald Chambers yet again, “The only liberty a saint has is the liberty not to use his liberty. . . . Liberty means ability not to violate the law; license means personal insistence on doing what I like. . . . To be free from the law means that I am the living law of God, there is no independence of God in my make-up. License is rebellion against all law. If my heart does not become the centre of Divine love, it may become the center of diabolical license.”
What then is the antidote? Flee from legalism, stay far away from license, and run to holiness; reject humanly birthed, external religion, give no place to false teaching that excuses carnality, and instead embrace new covenant, heart transformation — and in the power of the Spirit, supernaturally enabled by God’s grace, deal ruthlessly with sin in your life. That is the path to freedom!
Sin is so utterly awful that only the blood of Jesus could pay for it (1 Pet 1:16-19). We dare not trivialize sin in our lives.
In closing, let me bathe you with the truth of God’s liberating Word. (Yes, I know that this has been a long article, but I think you’ll agree that the subject is quite important – really, the difference between life and death.) Listen to the Word of the Lord!
“Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (Rom 6:12-13, NLT).
“Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires” (Rom 13:13-14, NLT).
“Because we have these promises [of being sons and daughters of God], dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God” (2 Cor 7:1, NLT).
“For you remember what we taught you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. . . . God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. Therefore, anyone who refuses to live by these rules is not disobeying human teaching but is rejecting God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thes 4:2, 7-8, NLT).
“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Ps 24:3-5, ESV).
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8).
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matt 5:29-30, ESV)
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14, ESV).
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21, ESV).