[re]Defining Faith: Legalism?

ImageBefore I begin diving a little deeper into the faith equation: Belief + Action = Faith, I want to introduce a new concept. When God offers salvation, it is not just a spiritual salvation. Salvation encompasses the entire being. A faith absent of works makes sense if the only importance of Jesus is after death, but Jesus clearly stated that he came to establish his kingdom on earth. His salvation is not only to rescue in the afterlife, but to rescue in the present. His plan for enacting this is through the works of those who follow Him.

Modern Christianity seems to be taking a mystical turn recently. The “Emergent Church” movement, while highlighting many positive aspects, has given a voice to fringe doctrine. A specific pattern of thought has slowly crept into normalcy within Christianity, and needs to be addressed: Legalism.

Legalism is nearly always referred to in a negative light when used; legalism is just as much a part as it is a betrayal of Christian doctrine. Some of the fundamentalist churches around Indianapolis generally come to my mind as an example of the negative connotation. Churches that elevate the King James Version of the Bible as if it were somehow superior to the other literal translations (just don’t tell them that they don’t have the entire King James Version… a few books were left out of the Protestant Bible), folks who wear anti-Christmas t-shirts (because that helps), and churches that designate certain styles of music as inherently evil are examples of what I would categorize as “Legalistic.” Generally, legalism is attached to a rule or code of conduct that religious leaders attempt to present as necessary without any scriptural foundation.

As much as the word “Legalism” is tossed around in church circles, you’d think it would appear at least a single time in scripture… nope (unless you count “The Message” as a legitimate source). So, since there is no scriptural definition, we’ll look at the modern definition. When you read the word “works” in reference to Christianity, you can substitute it with the way we would use the word “actions” or “lifestyle” today.


le·gal·ism [lee-guh-liz-uhm]


  1. 1.    strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to lawor prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.


2.   Theology .

a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.

b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.


Any person who has been raised in church understands that Jesus did not teach that salvation was brought about through our own works.

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us…”

-Titus 3:5


“Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began…”

-2 Timothy 1:9

The two verses above are just a few examples of scripture that are generally referenced when charges of legalism begin to fly. However, those verses aren’t fully understood by those who do the quoting. Due to a shallow understanding of scripture, the two concepts spoken of regarding “works” have been condensed into a single belief. Works are referred to by the writers of scripture in two ways:

  1. 1.    Salvation is not earned by works, it is a gift
  2. 2.    Works are required for salvation and identify us as followers of Jesus.

These two statements seem contradictory… right? Perhaps at first glance, but they align perfectly when a proper understanding of scripture is applied.

Salvation is not earned by works, it is a gift.

This doctrinal statement is perhaps the most misquoted/misunderstood teaching in modern Christianity. Prior to the birth of Jesus, salvation was earned by keeping the Law of Moses (I find fault in this understanding, but it is the widely accepted view). The Law of Moses was extremely rigid and difficult, if not impossible, to perfectly follow. Jesus came to earth and offered a new means by which man could enter a relationship with God. When the writers of scripture said that salvation did not come through our works, they mean that it was not presented because of anything we did.

In other words…

Jesus was not sent to earth, and we weren’t subsequently offered salvation, because we somehow impressed God with our awesomeness. Salvation is made available because of God’s love for his creation.

Here’s where the distinction (and confusion) begins.

The method by which salvation is made available is not the same method by which we embrace it.

Works are required for salvation and identify us as followers of Jesus.

This is a distinction that relates to our acceptance of the gift of salvation. You can be offered a gift, but never take it. Two actions are required in any “gift” transaction: the giving and the accepting. God has offered salvation freely. Our acceptance of God’s gift relies on our belief and our acting upon that belief. This is why I keep referring to the faith equation that I developed in my earlier writings on [re]Defining Faith:

Belief + Action = Faith

Belief is accepted by many. After all, it’s easy to have an emotionally-driven belief in something. It may be well intentioned, but it’s not the kind of faith that Jesus and his disciples taught. Typically, the charges of “legalism” begin to fly when the “action” part of our faith begins to be discussed/taught. Believing in a loving savior and God seems fulfilling, but action is where the depth of our belief is demonstrated. When Jesus begins to ask that lifestyles and choices line up with his will, people get defensive very quickly. This is why Jesus said to “consider the cost” before choosing to follow him. A person who professes belief, but fails to act on that belief, never really believed in the first place.

“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”

-1 John 1:6

This is a stark contrast from the “one time decision,” “bow your head and raise your hand,” and “alter call” salvation mentality. 1 John 1:6 reaffirms that faith in Jesus is making him lord/ruler of our lives by living according to his teachings. Not simply “believing.”

“this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”

-John 3:19

How does this verse draw distinction from those who follow God (loved light) and those who do not? Their actions (deeds) were evil.

Let me show you how the most popular verse in scripture demonstrates the two sides of salvation: the giving and the receiving.

First, God offers the gift:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

-John 3:16

God offers salvation as a gift. We must first believe in him to accept it (it’s pretty hard to accept a gift from someone we don’t believe exists).

Second, our receiving the gift:


“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

-John 3:20-21

God offers salvation and to accept it we follow Jesus.

So, to tie all this together…

Charges of “legalism” will always be leveled at those seeking to truly follow the teachings of Jesus, but it is not a valid excuse for avoiding the lifestyle that Jesus taught during his time on earth. As I said earlier, salvation is an all-encompassing deal. It addresses both the present and the afterlife. Let me leave you with one more section of scripture that demonstrates the importance of works in the salvation of the present.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.


But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?…  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…  For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”

-1 John 14-20, 22, 24, & 26

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: