A New Definition for Legalism


Have you ever been called legalistic?

I was raised in a ‘traditional’ church, with a lot of emphasis on works/appearance. Then, a few years ago, my dad came across the book Grace Walk by Steve McVey and my whole family underwent a shift in theology. Not a drastic one, mind you. But for me, it was my first time hearing that God’s grace is enough.

Since then, I’ve tried to walk that fine line of relying on His grace without taking it for granted and doing whatever I want. And I tried to avoid the bonds of legalism.

My sister shared her definition of legalism with me the other day and I think it’s pretty spot on: “Legalism is being too afraid to let God’s grace do the work.”

Yep. It’s not having faith in God’s love and promise to hold onto us no matter what. It’s the pride that says we can get to Him on our own. It’s something I don’t engage in anymore. Or so I thought.

At church the other day, I heard a new definition for legalism. In the evening, when your friends and family ask you how your day was, does your answer depend on your performance?

If you got things done and made few to no mistakes, do you answer, “It was a great day!”?

Or, if you messed up at work or lost your temper too many times, do you say, “My day was miserable.”?

Because that’s what I do, and it’s legalistic.

So what should I do about it? My first inclination is to try harder to rejoice and be glad in the day that the Lord has made, despite circumstances. But here’s the rub: trying to rejoice turns even the act of worship into striving in the flesh.

So if there’s nothing I can do about it, how do I stop doing something about it?

Just by stopping. Just by enjoying God. By reveling in the fact that I’m His daughter and my value to Him is fixed and not dependant on what I do or don’t do.

If there’s nothing I can do to earn God’s love, then there’s nothing I can do to keep it, and (best part) nothing I can do to lose it.

So the best thing to do with it is enjoy it. Enjoy it and use it.

I heard something cool earlier: Convinced people convince people. Who’s going to want to come follow God when the people who should be exhibiting His love are the ones beating themselves up and striving to keep a bunch of rules they made up? I would take the nifty saying a step further and suggest that loved people love people.

It’s next to impossible to love on others when we’re too busy being down on ourselves. If we are too focused on earning love, little time is left for showing it. But if we are accepting the love that God is already offering us, then the peace and joy flood in and love is all we can show others, because we are obsessed with it, addicted to it. It goes viral.

By enjoying and walking in God’s grace, we more clearly exhibit His love and we show others that He is good. 

Grace is catching. Let’s spread the news. 


About Leah Ness

I am a self-professed story addict. Ever since I was little, I've had an overactive imagination and a passion for a well-spun yarn. When I grew up, I was blessed with a passion for God as well. It was then that I noticed a relative shortage of unique Christian fiction, the kind that can both captivate you and glorify God. So, despite the hurdles of things like commas and homonyms, I am endeavoring to write some of my own. Check out my Books page for updates on current and future books. View all posts by Leah Ness

5 responses to “A New Definition for Legalism

  • Sue C.

    Good points! I enjoyed that.

  • Micael.B

    A theological definition of legalism would be to teach as absolute something that the bible doesn’t present as such. Having high “moral” or personal standard is not a sin, even if those standards go beyond the scope of what the bible teaches. As an example, watching action movies could be something I avoid for all sorts of personal reasons. That would not be legalism. If i started imposing my view of it on others, by implying that it’s “unbiblical”, then, it would become legalism.

    We cannot judge our performances based on things we do, because its never enough. The beauty of grace is that even though God asks us nothing in return of his love and forgiveness, the Christian’s heart will be inclined to do “good works” out of his heart.

    We need to be wise in discerning when we are being legalistic and when we are simply trying to act as God commands.

    You are 100% right when you talk about our values never changing through God’s eyes. The very fact that Jesus’ blood already paid the debt of our sins is what should incline our hearts to obey his commands. The words teaches that those who love God, love and obey his commandments. I believe this is exactly what that passage is talking about.

    We do no deeds for God’s love but we do many deeds out of God’s love!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts

    • Leah Ness

      I certainly agree, and thank you for sharing the Theological definition of legalism. I feel like that’s a word that gets thrown around a lot and people don’t stop and ponder what it really means. Because getting my value from my performance is something I’ve struggled with for years, I often stray into the territory of trying to earn grace. I find that when I’m actually focusing on God and accepting His love for me that I’m more prone to do good works just for the love of Him. C.S. Lewis’s quote on humility nicely illustrates what I mean: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Whenever my focus is on Him, on His love and seeking His face, the good works are just a natural byproduct. The danger, of course, is in falling into the trap that Romans 6:1 warns us about where we are taking advantage of the gift of grace, so I definitely agree with your point. Wisdom and discernment are essential when it comes to finding the balance between grace and the law. Thank you so much for reading; I really appreciate you taking the time to comment =)


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