Legalism and Consistent Spiritual Habits: Not the Same

Courtroom Gavel

I believe many followers of Jesus mistakingly lump a commitment to consistent spiritual disciplines into the pejorative pool of legalism.

Unfortunately, dismissing these proven habits as “legalistic” causes these believers to unwittingly miss out on significant spiritual growth. I believe a right-sized understanding of legalism, accompanied by a proper motivation to embrace the habits for spiritual growth, can produce a harvest of spiritual revitalization.

What Comes Around Goes Around

I remember my final month of seminary like it was yesterday. A professor asked us, “what issues do you think the American church will be facing in twenty years?”

That was twenty-three years ago.

Legalism, the belief that salvation and spiritual growth are obtained primarily from a strict adherence to God’s rules, had been the prevailing message in much of the evangelical and conservative churches for years. That message was changing rapidly as a substantive “grace-awakening” was happening on our seminary campus. I needed that awakening. I still do!

That said, there was a dark undercurrent developing in this change of tide. The grace awakening sparked a growing disdain for legalism, especially for those who were previously trapped in it. To be clear, I believe a measure of this disdain was righteous. Jesus dramatically confronted the legalism of the religious leaders of His day. Legalism is a lifeless counterfeit of the gospel and needs to be avoided.

The undercurrent was the intense emotional swing away from anything that smacked of legalism, which included any consistent effort to develop spiritually. My answer to the professor was, “I believe the church, twenty years from now, will be so ‘legalism-avoidant’ that the mainstream will pull away from engaging godly habits that lead to godly growth.”

Unfortunately, I became what I feared would happen to the church. I read the Bible, but I was not consistent. I prayed throughout the day but never had a focused time to pray intentionally about my life, family, and ministry. I never journaled, so I had limited guidance from God’s Spirit on a daily basis. I was in a spiritual desert. I am pretty sure I wasn’t alone in that desert.

Thankfully, I found a road out of that desert five years ago. Two books paved that road for me. One helped me understand legalism in a way that empowered be to avoid it’s pitfalls without avoiding consistency in development habits. The other showed me the power and life that can come from a consistency that is not legalistic.

It’s All In the “Why”

The first book was Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, which brilliantly unpacks the heart of legalism through the lens of the older brother in Luke chapter fifteen. Keller writes, “Elder brothers obey God to get things. They don’t obey God to get God Himself.” Keller also writes, “If, like the elder brother, you believe that God ought to bless you and help you because you have worked so hard to obey him and be a good person, then Jesus may be your helper, your example, even your inspiration, but he is not your savior. You are serving as your own savior.”

Keller’s book helped me see that legalism involves my motive for engaging a behavior much more than the behavior itself. In other words, he gave me the right-sized understanding I needed. Once this was clear, I was free to re-engage some consistent behaviors without fear.

The second book was The Sacred Way by Tony Jones. Tony helped me see that the ancient disciplines have consistently provided powerful transformation, strength, and spiritual insight for church leaders throughout the centuries. I wanted to “taste and see” God’s power the way those people did! Jones’ book gave me the proper motivation for engaging consistently in those ancient practices.

If you want to abide with Jesus in order to know Jesus, and you want to know Jesus in order to be led by Jesus, then you have the proper motive to engage the godly habits that help you grow in God’s grace.

Consistency = Fully Alive

The most influential verse in my life for the last five years has been John 10:10. Take note of the extremes Jesus presents in this verse.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Satan is a thief. I believe Satan has been the primary influencer in the rise of legalism throughout the history of God’s people. I believe he will do it again. He will use legalism to steal, kill, and destroy life as often as he can. That said, please consider this warning; Satan can also use a false definition of legalism to keep us from consistently engaging the habits that lead to life.

You don’t need to let him steal that life from you. Jesus has a better plan. He wants to give you life to the full. He has invited you to sit down beside His streams of living water and drink. He has invited you to do it consistently. He has promised a life fully alive as you come to Him, FOR HIM, trusting Him with the outcomes. You can, with Jesus’ help, be consistent without being legalistic. 


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