by Pastor Ray C. Stedman

Legalism can... be described as false Christianity because that is essentially what it is. It uses Christian language and biblical terms. It sounds evangelical. It loves to use phrases like "evangelism," "fundamentalism," "biblical literalism," and such. It sounds Christian, and looks Christian, but it is emphatically not true Christianity. It as a spurious fake, an imitation Christianity, an empty, hollow counterfeit of the real thing....

How can you recognize legalism?  ...since legality is basically false Christianity, then you can never recognize the false unless you understand the true. That is where I want to start.

What is real Christianity? What is Christianity as the Scriptures set it forth -- true Spirit-filled living? Let me attempt a definition: True Christianity is to--

  • manifest genuinely Christ-like behavior
  • by dependence on the working of the Spirit of God within,
  • motivated by a love for the glory and honor of God.

... it has three essential elements, and without all three it becomes legality:

1.  [An] expected pattern of behavior. There is a law, if you like, a code, to which we are expected to conform. Many Christians make the mistake of thinking that to be free from legalism you must become free from any law whatsoever. Nothing is further from the truth. The Scriptures never endorse that notion. I know that we sing,

Free from the Law, O happy condition
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission,

but what we are talking about is not freedom from the Law but freedom from the curse of the Law. That is something quite different. There always must be law. This is a law-governed universe because the law reflects the character of God. God himself is reality. God is behind all things, and his character is the law which governs everything.

Therefore Christians must always be related to law -- the law of the character of Christ, of the law of the Ten Commandments -- it is the same thing. The Ten Commandments simply describe the nature of God's character. So true Christianity isn't freedom from the existence of law. There is always a standard, always a code of conduct to be observed....

2.  [A]  sufficient and adequate power. That is absolutely essential to true Christianity. The whole glory of the gospel comes in right at this point. The good news is that God has given us a sufficient and adequate power, indwelling us, available to us at all times, so that we never have an excuse for not being what we ought to be. In the Spirit of Jesus Christ, indwelling us, we have what it takes -- a sufficient and adequate power.

3. [A] motive which moves us to action -- a powerful, compelling hunger for the glory of God, an urge that God be honored and glorified. If I can put all the foregoing in another way, the true Christian life is fulfilling a law by means of a unique power because of an overwhelming desire. It requires:

  • An outward standard or code of behavior,
  • an inward power which makes it possible to meet it, and
  • a motive which drives us on to do so.

You cannot manifest genuine Christianity without all three.... Let me go over these and show you what I mean:

First... to have the wrong standard. Legality then becomes making unwarranted or unnecessary demands on yourself or on someone else, especially in areas which are not prohibited in the Scriptures. That becomes legality.

There is a standard which is prescribed. As I have mentioned, the Law of God never changes and it is always right, always applicable and relevant to a Christian. For instance, it is always wrong to murder, or to lie, or to steal, or to commit adultery.....

But there are other areas in which we are given a great deal of personal liberty, and it is legalism to make standards (particularly for someone else) in these areas. Here we must be careful, because, for ourselves, it is proper to set standards or rules which apply to us.... But legality comes in when a group of Christians makes rules for each other, or for anybody else. That is what is wrong. That becomes legalism.

Second.. has to do with the power upon which you rely in order to act. ... The actual behavior can be exactly the same in the case of a legalist or of one behaving as an authentic Christian.... It is what is going on inside that is the issue in question. ... Are you counting on your ability, your own adequacy, your talent, your personality? Is that what you are reckoning on in order to accomplish what is expected of you? Well, if you are reckoning on anything other than the activity of God at work in you, you are a legalist!...

Third... the motive which moves you to do things. Legality is also the fulfilling of external requirements for reasons of self-exaltation or personal merit. Here we are focusing on the why of what you do. You must be right in what you do, how you do it, and why you do it....

Are you trying to build a reputation for yourself? Do you want a name as a spiritual Christian?... That is exactly on a par with the religion of the Pharisees. This is what Jesus is highlighting in the Sermon on the Mount -- men who love to be seen before men instead of being content to be visible only to the God and Father who sees in secret. ...

Of course, combinations of these failures are possible. You can be wrong at two points as well as one, or at all three -- and then you are really a legalist! You can be an obvious legalist as well as a subtle one. ...

Now we are ready to attempt a definition of legality which I hope will fit all the circumstances we have looked at:

Legality is a mechanical and external behavior growing our of reliance on self, because of a desire to gain a reputation, display a skill, or satisfy an urge to personal power.

That is legality. It is religious performance, scrupulous and meticulous in its outward form, but, inwardly, as Jesus described it, "filled with dead men's bones," (Matthew 23:27). It is relying on self, personality, background, training, and talent or skill instead of the Spirit of God. And it is operating for and on behalf of one's own personal glory. That is full-orbed legality.

We don't like that, do we? We all want to deal with God directly. We don't mind his seeing us. We don't mind his telling us what is wrong because he does it in secret. But it really gets to us when he chooses to use someone else to do it. As Oswald Chambers says:

"God never allows you to choose the scene of your own martyrdom. If you object to the fingers by which he crushes his grapes, you will never become wine poured out to bless the hearts of others."

Well, then, what is the cure of legality? ...The Scriptures suggest a very simple and unfailing remedy: Repent and believe -- that is all. Repent of it. Change your mind about it. Don't justify it. Don't excuse it. Don't call it something else. Don't try to cover it up and pretend that it is something acceptable. You may fool the people around you but you won't fool God. He knows.... Commit it to him and out of death will come resurrection; from death will come life. The moment you acknowledge the death, the resurrection immediately follows -- always. God brings to life that which would otherwise be barren and dead. That is the secret of handling legality.

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