Holiness or Legalism: How You Can Know The Difference?

When we first become Christians, when we confess and repent of our sins and accept Christ as the Savior of our souls, we begin a long and exciting journey. God’s plan for us is to grow and mature and he gives most of us three score and ten years to experience his growth plan. I looked at my new- born grandson a few months ago and felt the softness of brand new skin. I peered at his new little ears and looked into his eyes as he struggled to hear my voice and focus on my face for the first time.

New Christians experience so many new sensations. They now have eyes that can see more clearly. Spiritual discernment gives to them ears that hear differently, minds that think differently and a heart that has been cleansed of evil and bathed in goodness. The darkness that pervaded in the deepest part of their souls has been replaced by a light that reflects the brightness of His glory. Unbelievers become accustomed to the feeling of the emptiness they must always be burdened with. Like a ball and chain on the prisoner’s leg, they carry this emptiness everywhere they go. But those who experience conversion have had their chains broken and the empty void in their soul is filled with the inexplicable fullness of God.

Once the new Christian sets out on this journey with Christ he is instructed not to look back. Lot’s wife looked back and suffered horrible consequences because she still desired the things that would bring destruction to her soul. We are instructed to leave the old sinful habits at the foot of the cross and move forward into maturity. Our cry echoes the cry of Hosea, “Oh, that we might know the LORD! Let us press on to know him.” (Hosea 6:3)

So how does a young seedling grow into a massive oak? After experiencing the miracle of germination and emerging from the darkness of the soil, the fledgling plant absorbs the light, drinks in the moisture and nutrients made available to it. A Christian, after the miracle of regeneration, emerges from the dark, sinful soil of spiritual death. New life enables him to absorb the light provided by One who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) He sponges up the water of One who promised “living water” (John 4:10), a water that permanently quenches the thirst of a troubled soul.

Young Christians are reminded that “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). We are instructed to strive for perfection; “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) But we are reminded that we can never achieve the absolute perfection that belongs only to a Holy God. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. (Isaiah 55:8)

The admonition toward perfection is an admonition toward spiritual maturity. We are instructed how we might become a mighty oak in the kingdom forest. We are to make provision to saturate ourselves with the word of God because it is a “lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” (Psalm 119:105) We become strong in the Lord by spending time with him. We are to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). While lifting our voice to him we are assured that he hears us because the shepherd knows the voice of his sheep. “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” (John 10:14) We should become so intimate with God that we also know his voice. Elijah recognized it as a small still voice. (1 Kings 19:12) The flow of gentle, spontaneous thoughts that come unexpected into your mind may very well be the voice of God speaking to your soul. We are instructed to “test the spirits to see if they are from God.” (1 John 1:4)

The practice of certain disciplines becomes the vehicle through which we come closer and closer to God. Maturity without discipline is an illusion.

There is a movement that is quite prevalent today that provides a subtle opposition against the practice of such disciplines. I would refer to it as the “legalism” movement. Christians who purpose in their hearts to have a closer walk with God, to follow him into the deeper, more abundant life that he offers will inevitably be accused of practicing legalism. There seems to be a fine line between legalism and holiness. Some of Christ’s harshest words were reserved for those who practices legalism. Nothing offends God more than the humanistic idea that we can somehow achieve salvation through our own efforts. This devalues the precious blood Christ shed on the cross and stirs the anger of God. Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees for their legalism when he referred to them as vipers and said, “You also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”. (Mat 23:28)

How might one know when he is practicing legalism or when he is using the disciplines provided to strive for holiness? He will know by discerning whether he is in bondage or whether he is free. Legalism leads to bondage, holiness leads to freedom. Legalism brings death, holiness brings life. If one feels a whip on his back he is being driven by legalism. If he feels a yearning in his heart to spend time with one he loves more than words can tell, he desires holiness. Legalism is an attempt to please a demanding taskmaster. Holiness is a desire to emulate One whom you love, admire and adore. Legalism is because you ‘have to’. Holiness is because you ‘want to’.

Dr. Kent Hughes wrote a book entitled Disciplines of a Godly Man, in which he declared, “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.”

The legalist trusts in his own actions to make him righteous. He relies on traditions like regular church attendance, prayer-time and paying of his tithes to achieve favor with God. These become traditions for the legalist but they become disciplines for one in pursuit of holiness. The one who hungers for holiness realizes that his righteousness is as “filthy rags”. (Isaiah 64:6) Praying just to ease one’s conscience or to impress others because a babbling of “vain repetitions”. (Matthew 6:7) The prayer of a truly righteous man is very powerful and affective. (James 5:16)

So, the question we must ask is this: Are we floundering about in legalism or are we on the path to maturity and righteousness? Is our Christian experience about us or is it about Him? Is our intent to satisfy some longing within our own soul or is our intent to satisfy Him? Are we on the same page as John when he said, “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”? (John 3:30)