If you’re struggling with legalism, don’t fight it by quitting your quiet times. That’s the good advice I remember once hearing from a pastor.
In other words, there’s a temptation to presumably fight legalism by running away from good things, whether Bible reading or acts of love, because we mistake them to be part of the problem.
We women are susceptible to this temptation. We are bombarded with choices. Between schooling options, birthing styles, what we should wear, and even what we should or shouldn’t eat, it is easy to confuse principle and practice. A confusion can set in on whether we are really living for God’s glory, or if we’re shackled to legalism. But I think where the confusion starts is with the definition of legalism.
What Is Legalism?
Legalism is pursuing good works with the intention of earning God’s favor. The point is to save one’s self. It is good works without believing that God justifies us by faith alone. John Piper explains it this way: “The essence of legalism is when faith is not the engine of obedience” (“The Anatomy of Legalism and the Discipline of Prayer”).
When we work hard for God in order to earn his favor, we are not operating with faith. Instead, we are saying that we must add to the finished work of Jesus on the cross. His work wasn’t enough, and therefore we must work to make him happy — we must take it into our own hands to be accepted by God.
But the Bible says that we are justified by grace through faith alone, and it is not a work of our own but a free gift of God. Our salvation is, and never will be, a result of our works (Ephesians 2:8). There is nothing we could ever do to earn God’s saving favor. If we are in Christ we have his favor, forever!
I know when I have been tempted to legalism, it is motivated by selfish-ambition. I want to take my good works and show them off to God. That’s why Ephesians 2:9 is so important. The reason that our salvation is a gift is so that no man may boast. Our salvation isn’t ultimately about us, but about God. God does the work, and he receives the glory. A legalist wants to do the work, earn the favor, and I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say, get the glory.