Of Legalism And Holiness

Of Legalism And Holiness

And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:24–25) 

As it is obvious from the title, this article is about legalism and holiness. It seems that these two terms are often viewed as being synonymous, yet they are vastly different. There are many people today who are legalists who think that they are holy, and there are many holy people who are called legalists by others. Can one be a legalist and be unholy? Can a person be holy and not be a legalist? What in the world is legalism anyway? And what is holiness? 

We must begin by defining the terms. Legalism– The belief that salvation demands or depends upon total obedience to the letter of the law. Examples of legalism include an excessive concern for minute details of the law coupled with a neglect of its fundamental concerns, and a preoccupation with human legal traditions.1 To this we can add that legalism is often seen in the effort to establish our sanctification by external fleshly means rather than by living in the grace of God by faith. Holiness- The quality of God that sets him utterly apart from his world, especially in terms of his purity and sanctity. The holiness of God is also manifested in the persons and work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Believers are called upon to become like God in his holiness.2 I believe that it is obvious to even the most casual of readers that holiness and legalism are different things, although they have one similarity in common, which is an adherence to certain standards that are found in God’s Word. The difference is what is the great thing, and that is the motivation behind the rule keeping and standard following. Why does a person do what he does? Does he do it to be saved? Does he do it to earn brownie points with God so that God will hear his prayers and count him holy? Does he do the things he does to honor God and yield his flesh, mind, and heart to Him?

Our text above comes from the book of Galatians, and I want us to spend most of our time in Galatians as we consider this issue.

In chapters one and two of Galatians, Paul takes a very strong stand against legalism. There were those who were preaching a so-called gospel that was anything but good news. It was not revealed by God, not given by God, and was accursed of God. The Spirit of God is so vehemently opposed to the idea that a person can work for salvation or add works to faith for salvation that He pronounces a curse against anyone, even angels, who would preach such a perverted gospel! Paul then tells us about rebuking Peter for acting hypocritically and refusing to fellowship with Gentile believers because they were not circumcised. In a strong blast against legalism, Paul said that he was trusting Christ alone to be saved and to live the Christian life. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Galatians 2:20–21) 

Chapters three and four present the believers as being heirs of God in Christ and partakers of the Abrahamic blessing and covenant. Paul stands strongly against the idea that one’s salvation is completed by fleshly works, reminds them that the law brings a curse, and the none of us have obeyed the law or will fully obey the law. Instead, the good news is that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law and counts us righteous by faith alone. Because of this we are God’s children and heirs according to the promise.

Chapter five of Galatians is where the rubber meets the road for Christian living. It is there that we see the issues of legalism and holiness in stark contrast. There are those who seek to be holy by fleshly effort. They think that there are things that they do which will cause God to love them more, to hear their prayers, and to bring blessing upon their lives and families. They are seeking to earn the blessings of God which only come by grace. This is a form of legalism regarding sanctification. (As an aside, it should be noted that it has much in common with the paganism that treats God as one who has needs and will repay us as we help Him out. It also has much in common with the modern paganism of the prosperity gospel, which speaks of doing certain things in order to move or manipulate God to bring health and wealth to us.) When Paul calls on us to walk in love and walk in the Spirit instead of walking in the flesh, he is fighting against two extremes: one is that of yielding to unbridled lust and sin in the name of freedom and the other is that of trying to please God by fleshly efforts. Both of these have the same results: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19–21) It cannot be said too strongly that legalism will often lead to immorality, because legalism is living in the flesh. This is why we are told to walk in the Spirit and live the life of one whose flesh has been crucified and continues to be mortified.

As we look at the issue of walking in the Spirit, however, we do see that there are standards of holiness mentioned to us. We are to measure our lives by what we need to get rid of (Galatians 5:19-21) and by what we add, which is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Those who live in the Spirit have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires and are commanded to walk in the Spirit. This means that we are to follow the leadership of the Spirit in the Word of God and trust in the power of the Spirit of God to enable us to glorify God in our bodies. These standards of holiness are to be evident in our lives. They are not optional. They are essential to Christian living. Paul stated that those who lack those things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). 

While these standards do not earn our salvation, they are things that we should use as a measure of our sanctification. I need to be sure that I am growing in godly love, possessing and spreading joy in the Holy Ghost, learning to suffer long in adverse circumstances, growing in kindness and gentleness, controlling myself both in the passions of anger and fleshly desires, and ever yielding myself to God. As we read and study God’s Word, we find that these things will show up in the things we wear, the places we go, the things we do, and the words we speak. 

With this in mind, we must recognize that there are some of us whose standards may be what appears to be more strict concerning certain things such as clothing, music, various media involvements, and perhaps other things. A person can have standards that are more strict that yours, and you can disagree with them on those things, and yet that person may not be a legalist. If they are seeking to walk in the Spirit, and they are convinced that these things are part of walking in the Spirit and helpful in submitting the flesh to God, then they are more likely holding to these standards as an issue of holiness rather than legalism. In such a case, it would be very uncharitable to label such a person a legalist. In fact, in our day when folks seem so prone to saying, “Judge not!” it is very judgmental to declare a person is trying to earn their salvation or earn the blessing of God when they are simply trying to yield themselves to God and walk in the Spirit. It is crucial that we understand this.

Finally, Paul uses chapter six of Galatians to call the saints to live out their faith in Christ by showing mercy and kindness to sinning brethren, to sow to the Spirit, and to not give up in their walk with God. He assures them that who faithfully serve God will reap the good results of sowing to the Spirit in God’s time. As he concludes, Paul warns against those whose legalism was real, who took pleasure in appearances, and who tried to lead others to follow them for the sake of appearances alone. He declares that all boasting and glory belongs to God alone, is to be in Christ alone, because of His cross that is the means of our salvation and sanctification. We must recognize that anyone can glory in appearances, whether the legalist who walks in the flesh or the one given to license and walks in the flesh. One glories in the appearance of holiness while the other often glories in yielding the flesh and the appearance of liberty from the legalism under which he or she long lived. Both are sinning by not giving the glory to God. I pray that we will all take the time to soberly meditate on these things, live in the grace of God, and show one another the meekness that God’s Word commands.

1 Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).

2 Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).