Anyone who hangs around evangelical circles long enough will most likely hear the “dirty” word legalism. There are three ways in which this term is typically defined: Some people use it to indicate works-based righteousness (meriting salvation), others use it to refer to the addition of extra-biblical commands, and still others use it to allude to any emphasis upon biblical commands whatsoever. Let’s examine more closely these three different uses for the word legalism.
The first two ideas about legalism (as works-based righteousness or as the imposition of extra-biblical commands) are not taught in God’s Word, and these teachings should be rejected. Many times in our day, however, the term legalism is used in the third way stated above: to refer to any emphasis upon God’s commands as expressed in the Bible. To use the term legalism in this way is to use it wrongly. The belief that it is legalistic to place emphasis upon God’s commands is an immense misunderstanding of God’s grace.
Jeffrey Greenman writes, “Divine grace is not opposed to human effort, but rather is opposed to earning divine favor.” Simply put, we are not saved by holy living, but rather saved unto holy living.
There is a very fine line between legalism and holy living. Legalism is sinful, while holy living is godly. If we attempt to live rightly in order to earn divine favor, that is moralistic and self-righteous behavior; but if we attempt to live rightly because God has already shown us favor then we are simply living out our salvation.
Titus 2:11-12 reads, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” These verses show us that grace has appeared in the face of Jesus Christ, achieving salvation for His people. And not only does grace bring about salvation, but it trains the people of God to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.
The grace of God is foundational for the Christian. By God’s grace, salvation has been made known, and this salvation springs forth godly living within us. Jesus Christ does not redeem a people for Himself so they can continue to live ungodly, worldly lives. J.C. Ryle dealt with this exact issue when he preached on Hebrews 12:14, which reads: “Strive for peace with everyone and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” In Ryle’s sermon on this passage he said, “Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do there? What possible enjoyment could you feel there?”
Holiness matters. We see in Scripture that God calls His people to be holy; therefore, we as Christians must strive to be holy. The alternative is of the gravest consequence, for the only alternative to holy living is ungodly, worldly living.
You see, Jesus Christ gave Himself to redeem His people from lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). Nowhere in Scripture will you find Jesus dying on the cross just so we can trust in Him, escape Hell, and then live like pagans. Jesus Christ did not give Himself for our redemption so that we can continue to walk in ungodliness and then be purified on the last day. He gave Himself for us to redeem us from lawlessness and to purify us to live for Him now.
So as we wait for our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13), we follow in His ways, and we strive to walk as He walked, for He is not only our example, but He is our Lord. The Christian faith is not passive; it involves following hard after Jesus Christ, walking in His ways, and being zealous about the good works in which God has prepared for you to walk (Ephesians 2:10). Therefore, when we turn our noses up to that dirty word legalism, I hope we are using it rightly to reject the tendency some have to add extra laws to Scripture or to reject the fatal belief that God’s grace can be merited. For if we reject holy living, then we are rejecting the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.