By Will Graham

Motivations! You’ve got them and I’ve got them! Everything we do as human beings is the fruit of secret intentions and motives hidden deep within our hearts. You’ve logged onto the Internet for a reason. You clicked on this website for a reason. You’re reading this article for a reason. Maybe the article’s title caught your attention; maybe you want to gather some biblical principles for a sermon; or maybe you just want to know what God has to say to you. The possibilities are infinite, but whatever the case may be, there is always something motivating you. No-one escapes motivations. Not even this article’s author!

To deal with the tricky issue of ‘legalism’ it is vital to keep this concept of motivations in our minds. Legalism is a word on everybody’s lips nowadays; so it would do no harm to dig deep into the Scriptures to see what it is really all about. In its purest sense, legalism has to do with concealed motivations. But before we elaborate any further, we’re going to divide up our study into three parts. Firstly, legalism is outward, not inward; secondly, legalism is self, not Christ; and last but not least, legalism is duty, not delight. Let’s get cracking!


First of all, legalism is outward, not inward. It is a surface-deep religion that is chiefly concerned about keeping up appearances. As long as everything ‘looks’ alright and is ‘said’ in the correct manner, then the legalist is more than satisfied. Legalism doesn’t probe the heart. It contents itself with man’s approval and acceptance. It majors on slimy smiles and political handshakes.

If there was anything Jesus couldn’t stand, it was the stench of a spurious spirituality. He hit out at hypocrites that fasted, prayed and offered money in public only to be seen of men. They had a religious profession and were respected by God’s people, but their hearts were as vile as death itself. Jesus’ teaching along these lines is epitomized in a violently aggressive passage found in Matthew 23:27-28, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” It doesn’t get much fiercer than that; does it? Luther’s critique of Erasmus comes to mind. In 1525, he rebuked the liberal catholic for his pro-free will writings, calling them dung in vessels of gold and silver. Stylistically, they were perfect; but their content was as loathsome as excrement.

True faith, then, must be clean on the outside and the inside. When the Christianity is reduced to an ecclesiastical power-struggle, you can be sure that the Holy Spirit is long gone. God is interested in heart-religion. He analyzes the passion and holy motivations at work within our souls; not the extent of our outward success. That’s why the little grandmother sat at home washing her dishes and praying for mission work can be more pleasing to God than the man upon a platform preaching to multitudes with his heart full of pride. Jesus looks heart-wards. And He is only satisfied if hearts look Jesus-wards. Legalism is outward, not inward.


In second place, legalism is self, not Christ. This phrase alone explains the whole theological thrust at work in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. The apostle slammed a wild brood of false teachers who were preaching another Gospel. Their message could be summed up in the following heretical statement: ‘To be eternally saved, all you’ve got to do is trust in Christ and keep the Law of Moses!’ Now, if you know Paul as well as I do you’ll realize that he wasn’t going to put up with that kind of nonsense for too long. His words come crashing down upon any type of self-salvation. Salvation is in Christ and in Christ alone! If salvation were by the works of the Law, then Christ has died in vain (Galatians 2:21). If you can be your own saviour, Paul reasons, then what on earth is Jesus doing upon the cross? The Protestant Reformers proclaimed this truth time-and-time again until they were blue in the face. They could not accept any kind of sinner-friendly teaching that gave legitimacy to the idea that God saved man because of some intrinsic ‘goodness’ within him. Salvation is by the pure mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ. And any other message is the doctrine of a devil.

This false Gospel is the most widespread version of legalism in the world today. Human nature is inherently legalistic. We can’t help but be legalists. Almost everybody in your city believes they’re going to heaven because they’ve never killed anyone, they’ve never stolen a thing and they’ve never committed adultery. That false belief is legalism in its pristine essence. ‘I am going to heaven because I...’ The believer never speaks along those lines. His declaration is always the same: ‘I am going to heaven because Christ...’

Legalism is self-righteousness in pole position. But Jesus tells us that to enter into His kingdom, that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. And to be very blunt and even more realistic: that is frankly impossible. The only righteousness that can save us is one that is not our own. It is the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And the Good News of the New Testament is that Jesus’ righteousness is imputed freely to everyone that believes that He is Lord and that in His blood there is a full and perfect forgiveness for every sinful act we’ve ever committed. The Gospel puts the spotlight on Christ and glorifies His mercy; whereas legalism is vitiated with self-centredness.


Finally, legalism is duty, not delight. With regards to believers, this is probably the type of legalism to which we’re most susceptible. Perhaps our prayer lives degenerate into a boring routine of sighs and clock-watching rather than being an overflow of our soul-soaking joy in God. Or maybe we get tired of going through the motions in church: first some upbeat ‘praise’ songs, then a few slower ‘worship’ ones, then the tithes and offerings, then announcements, then the half-an-hour long sermon, then the altar-call, then a final song, then a final prayer, then a brief chat with our acquaintances, then home to eat, etc.

At a personal level, I have often heard folk criticize others because they awake early to pray: ‘He gets up at five o’ clock every morning to pray; he’s such a legalist.’ Or for some other reasons: ‘She reads the Bible for an hour before she goes to bed. She’s just living under the Law.’ I’d suggest that we have to be very careful when we make these types of flippant comments. How do you know that that man doesn’t wake up at five o’ clock every morning because he passionately adores God so much that he esteems Him as more valuable than his pillow and his breakfast? Or how do you know that Bible reading woman doesn’t enthusiastically devour the Word of the Lord to discover all the riches of knowledge and wisdom that Christ desires to transmit to her?

What I’ve found with these kinds of critiques is that the person who makes them tends to be a bit of a legalist himself (or herself). They find no delight in prayer or Bible-reading, therefore they condemn everyone who does. They think: ‘This person can’t possible enjoy God. They just feel the same way I do, only they cover it up with their spiritual routine.’ Their criticism reflects the state of their own heart. You’re not a legalist because you get up at five in the morning to pray. You’re a legalist if you get up at five in the morning to pray in order to boast about how spiritual you are and to gloat before God. That is legalism. We would do well to remember that the legalist does a thing because he has to do it; whereas the Spirit-inspired saint does a thing because he desires and longs to do it.

Do you know that it is possible to do exactly the same thing with a different kind of motivation? You can pray because you have to, read because you have to or congregate because you have to. On the other hand, you can pray because you desire to, read because you desire to or congregate because you desire to. It is all a question of motivations. What moves us? Is it the selfish religious routine? Or is hot soul-passion for God? Admittedly, we may not experience the all-consuming presence of God every time our knees hit the ground in prayer; but we must not confuse Christian discipline with religious legalism.


There’s no doubt about it. Legalism is in fashion. It always has been and always will be. It goes hand-in-hand with humanity. We’ve seen that legalism is inward, not outward; self, not Christ; and duty, not delight. However, legalism is dealt the death blow as we contemplate the precious treasures available to us through the grace and the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. A continual, up-to-date relationship with Him will keep us fresh, alive, joyful and in the fullness of the Holy Ghost. That alone is the only remedy that will put legalism out of fashion and crown the Christian faith with the attractive glimmer of grace and glory! It’s time to give legalism the boot!