One thing I’ve found in over 40 years with Jesus is that legalistic people never think they are legalistic. I know I didn’t, and still don’t, even though I still detect some residual legalism in my own life from time to time. But when you understand the underlying premise of legalism, you’ll begin to see where it pops up in your own life.
First, legalistic behavior is only the symptom. It doesn’t explain where it comes from. Legalism, at its most fundamental core, is a mindset that believes we must work on our failings instead of becoming who we are in Christ.
Legalism is when we try to please God by anything other than by believing Him.
6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Heb.11:6 NIV*)
Legalism is actually a spiritual stronghold, forged from pretensions that keep us ever knowing about God but never experientially knowing Him. These lies must be taken captive and made obedient to the truth of Christ (2 Cor.10:3-5).
In a word, legalism is the inevitable result when we don’t abide (John 15:1-12). When we choose to live our life in Christ apart from remaining in His love. We become unfruitful branches.
Paul said this to the foolish Galatians:
What has happened to you Galatians to be acting so foolishly? You must have been under some evil spell! Didn’t God open your eyes to see the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion? Wasn’t he revealed to you as the crucified one? (Gal.3:1 TPT*)
The Galatians had fallen under legalism’s insidious spell. We can, too. How does this happen? One reason is because the meaning of the Cross requires revelation. It doesn’t make sense to our natural mind. Our human default is legalism. All you have to do is turn on the news to prove this is true!
Legalism is the cultural mindset we inherited from eating from the wrong Tree; it’s why we invented religion, to find innumerable ways to appease our gods, whether they be secular or spiritual in nature. Legalism gives us the right to compare ourselves to others and to shame and condemn those who aren’t behaving like we think they should. It is an evil and hypocritical measuring stick that only divides and steals one’s joy. The religious form of legalism intoxicates us with disciplines and rituals and the promise that we might ascend up to “heaven.” It’s all a poisonous lie.
Legalism negates the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. What is that meaning? It’s that when Christ died, you died; when He was buried, your sin was forever buried with Him; when He rose from the dead, you rose with Him; and when He was seated at the right hand of God, you were seated there in Him! When we truly understand this, we will begin to understand how absurd it is to try to appease God by trying to clean up what He has crucified.
But, as I’ve said before, while our spirit perfectly knows all these things and lives freely in heaven right now in Christ, our soul has been poisoned and scarred by our life experiences (and possibly, bad theology). This is why we must train our soul to live from heaven to earth. And we can only do this from a place of rest, abiding in His love.
Conversely, we actually strengthen the legalistic bonds within us when we try to work on our behavior instead of letting Him train and empower us as we remain in His love. As I’ve said many times, we put ourselves on an endless hamster wheel that will never get us to where we want to go.
This is a critical truth: nothing will ever change when we keep trying to prop up the “old self.” God is not, and never will be, interested in working on our failings. He’s only interested in revealing our new self in Christ.
21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph.4:21-24 NIV*)
Beloved, you cannot work both on your failings and on who you are in Christ. You and I must focus on the “I Am” in us and let go of all the “I am not’s” that were crucified with Christ. And the only way we can do this is to stop our striving and enter into God’s rest. And this rest is profoundly effective.