Holiness Is Not Legalism and Legalism Is Not Holiness

Josh Buice

According to Revelation 20:11-15, God is interested in our works.  Apparently God keeps ongoing records of all of our works, including our speech (Matthew 12:36).  However, as we read the Bible, we see that our salvation is not dependent upon our works.  Our salvation is dependent upon Jesus’ work for us on the cross (Ephesians 2:8-9).  So, where is the balance?

One major league problem to avoid as we live the Christian life is legalism.  Have you heard of a specific church in your community being labeled “legalistic” in their ministry philosophy?  One of the major problems with the subject of legalism is determining exactly what legalism means since there is no definition provided in the Scriptures.  The closest thing we have in the biblical text is Paul’s address to the church in Galatia.

Galatians 1:6-9 – I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—[7] not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. [8] But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. [9] As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Later we learn from Paul’s words that the issue involved the circumcision requirement laid down by the law:

Galatians 5:4-6 – You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. [5] For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. [6] For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Paul makes his point clear.  The church in Galatia had strayed from the true gospel to another gospel.  They had become guilty of mixing law and grace.  The charge by Paul was serious.  He charge the church at Galatia to let those who would preach and teach such heresy be accursed (damned to hell).  Therefore, Paul was not playing games with the issue of legalism.  On the basis of Paul’s dealings with the issues in Galatia, we can safely define legalism as an attempt to please God on behalf of law keeping.  Donald Whitney, in his article, “Discipline Yourself…Without Legalism” has said, “Legalism is the improper emphasis on works in our relationship to God.” If a person tries to keep the law in order to please God, he will find himself disappointed and frustrated in his attempt (Romans 3:28).  This is a massive ditch that must be avoided in the Christian life.

On the other hand, we are called to be holy as God Himself is holy.  Holiness is a biblical word from which we can provide a good working definition.  For instance, when we read that God is holy, what God is communicating to us is that He is distinct and set apart from His creation.  When the Psalmist writes in Psalm 99:5, “Exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!” what exactly does he mean that God is holy?  He means that God is distinctly different than any other god and He is likewise separate (the otherness of God) from His creation.

The word holy is likewise used in conjunction with the Sabbath in Exodus 20:8-11.  The holiness of the Sabbath was in the fact that God “made it holy” by setting it apart as distinct from all other days.  As we consider the meaning and use of the word holy, we then turn to the charge of Peter to the children of God whereby he said, “since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Peter 1:16).  If Christians are called to be holy (set apart as distinct from the world), what distinctions must be evident in the holiness of God’s children?  That is where we often see the rub.  Some law keepers want to elevate those distinctions to essentials.  Others attempt to tear down all laws and standards while giving all allegiance to Christ in grace.

What we must realize is that an honest attempt to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength is not legalism.  A group of elders leading a church to be distinct and set apart from the rest of the world is not legalism.  In fact, we can find many warnings in the Bible regarding worldliness (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 1 John 2:15).  Additionally, the attempt to please God by law keeping should not be viewed as holiness.  The only means whereby a sinner is made right before God is by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (Romans 5).  Nothing that we can offer God will impress Him.  Paul and James are in harmony with one another.  Justification is by faith alone in Christ alone – according to Paul.  Faith without works is dead – according to James.  Therefore, if a person has been justified by faith, he not only has peace with God but an inner desire to strive for holiness and to serve God.

Kevin DeYoung, in his book, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness puts it this way:

“Not only is holiness the goal of your redemption, it is necessary for your redemption. Now before you sound the legalist alarm, tie me up by my own moral bootstraps, and feed my carcass to the Galatians, we should see what Scripture has to say. . . . It’s the consistent and frequent teaching of the Bible that those whose lives are marked by habitual ungodliness will not go to heaven. To find acquittal from God on the last day there must be evidence flowing out of us that grace has flowed into us.”

The lines may become blurry at times, but we must stand firm upon the Word of God.  Building fences where God has not placed a boundary becomes dangerously close to legalism.  A life of licentious behavior under the banner of the gospel is not a demonstration of freedom, but more precisely a demonstration of foolishness.  Wisdom and discernment are both key in making decisions regarding the Christian life.  We must avoid the ditch of overt licentious Christian freedom and the deep ditch of religious legalism that confuses people regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are free in Christ, but we are likewise the slaves of Christ.  A passionate holy life provides the greatest freedom in the world.  Holiness is not legalism and legalism is not holiness.

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.


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Author Holiness Is Not Legalism and Legalism Is Not Holiness

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He is married to Kari and they have four children, Karis, John Mark, Kalli, and Judson. Additionally, he serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors, including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.