Why Effort is NOT Legalism (and What IS Legalism)

We throw around the word “Legalist” because just maybe, it relieves our anxiety about being lukewarm.

It’s easy to poke fun at dudes who read their Bibles on a calendar, wake up at dawn to pray for three hours, and serve on the worship-rap-dance-drama-origami team. That dude attends church nine times per week, drops off food to the homeless from his jetpack, never gets near alcohol or even the rubbing kind, reads the Bible from the original Dead Sea scrolls, and lives in the last known Qumran community that serves lepers and fasts half the year. Someone yells “legalism.”

When we hear about guys doing whatever it takes to quit their sin addiction, like Twelve Step Plans and cognitive behavioral therapy and throwing away their laptops, we think that’s External Conformity. We call it “Religion.”

We throw around the word “Legalist” because just maybe, it relieves our anxiety about being lukewarm. Because maybe that really soothes our conscience about being passive on our own struggles.

The truth is: compare two guys who are both doing all these things, and one of them could be a legalist while the other is not. What’s the difference?

Simply: one loves Jesus Christ. The other loves himself. One relies on Christ. The other is self-reliant.

Legalism is a state of the heart and not your hands. It’s about self-righteousness versus Christ-righteousness. One has it going on with the Lord; the other is basically in love with his own reflection.

Striving is okay. Putting effort into opening your Bible does not automatically equate to dismissing Jesus at the door. If you’re the kind of person who needs a scheduled prayer time in the morning, that doesn’t mean you’re defying the grace of God. He is not offended that you’re using some of your willpower. He’s also cool with you reading your Bible while you eat, on the way to work, or even in your — gasp! — least awake part of the day.

God is not put off by any of that. Because ultimately the power to chase after God comes from God Himself.

There’s a cooperation happening. Apostle Paul writes about that divine partnership to the Colossians: To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. Paul also writes to the Philippians: Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

At times we embrace a reactionary theology that only piles on guilt to relieve guilt. “Pharisee bad! Yay faith, boo works!” But effort is not wrong, and you are built to reach Jesus a little differently than the next guy.

If reading the Bible on a three-times-per-day schedule is what brings you to a real relationship with Jesus, go for it. It’s okay to have a quiet place in the woods with your notebook and sharpie. But if that’s your chest-out, chin-up, look-at-me boasting, then you’re hitting Pharisee Land.

Just don’t let anyone ever tell you that pursuing hard after Jesus is some kind of “works-oriented religious activity.” Hey: our hearts were made for God. There’s a kind of striving that runs to Jesus while also relying on him to run. We need him for every step: but it does mean that you need to make some steps.

The Christian life is almost always pictured in the Bible as a walk. If you could name every step out loud, it would sound like: recharge, reload, serve, reset, rest, give, recoup, restore, move. God’s love empowers us to submit to His Spirit, so that His fruits would flex through us. Some of that is probably a mystery, but it’s always going to be you plus Him.

The preconceived assumption is that someone who works hard before God must also be doing it for himself — and a lot of times, that’s true. We can easily attempt this spiritual game in our own flesh and build an entire ministry on manmade ideas. We should certainly be wary of that.

But the fruit of a true legalist always ends in snobbery, superiority, and moral exhaustion. That sort of ministry collapses in on itself when the celebrity preacher is gone. And the people there are uppity, measuring their spiritual progress by insane parameters that would make no sense to the disciples in the Bible.

Your effort under God’s loving power will always give birth to humility, gratitude, joy, and service. Not perfectly, but passionately and increasingly. If you feel the devil attacking hard, it’s not legalistic to consider throwing away that laptop and limiting your travels. If you have a Bible-In-A-Year-Plan to get you started and organized, get on that. Don’t feel bad if you fall off: that happens too. If you stray and backslide and go prodigal: God has grace for you. Jump right back on, because God still loves you and He’s not going anywhere. The moment of defeat matters less than the moment right after.

What God really cares about is not so much how you look, but where you’re looking. Every Christian is empowered differently because He wired us individually, and every Christian will run towards the same one who saves. Be free to run after Him the way that God has made you.

J.S. Park
J.S. Park is a hospital chaplain, pastor, sixth degree black belt, former atheist, recovered porn addict, and loves Jesus. He has a BA in Psychology from USF and a MDiv from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 2012, he gave away half his salary to fight human trafficking. He's been on the front page of Wordpress and writes for the non-profit X3Church. He's also written some books.