Posted by: Heather | January 18, 2009

legalism vs. relationship

I have been thinking about the differences between legalism vs relationship with God.

Often times when someone makes a sacrifice for God in their own life, others will cry “legalism”

I would suggest that if I make a sacrifice, and then you feel you must follow suit because I did it, then for you it may be legalism. However, for me it may not be.

If I try to force my sacrifice on you, then I am perhaps being legalistic toward you. However, I may be truly convinced that I must make the sacrifice. Romans 14 says that I must be convinced in my own mind, and then later says that the man is blessed who does not condemn himself by what he approves.

Those were some random thoughts, but the thing that really got my attention was what I will call “self denial”

Both the legalistic and the one with a relationship will have a form of self denial. But the person with a relationship denies their own self for the joy of doing so. The legalistic does not have the joy.

The depth of self denial is drastically different as well. Consider the difference between the Pharisees and the Disciples. The Pharisees were known for their legalities. They fasted and gave large sums of money because it was required. The Disciples on the other hand (who became Apostles) gave their lives. Some literally to martyrdom, others in hardship of life. They did not do so because of any requirement, but out of a desire to do what their beloved master wanted. They willingly went through extreme hardship that made any of the Pharisees’ hardships pale in comparison. But they did it for the love of their Lord rather than for devotion to a code.

An every day example we all have seen is the difference between a babysitter and a mother. Even a good babysitter works off of the list on the refrigerator. But who has not seen a mother go for days on end without proper sleep because their child is sick. There is no written code on the refrigerator requiring such devotion. They do it because of who and what they are. It is called being a mother.

I think being a child of God is the same way. As a child of God, there are times when I realize that doing something I once enjoyed grieves the Father. I willingly give it up because I love Him. He may not have asked you to give it up. If you are doing it (or feel pressure to do it) for me and not for him, then the reason is wrong, and it becomes a form of legalism.

Just some thoughts.




  1. You explained the difference perfectly for me. I try to read everyones posts, but I must confess these shorter ones are the ones I get the most out of, more simple, to the point, and well, I’m not really a big reader so I usually skim through the long ones and don’t get all the points. 🙂Thank you so much for this!

  2. Craig,I pretty much agree with you on this…It is hard on the peanut-brain for me to put it all into a summary that I myself understand thoroughly, let alone share it well…Anyway, along with “what you said” I think is about where I am on it. I have a distaste for those arguments of “what’s right for me is different than what’s right for you”, but for some things in this area, it is most applicable, but not in clear Biblical mandates of course.My pastor has corrected me slightly on some of this – or at least how I was presenting it. There is plenty in the Bible that is non-negotiable and that God will/would never approve.Aside from those things, there is the heart of the matter – truly part of the recent discussion in Lyle’s post this week. I think your example of tithing is perfect in this case… Jesus said that the Pharisees tithed down to their herbs from their garden, but neglected the poor. So, in that they did the tithe, they were not incorrect, but because they hadn’t the heart to back that up, and they were blind to others’ needs, they were not done. Jesus went on to say that they ought not neglect either.There are plenty of examples too of things that our churches add to the law that simply do not belong. In growing up, music is the best example that I can recall, though there were lots of examples I am sure. This experience led me to flavor this subject with the idea that legalism is naturally judgmental. I don’t know, legalism is at least arrogant, and there are lots of Biblical examples to back that up.It is often difficult at best for me to discern legalism in most people due to this cursed beam in my eye, but in those who follow Christ and sacrifice in His name, there is a sweetness and a natural fellowship that does not exist otherwise. Anyway, the outside cleanliness is no indication of the heart… But where there is outside (public) dirtiness, there is no inside (private) cleanliness?I love Philippians 3:15 where there are truly disputable things to argue… Ryan

  3. “But the person with a relationship denies their own self for the joy of doing so. The legalistic does not have the joy”. I like this. I guess if we have real joy it no longer seems like self-denial, but a freedom from such things.Your title ‘legalism vs relationship’ was ambiguous for me. I am not judging the hearts of all ‘legalists’, but the ones I have met appear to have somehow lost their compassion for the lost, their relationship with people in the world. They have an ‘us vs them’ mentality in the darkest ways, which disturbs me as someone saved later in life. I am not saying that there arent clear biblical distinctions/requirements between Christians and the world, but we are never called to hate or fear the people themselves in the world, and a lot of the time legalistic attitudes appear this way.

  4. eh. We’ve already talked privately about this–so you know where I am for now.S’pose I’ll just comment rather than do a “copycat” post which would simply rephrase much of yours. 😛Legalism, in my opinion, is based largely either in fear of punishment or a displaced sense of personal importance ( I think Ryan touched on the latter when he wrote of “arrogance”). True Biblical Christianity is about neither.However, until we have TASTED the fear of everlasting punishment for what we really are, we have no idea why Jesus’ sacrifice is significant. God’s LAW was intended to point that out. Recognition of this condition, followed by true repentance will be the beginning of our new life in Christ–the relationship of which you spoke. True, our freedom in Christ is, in part, freedom from the condemnation of the law–but I also believe it is freedom from the pull of the world (lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, pride of life). In Jesus, we have the power to overcome the worldly temptation to serve ourselves–just as He overcame and submitted Himself to the Father’s plan.As I get to know Jesus better, I am repeatedly faced with what I was without Him–and when He shows me something ugly to which I was formerly blinded, I often feel physically ill over it. Lately, I had to back away from several idols and my heart is much lighter for it. It isn’t because I think I can somehow earn “brownie points” or make myself look more pious to other believers (to be honest, I usually get the “aren’t you being a tad legalistic?” response) Instead, I want to change because I can now see that I was worshiping something that did nothing to further Christ’s Kingdom or bring Him glory. This isn’t natural human nature and I credit it to the working of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t always easy to abruptly change direction because sometimes we really ENJOY the things we are supposed to give up (or minimize), and often the strongest critics are other Christians whom we look to for support. Jesus said we are to take up our cross, die to self, and follow Him. He may call some to be far more “strict” than others as various idols are exposed and eliminated. Some who are more liberal may naturally become more “narrowminded” as He draws them closer and they willingly discard frivolous, worldly trinkets in favor of heavenly riches. Sometimes, I think He may even give back that which was given up (as with Abraham being willing to offer his son as a sacrifice).Come to think of it–Samuel told Saul: Samuel 15:22 ” And Samuel said, ‘Does Jehovah delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of Jehovah? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice! To listen is better than the fat of rams!'”It appears to me that the condition of the heart (willingness, along with making the effort to move in a direction) is far more important than any extreme outward show of action or effort to please God. My perspective: If I fight even the idea of having to give up stuff, then my focus isn’t on obedience OR pleasing God. So. You get stuck with a mile-long rambly post. Heather

  5. Heather,Watching you go through this experience you wrote about was actually the catalyst that brought this to my attention. I have seen you give up things you were not asked to, and do so out of love for your Master.God is teaching me through you.Ryan,I don’t intend to be promoting relativism, however I still wonder if the right thing done for the wrong reason is still legalism. All of my righteousness is as filthy rags.The point to me is that legalism is focused outward at others and inward to ones self. Relationship with God is focused on Him alone.I believe we act out of who we are. If I am a new creation, then I will have the desire to please my Father. If I am not, I will need outward restrictions to appear “christian”The wonderful thing about this is that God acts out of who He is, too. He is my Father. Karina, sorry to be ambiguous. (there you go using big words on me again) It was not my intention to exhaust the subject, only to put down some of the things I have been thinking about the differences between the two. If you read Heather’s most recent post, you will see the personal struggle I have watched that brought me to realize much of what I wrote.Thanks all for your comments, Sometimes I wonder if anyone reads this stuff. . . Craig

  6. Craig- Just to clarify, your title held more of an interesting bonus for me, a double meaning…nothing to be sorry over, and I didnt feel that you exhausted the subject at all. All I meant was, that while your post focused on legalism vs relationship with God; the title also made me consider legalism vs relationships with people. Am headed over to check out Heather’s blog now 🙂

  7. Craig,I know that my my comment looks that way – now that you mention it like that. I entirely agree with you though and I was not trying to counterpoint anything you said. In fact, the heart is the start on this one… I usually have a distaste for arguments of what’s right for me/for you etc. In this area, I guess it is a hard thing to judge others’ motives – at least until they take you aside and give you the what for about something extra-Biblical! 😀 Anyway – I believe that we are on the same page and I am sorry if my comment seemed to counter anything you said. I meant for it to be a finer point along with the basic thought that you well described…

  8. Ryan,I agree, we are on the same page. I had not really even considered the relativism side of the argument until I read your comment, so it had the intended effect. My reply was more of a “after further contemplation. . I wonder if” sort of thing.I always enjoy your comments as I have always respected your opinion. You ponder better than I do. I tend to be like a golf ball teed off in a tile bathroom . . Thanks for your input. Craig

  9. I’ve read your post 3x now trying to get an idea of the context in the midst of all the noise around me, and my mind just keeps getting stuck in Romans 14. I agree with what you are saying as we push our freedom on people and it is no longer a freedom of faith, but a requirement and becomes legalistic as in Galatians. One thing I see in Romans 14 is that no matter what your faith allows (eating meat or not eating meat), they are both honoring to the Lord when done in faith, and it seems to add “when done in secret”…something the Pharisees did not do. Jesus says they have already received their reward in full.I am going to throw a loose thought out with this in mind even though it is not really what you are discussing…I think many Christians make this scripture an excuse to go drink, or listen to whatever music they want, or watch whatever movies because “it is ok for my faith”. This is totally out of context. He is talking about actions we commit in response to our faith, in honor of the Lord and ends the chapter saying anything that is not of faith is sin. I see this so often on both sides. One friend will drink at will in front of another friend who gets offended at the one who drinks. They are both wrong in this context, neither honors the Lord in their deeds.So, there is a lot of room for sinning here, even in our so called faith. In the end, I think that love needs to abound and always consider others more important than ourselves and more important than doing things in the freedom of our faith. Paul was an excellent example: “I become all things to all people, so that some might be saved”. He became a jew to the jew, gentile to the gentile. So he probably ate meat at one table, and obstained at the next! This is so opposite of our mindset…everyone needs to believe what we believe. (I stand guilty!!!) There is so much you could talk about on this subject! Good post…

  10. It is a balance – for sure. Having spent a lot of time here, trying to please others, and I now tend to put less emphasis on what others think of my actions insofar as I am convinced that God has led me to them. That said, liberty is not license – balance…Perhaps I have reach paralysis by analysis?Craig, after posting my last comment, I thought to mention something that I really have grown to appreciate over the years and I think it was this subject that brought it to my mind yet again. Back in the day, you and I had some discussions of some of these things – maybe you don’t remember them, but those discussions certainly helped me to think more independently.Whenever I hear these topics, I remember those conversations and the circumstances as I knew them and I am grateful to know how God has used them to mold my thinking and my spiritual track. I am far better for it.

  11. Thanks for the kind words Ryan. I do remember our discussions.Funny how God brings us full circle. Doesn’t seem like it has been 20 years, does it.Craig

  12. Craig, I really think you hit the nail on the head with the “sacrifice” aspect of why we do what we do. I hadn’t thought of that before. Very good post.

  13. Hi, Heather directed me here. I must say this is an excellent post. I love the analogy between the mother/babysitter example. Something I can relate to!

  14. Civilla and Jennifer,Welcome to my site. Thanks for the kind words. I have observed your friendship with Heather. I value and respect your opinions and thoughts. Your comments are welcome at any time. My goal is to help people see Christ more clearly and from closer than before. If He allows this, than to Him be the praise.Craig

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