Holiness or Legalism?

The Bible commands us to live holy lives.  To be holy, among other things, involves being set apart to God, which entails separation from the world.  I think it can be a challenge for Christians these days to live holy and preach holiness without being called legalistic.  So I wonder how we should define the difference between legalism and holiness.  I have some ideas of my own, but I would like to hear your thoughts.  What is the difference between legalism and holiness?  I think that holy living has been discouraged in the church because of Christians being so quick to call believers who try to practice and preach holiness, legalistic.  I also think that some churches and people have been able to get away with legalism under the guise of holy living.  What are your thoughts?

22 thoughts on “Holiness or Legalism?

  1. Hi Ben, Good question. Some thoughts:

    First, holiness is Spirit centered. To live holy lives we must have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. A Christ centered approach to holiness is the only way can be successful here. It is not by our strength but His. My favorite passage in this regard is Romans 8, which compares the Spirit filled life with the life of the flesh.

    Second, why do we do the things that we do? Is it to please God or to please man? Jesus gives us the examples in Matt 6 of prayer, fasting, and giving. In each case the hypocrites did the activity to earn the favor of man. Jesus said that they had received their reward in full. What we do ought to be for God. And not out of a sense of trying to earn his favor, but out of love.

    Third, holiness does not look the same for everyone. There are certain things that God has called me to do, but not others. For me living that way is holiness, but if I mandate God’s plan for my life to others it becomes legalism for them. On the flip side, there are things that others are called to do that I am not. Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 8 are applicable here where he speaks to our freedom as believers, but also points out not to let our freedom become a stumbling block for the weak for whom Christ also died.

  2. Legalism is behavior centered, and merit centered. It’s focused on what we do in the name of and for God. Ultimately it’s a lie because there’s nothing we can do for God, certainly nothing that could be meritorious.

    Holiness is God centered. It’s focused on what we do with Him. An easy way to identify it is the simple question, “can I do this with God?”

  3. I think one first needs to define the terms. I define holiness as a person living fully to the amount of spiritual (moral) enlightenment they currently posses. Therefore, one does not become more “holy” as they are either holy or not. This goes in line with what the scripture says: “To much is given much is expected”. The more moral enlightenment a person has a greater level of accountability they have towards God AND their fellow man.

  4. I believe the distinctions above are good. Let me add a few thoughts:

    Legalism is based on the law. Behavior-wise, it is the attempt to perfectly live out a particular moral code. Motivation-wise, it is the attempt to earn favor by the keeper of the law. (Ironically, this may truly be man, not God)

    Holiness is to be set apart for service or purpose. Behavior-wise, it is the attempt to accomplish the task that one was set aside for (worship, evangelism, etc…). Motivation-wise, it is simply serving your master, because you believe Him worthy to be served. It’s about devotion, not obtaining something for yourself.

  5. Hello Ben,

    “I think it can be a challenge for Christians these days to live holy and preach holiness without being called legalistic.”

    For those who delight in God’s law, and seek to please Him, we desire to be Holy not to earn salvation but because we are saved individuals who now delight in God and His Word rather than in the things of the world and we now delight in righteousness. For those who do not know God or do not live in order to please Him, His Word and Laws seem to be “oppressive” or “restrictive”. If your heart is not right you view God’s commands as a burden or a chain upon yourself. If your heart is right then you understand that His commands are not burdensome. So holiness really is a heart issue.

    “So I wonder how we should define the difference between legalism and holiness. I have some ideas of my own, but I would like to hear your thoughts. What is the difference between legalism and holiness?”

    Holiness is developed inwardly by the Holy Spirit working in us as we relate in a personal way with the Lord (cf., what Jesus said about bearing fruit by abiding in Him). Legalism is trying to live a religious life by rules, often rules that men come up with, that even sometimes replace the commands of God. With holiness faith is involved as you trust the Lord to be changing you from the inside out and conforming you to the image of Christ (cf. “just as you received Him [which was by faith] so walk in Him” [again by faith]). With legalism faith is not involved as you have a rule or command and then through your own best efforts you seek to obey the command. Because legalism involves your own best efforts it is easy for those who are “practicing legalists” to start trusting in their own righteousness, trusting in their own efforts rather than the Lord (cf., think of the Pharisees who knew the scripture inside out and backwards and forwards and yet they trusted in their own efforts to be saved rather than Jesus efforts that save a person), so it is easy for “self-righteousness” to rear its ugly **religious head** where legalism is present.

    “I think that holy living has been discouraged in the church because of Christians being so quick to call believers who try to practice and preach holiness, legalistic. I also think that some churches and people have been able to get away with legalism under the guise of holy living. What are your thoughts?”

    Again it is a heart issue. If a person’s heart is right they delight in the Lord and delight in His commands and delight in being obedient to Him and His commands. If the heart is not right, then God’s commands and holiness become burdensome, wearying.

    If I do a sermon and carefully present God’s Word, those whose hearts are right rejoice to hear God’s Word and are convicted by the Spirit and seek to change what needs to be changed so they can please the Lord. On the other hand, after giving the very same sermon if their heart is not right, they may complain that the worship music was too loud, or the air conditioner was not on sufficiently strong enough, etc.

    God’s Word reveals hearts.

    The Word naturally divides people. Those whose hearts are right are open to God and spiritual things, those whose hearts are not right are hostile and do not find holiness attractive. People who mistake holiness for legalism have hearts that are not right. Likewise people who “have been able to get away with legalism under the guise of holy living” also have hearts that are not right. Either way God knows the heart and He also knows those who are His so nobody gets away with nuthin! 🙂

    Christianity is a “religion of the heart” and very few people are actually practicing it. Christianity is also deeply relational and again very few people are doing the relational things with the Lord and others that should be happening. Those who are for real delight in the Lord and His Word and His commands, they delight in holiness, they delight in worshipping the Lord and being with His people. Those who don’t, well . . .


  6. Great thoughts here. I would like to comment on a few and ask a few questions, but I am really strapped for time right now. Hopefully in the next day or so.

    God Bless,

  7. Steve Crosby’s “Silent Killers of Faith: Overcoming Legalism and Performance Based Religion” is the best treatment on the subject I have ever read. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about it and walking free from it.

  8. Hello Troy,

    You recommend Crosby’s book as “the best treatment on the subject I have ever read.” Could you share here a bit what Crosby suggests in this book? I do not have the book and your comments make me curious about what he says, thanks.


  9. I have been praying for over 50 years and praying to the “Right” God, Who are Holy, Righteous and Pure; and praying in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ by His Faith once delivered to the Saints.

    I love to sit and ponder or meditate on God’s Names daily.

    Don’t you, who equally are filled with the “Holy” Ghost?

    For instance, in Psalms 22 we read these things about “Holiness”:::>

    Psa 22:2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.
    Psa 22:3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

    and then:::>

    Psa 22:21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
    Psa 22:22 I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:

    In dealing with this subject of Holiness I cite Hebrews and the exegesis of those words in the Psalm::::>

    Heb 2:11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,
    Heb 2:12 saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
    Heb 2:13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.”

    A couple of more comments on this subject, Holiness.

    Jesus, it seems to me, said a most amazing thing here which should bring some comfort to those who pride themself with being decent and loving. He said this in response to what was right in front of them that they were missing, not seeing or realizing Who He is in their midst!:::>

    Mat 13:16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
    Mat 13:17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

    I want to “highlight” one word in the Greek as it conveys a “sense” of the Holiness of Christ that we are “saved into” out of the unrighteous state we were all born into:::>

    From G1349; equitable (in character or act); by implication innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively): – just, meet, right (-eous).

    Seeing God, Our Holy God, has already doomed us with the pronouncement from the Epistle to the Romans that there is “none” “righteous”, no, not one, we simply are left without a doubt in a most unholy state of being before God Himself. He is Holy. We are not!

    The Good News is “that is not a problem with God”, that is, our most unholy state of being before Him. No, it is not a problem for Him while it is a most difficult problem for us. “Be Holy as I am Holy”!

    How then does an unrighteous, unholy person become as Holy as Our God?

    I like Martin Luther’s teaching on the Lord’s Prayer and what he explains after asking the student, “what does this mean”? to the question of “hallowing” His Names.

    He says basically that we should “walk” under Truthful and Pure Words of God, in Truth and Purity. And among our own, when we do not, we “defame” the Names of God!

    I don’t know about you, but, how many of you want to be known and judged as one who “defames” the Names of God? Not me!

    This is such a wonderful issue and you should be highly commended for raising the question by asking us, “what does this mean”, to be Holy as God is Holy?

    For me, I am at a loss, a wretch and a wreck and thoroughly unrighteous before God. I have lost all hope in myself to become that that am not: “Holy before the Lord”. I see my need for a Savior, who, as Psalm 22 teaches, “will declare His Names to His Brethren”.

    I now Hallow His Names more frequently and often daily, resting in His Faith and in His Grace that He will do for me what is the impossible thing for me to do! With God all things are possible! Being Holy before the Lord is one of those impossible things for me to do before Him! I am totally completely at His Mercy to be Holy as He is Holy! It simply is not a work I can do!

    So to end my bit of commenting on His Holiness, I quote again from Hebrews 2 knowing that I am continually “keeping my eyes” on Jesus:::>

    Heb 2:7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor,
    Heb 2:8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.
    Heb 2:9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

  10. I love many of the comments so far.

    Legalism, as I understand it, happens when the believers are motivated by FEAR.
    Holiness, as I understand it, doesn’t have as much to do with our living, as it does with God’s standard.

    He says “Be holy, as I am holy”.
    This is our Maker saying “My standard is perfection. Anything less than that is lawlessness”.

    Truth is, we are incapable of producing anything that resembles this.
    Legalism is when people abstain from certain things, and then begin to think that they are now “holy”.

    Rather, as our brother Michael pointed out, Jesus lived the perfect life that we could not live.

    Then, He died the death that we should have died, giving us credit for that perfect life. After crediting it to our account, God looks down with a smile, rather than with crushing judgement for the lives we actually live.

    Back to fear as a motivator…

    Rather than being motivated by fear, the Believer is motivated by LOVE, since he is saved by sheer grace. “Holy” living that pleases God is that which is a response to being rescued by this God, who claims to be love incarnated.

    Legalism says “I HAVE to obey”
    Holiness says “I WANT to obey”

    That’s just my two cents, though.


  11. Everyone,

    Thanks again for the feedback. I think we all agree that holiness is a matter of the heart and not the letter of the law. But there is a law involved, and that is the law of love. We are truly set apart to God and demonstrate holiness when we live a life of love towards God and others. The more we love the more we grow in holiness and are conformed to the image of Christ. I think we all agree that we are positionally holy in faith union with Christ, but that we need to grow in personal and practical holiness as we grow in our relationship with Him.

    But what about issues of morality? Where do we draw the line between what is required for holy living and what is possibly an example of legalism? Is it just with grey areas that the Bible is not clear on? For instance, the Bible tells us that we should not even think about the immoral acts that the world participates in; but how many of us watch immorality everyday on TV and brush it off? If someone (or a pastor) challenged you on that, would you say he was being legalistic? Would we say it is just a matter of personal conviction? What about the music we listen to? In specific situations like this, where the rubber meets the road, where do we draw the line between legalism and holiness? I think most of us would consider churches that run around with a ruler, measuring girl’s skirts, as legalistic. But should the church allow its worshippers to dress in whatever provocative way they may want? You could say it is a matter of personal conviction, but what about people who claim to have no convictions about coming to church wearing provocative clothing?

    This is kinda what I was trying to get at with the question in the post. This is where the question gets challenging in my opinion. Any more thoughts?

    God Bless,

  12. If we want to grow in holiness or our sanctification then we will put off our old self and move away from sin. Now what exactly is sin? Thankfully God has told us clearly through the Apostle John-

    Whosever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. (1 John 3:4)

    So if we want to grow in our sanctification or holiness we will do what our Lord said-

    If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. (John 15:10)

    Simple… lol

  13. I would agree with many comments already made. First, holiness comes through the grace of God given to us in His Son (Hebrews 10:10,14). We are made holy in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:2).

    Second, if the Spirit of God dwells in us, He will teach us how to be holy (Titus 2:11-12). The Spirit directs us away from sin (John 16:8-11; Galatians 5:16-22) not toward it (Jude 3-4).

    Third, legalism takes place when a person believes thst outward changes without inward cleansing brings about the holiness of God (Galatians 3:1-5). We are called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). We are to pursue perfection (Matthew 5:48; 2 Corinthians 13:9,11) and Paul prayed for the Thessalonians to be sanctified (1 Thess. 5:23-24). Yet these all take place by the grace of God at work WITHIN us and not merely through our own power. In our power, we always turn to sin (Romans 8:12-14).

  14. Mitch,

    could you blend that verse with this one and give some more commentary?

    Rom 14:22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.
    Rom 14:23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

  15. Michael,

    I take it that this is what you want me to address

    …for sin is the transgression of the law

    and this

    …whatever does not proceed from faith is sin

    So how do I blend these two truths into what I originally wrote? I view it like this, if one does not have faith then one does not believe God and does not believe the bible which God wrote. By this the person has transgressed the law and is in sin.

    We must never forget to ground our sanctification in our justification. Throughout the New Testament the authors exhort us to remember that we have been justified now live like it.

    What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Romans 6:1-7

  16. Mitch,

    granted and I whole heartedly agree with your conclusions, to a limit! 🙂

    For instance, let me ask a rhetorical question and answer it for you?

    Is 55 years a long time to suffer one’s sinfulness?

    Yes, seeing we live to be 70 and if by chance we are strong, 85 or even longer.

    But now, put that amount of time living in sin into the this situation and see how you would measure up?:

    2Ch 33:1 Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem.

    2Ch 33:2 And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.

    2Ch 33:6 And he burned his sons as an offering in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and used fortune-telling and omens and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.

    I am not sure you can get any lower or worse than that?

    But, check this out:::>

    2Ch 33:9 Manasseh led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem astray, to do more evil than the nations whom the LORD destroyed before the people of Israel.
    2Ch 33:10 The LORD spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention.

    Granted, we do not know how old he was, or, are not clearly told when God turned towards Manasseh and answered his prayers, delivering him from such folly, but my guess is it was sometime after being King of Israel for 50 years?

    The problem I am having with your analysis is just the same as we both, to be sure, would have with any sound reasoned approach to Manasseh, who clearly was “having” difficulty with “knowing” Who the Lord Is! From my point of view, absent God’s ability to know all things and all motives of the heart, one day of such folly, is to long a time for me! But, from God’s point of view and for His purposes to be established in our hearts and minds, 50 years to suffer long with such folly, doesn’t seem to be out of the question, now?

    2Ch 33:13 He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God.

    I would agree with you on this statement you make above too:

    “….We must never forget to ground our sanctification in our justification. Throughout the New Testament the authors exhort us to remember that we have been justified now live like it….”

    “now live like it”, hmmmmm! Ok, when? Immediately? Or next week? Or, how about, I am weak and my nature is so sinful, I have to pick up His cross daily and die to myself. That admission alone finds me guilty of something needing to be put to death daily! Hmmmmm? So, what then? I succeed in the morning but by the afternoon my old nature rises again and I sin and then I am back at it again, picking up my cross and following Jesus.

    This is not a precursor to antinomianism!

    However, I would moderate your words with these verses of Scripture:::>

    1Co 13:7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
    1Co 13:8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
    1Co 13:9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
    1Co 13:10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
    1Co 13:11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
    1Co 13:12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
    1Co 13:13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

    I have to admit that I am quick to “believe” all things, well, why? Because Love believes all things!

    However, what I have to admit to equally is it is very hard for me, sometimes, to “endure” all things! It seems to me my fuse is very very short with leaders of God in the Church world who do not endure all things ugly and untowards by their followers, especially those God has added to their number for training into His Righteousness, His Right Ways and Means!

    I just do not think we are as Able or Wise as God is to know what the final outcome will be with any such sinner like Manasseh. How long would you have put up with Manasseh? One year of the stuff the Bible records he led the children of Israel into, perhaps? How about 10 years? Or maybe 20?

    But 50 years of leading God’s people into the stuff we read about Manasseh led the children of Israel into, it seems to me, is awfully longsuffering, that is, suffering long with his sinfulness?

    That is why I would not lump those two verses together as you have done and concluded as you have concluded, even though, from the face of it, they are reasonable, logical conclusions; just not mine.

    That’s the way I see it. And thanks for engaging me and answering my question!

  17. Michael,

    Not sure that I fully understand what you are saying, I will have to turn it over a bit in my head.

    The verse that seems to express my main thought is from II Corinthians 7:1

    Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

    The Romans 6 verses were good too.

    Anyways, it is always good to interact with you, even if at times it takes my dull mind a bit more time to grasp the meaning:)

  18. Hi Ben,

    You asked about how to draw the line between holy living and legalism and gave some specific examples. I agree that the things you mention are all areas that can impact the Christian walk, and need to be addressed.

    Our culture is often immoral and overly individualistic. And some of us come from backgrounds with a lot of legalism. Altogether this makes for a hostile environment for frank discussion about the purity of our Christian walk.

    Here are some guidelines that come to mind when approaching a brother, and also things that I would hopefully consider if a brother approaches me with a concern.

    Self reflection – For myself it is easier to identify my brother’s speck while ignoring my own log. If I’m concerned about something in a brother’s life, it is wise to examine and prayerfully consider my own life also.

    What is my motivation to approach someone? Is it something God has put on my heart to talk to him about? Do I honestly care about his well being? Or am I just being nosy and critical?

    What is my relationship with the person? Am I a close friend or just a casual acquaintance? I will likely get farther if I have some relational blood with the person.

    Explain the reason why – Sometimes people are oblivious to why their behavior is a concern. Your provocative dress example is a good one. I have a daughter who is starting to bloom (for lack of a better term). She doesn’t realize as well as I do that that the way she dresses can be a problem for others. So it’s my job as a dad to explain why.

  19. Kevin,

    Thanks. Those are some good guidelines, and I agree with you. What about from the pulpit and the way the church operates in general, outside of one on one issues between Christians?

    God Bless,

  20. Ben, yes these issues should be addressed from the pulpit. I’ve had pastors do this before, and respect them for doing it.

    The form would probably vary based on a lot of factors like demographics, disposition of the pastor, relationship with the congregation, nature of the concern, etc. Part of being a good leader is recognizing and addressing issues that affect the health of the church. Sometimes this is most effective when done in a direct corporate way, other times one on one or a small group setting is appropriate.

    I think some of the things I mentioned before for individuals would have corporate application as well – like the pastor’s motivation, his relationship with those involved, etc. Also depending on the situation, it might be something that he chooses to delegate. For example if the pastor is male and he’s concerned about something that affects females, it might be appropriate to delegate it to a respected female leader.

    It is also something that the leadership of the church should usually be involved in- to give feedback to the pastor, and to give him support. Having said that, there can be cases where the pastor needs to address a concern without the approval of the leadership – maybe the problem is the leadership! He should have the right to do so.

    Anyway, I know I’m being pretty vague here, but with most issues there is no one size fits all solution. But I do firmly believe that there is a role for pastors here.

  21. I posted the following on another thread on this site(The debate between JC Thibodaux and Fred from John MacArthur’s site), but thought that it probably would apply to this discussion as well:

    Could it be that a word picture could help us glorify God in this debate? David Pawson once weighed in on the ‘works salvation’ accusation with the following analogy:

    “It is as if someone threw a rope to a drowning man, and the man throwing the rope said, ‘Grab hold of this, and hold on until I have got you to the shore.’ Would the drowning man say, when he got to the shore, that he had saved himself by hanging on? Never! He would say that someone had saved him. The idea that you saved yourself because you held on is just not true, but you have your part to play”

    I would add the following insights to this beautiful analogy: the drowning man hangs on not because he trusts in his own ability to pull himself to shore !!! He knows that he is drowning and cannot save himself. He hangs on because he has faith in God’s ability to pull him out of the jaws of death. For emphasis, in God’s ability… not his own.

    And note that the drowning man hangs on because God has told him that he needs to! God says “Here, grab this and hold on tight, do not fret, I am mighty to save” And so we obey Him and hold on tight. Jesus says ‘Abide in me’ and ‘Persevere to the end’, does he not? We are not of those who ‘shrink back to destruction’ says the author of Hebrews.

    By obeying God and hanging on (perservering) to the end, that drowning man has acted on his faith in his Savior. His act of obedience IS an act of faith and not ‘works’. Most importantly, his act of obedience is NOT done in his own strength, but instead is an act of faith enabled by God’s grace. Does not Paul himself say in Col 2:6-7 “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” This is really what it comes down to: If we relied on our own strength we would be guilty of legalism, but far from it, we rely on God’s grace to abide in Christ and produce fruit.

    Paul is stating here that just as we received Christ as our Lord by faith, so we should continue to live in him by faith. The impetus for our ‘holding on to the rope’/perserverance lies not in trust placed in our own strength (we know that our own strength is worthless ) but rather in our faith/trust in the Lord our Savior. Jesus is the One who enables us to produce fruit, without Him we can do nothing. Holding on to the rope is not ‘works salvation’, it is simply what the Bible teaches.

    In Christ’s Love,

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