Legalism and Holiness: 'Overcoming Legalism and Performance-based Religion - Part 3'

Moving fromLegalism to Holiness

Moving from Legalism to Holiness

Church culture, not scripture,  often has a profound influence on the question of what is holy and what is legalism.

How one defines holiness determines what is holy and what is legal. Jesus was confronted by the conservative religious establishment of His day, who were devoted to the study of scripture, for not being “holy” enough in His actions and associations. They made this accusation based on their understanding of Torah and the Prophets. They were wrong.

Therefore, there must be more to holiness than touch-not/taste-not opinions arrived at solely from study of the scripture. This brief article cannot do justice to a topic that could take hundreds of pages to adequately unpack. I will simply say here that holiness is the reflection in time and space of the quality of life and love that is shared in the Trinity. Whatever our liberty is, it must be conformed to the service of others in love, not the mere exercise of individual freedom for individual freedom’s sake, a flaunting.

That definition may or may not suffice for you philosophically. Yet in application, it almost always unfortunately boils down to people’s opinions on touch-not taste not distinctions, those with hierarchial authority enforcing their views on others. Those who control the “climate” of a church culture determining the ethos for that culture. For example:

  • One person’s holiness is another’s bondage.
    • My daughter’s dress must be three inches below the knee, but your daughter’s is an inch and a half above. Somebody is a compromiser and we cannot fellowship together. 
  • One’s conviction is another’s intolerance. 
    • You do not believe women should have authority, so you will never submit to a female civil judge. My wife is on the circuit court of appeals. Somebody is a compromiser and we cannot fellowship with each other. 
  • One’s liberty is another’s license. 
    • I will watch a violent R-rated movie, and you will watch only G-rated movies, that in their message can be more spiritually subversive than an R movie!
  • One’s diligence is another’s slavery. 
    • I have 15-minute devotions twice a day: the morning and evening sacrifice. You only pray twice a week for two hours. You have a low standard and I shouldn’t fellowship closely with you.
  • One’s purity is another’s prudishness. 
    • I believe women should be covered from nose to toes. You think neck to knee is good enough. Somebody is . . . ah, I think you’ve got it.

All these simplistic dualities are fertile ground for latent legalism and are not too distant from common realities in a local church. The problem is: Who defines what is holy and what is legal?  Holiness that leads to isolation or insulation is a biblical counterfeit. Religion without love has been responsible for a good bit of the world’s misery. Holiness without love conspired to crucify the Messiah. My friend, Connie Fineout, defines legalism as the arrogant belief that we know what God thinks about everything.

A.W. Tozer said:

You can find more carnal, unregenerate, self-centered characters in the church who have religion and are sensitive toward it than you can bury in the Grand Canyon.

Separation that begets a spirit of superiority is a betrayal of Christ and His Gospel. A commitment to excellence and spiritual maturity that cannot accommodate weakness and immaturity in others is high-octane fuel for the engine of legalism.


This blog is an excerpt from our title: The Silent Killers of Faith: Overcoming Legalism and Performance-based Religion  It is available in all formats at

Overcoming Legalism

Copyright 2014,  Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references.  For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact
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2 comments on “Legalism and Holiness: 'Overcoming Legalism and Performance-based Religion - Part 3'

  1. “Whatever our liberty is, it must be conformed to the service of others in love”

    Thought of Gal 3:13 – For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.

    As 1 Cor 13 states – if you do not have love, you have nothing

    Isn’t it love, true agape, that is what the answer is?

    Not all the self-righteous and inward looking rules and regulations…

    How about a “Keep It Simple” theology – which is about love and service. This is what is embodied in the two great commandments; Love God, and love one another.

    Being a legalist, focusing on the rules, causes people to become judges and critic – which produces all that division you write about, but love, true love and service unifies.

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