Breaking The Rules Of Legalism

How The Cross Rescues You From The Performance Trap by CJ Mahaney

One of the greatest hindrances to keeping the gospel central in our lives is our creeping tendency toward legalism. It’s an age-old foe to God’s plan of salvation through faith alone. From the earliest days of the church, legalism has thrown Christians off course and sidetracked them all over the place. And it’s just as active and destructive today as it ever was. 

It’s important to understand that a legalist isn’t just someone with higher standards or more rules than you. A lot of us wrongly stereotype a legalistic person as one who doesn’t go to the movies, or who thinks that any music with a beat is evil. Legalism is much more subtle and serious than that. Here’s a simple definition that I use: Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. 

In other words, a legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s approval and forgiveness through personal performance. Thomas Schreiner writes that “legalism has its origin in self-worship. If people are justified through their obedience to the law, then they merit praise, honor, and glory. Legalism, in other words, means the glory goes to people rather than God.”

Are you starting to see what a serious problem this is? Though we might never state any of its underlying assumptions in plain English, the implications of legalism are staggering in their arrogance. Legalism claims that the death of Jesus on the cross was either unnecessary or insufficient. It essentially says to God, “Your plan didn’t work. The cross wasn’t enough and I need to add my good works to it to be saved.” 

Of course, no Christian would dare utter such terrible words. But when we shift our concentration away from the gospel, legalism slowly and subtly twists our thinking until our lives make this awful statement on their own. They speak more plainly than words. 

Do you know how to discern legalism in your life? 



When I was a young boy in the 1960s, one of my favorite TV programs was the Ed Sullivan Show. It aired live on Sunday nights, and it was a mix of big-name performers, promising newcomers, and quirky novelty acts. 

One of the more popular acts on the show provides a helpful picture of how legalism can hijack a Christian’s life. I’m referring to the “Plate Spinner,” who employed two kinds of objects—very thin, flexible rods that were close to seven feet long, and regular round, ceramic plates. 

The plate spinner would stand a rod on end, hold a plate on top, and spin it with great force. The rod would stand nearly erect, with just a slight bow to it from the weight of the plate, which whirred furiously a foot or so above the spinner’s head. 

Then the spinner would set up a second rod-and-plate. Then a third. And soon the stage would be transformed into a small forest of plates, wiggling and swaying on their sticks. 

By the time eight or ten plates were in motion, the first plate had begun to slow down and wobble dangerously. The spinner would rush back over and, with remarkably skilled hands, instantly return the plate to top-speed rotation. Then he would be off to set up another rod-and-plate combination. 

Eventually, so much was happening onstage that disaster seemed inevitable. As plates wobbled wildly all around him, the spinner would pretend not to notice, triggering thousands of us to shout desperately at our television sets. (At least, thousands was what I assumed—surely I wasn’t the only one!) 

But every time, at the last possible second, he would spring into action, running back and forth in a flurry of activity. Somehow he always got there in time.



Though it doesn’t involve rods and plates, the life of a legalist can become just as frenetic as the plate spinner’s performance. 

Meet Stuart. He’s a brand-new believer who has a lot to learn about the Christian life, but he has a genuine love for Jesus Christ. One Sunday morning during the church service, his friend Mike notices that Stuart has a little trouble finding the book of Romans. After the meeting, he asks Stuart if he’s regularly reading his Bible. 

“Uh, sure,” Stuart replies. “There’s so much there, I just look at different things.” 

Mike raises his eyebrows. “You’re reading at random? That’s really not the best way. You need to read the Word seriously! Listen, I have this schedule that tells you how to read the whole Bible in a year, a little every day. I’ll make you a copy.” 

“Wow!” Stuart replies. “You mean by this time next year I could have read the entire Bible? That would be great!” 

And so, just a few days later, Stuart places a single flexible rod onto the stage of his Christian life, lifts up a plate called Bible Reading, and spins it hard. And it stays in place! 

Now let’s fast-forward about six months. Stuart is now much, much busier than ever before in his life. After Mike told him about the importance of Bible reading, Jimmy encouraged him to meditate on Scripture. A few days later, Andrew extolled the glories of attending a weekly accountability meeting with guys from the church. In a sermon, his pastor emphasized the importance of church prayer meetings. 

Then Stuart attended a conference on evangelism. He needed to be witnessing every day. Then he heard a radio program about fasting, and another about personal holiness. 

One by one, Stuart added more and more spiritual activities to his life. Each was good. Some were vital. Yet without realizing it, Stuart allowed a dangerous shift to take place in his mind and heart. What God had intended to be a means of experiencing grace, Stuart had changed into a means of earning grace. Instead of being a further expression of his confidence in God’s saving work in his life, his spiritual activities became spinning plates to maintain. 

The shift is plainly seen on Sunday mornings. On one Sunday, Stuart sings and praises God with evident sincerity and zeal. Why? Because he’s just had a really good week. Not a single plate has wobbled. 

But on another Sunday, following a week in which several plates fell, Stuart is hesitant to approach God. He finds it difficult to worship freely, because he feels that God disapproves of him. His confidence is no longer in the gospel; it’s in his own performance, which hasn’t been so great lately. 

Can you relate to Stuart’s mistake? Do you see signs of legalism in your own life? Do you often find that you’re more aware of your sin than of what Jesus accomplished at the cross? When you picture God’s attitude toward you, do you think of God as disappointed with you rather than delighting over you? 

Do you lack holy joy? Do you look to your “spinning plates” for the confidence—indeed, even the right—to approach God? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you’ve probably begun to live under the rules of legalism. 

But don’t let this discourage you. God wants to rescue you from the futility of plate spinning. Let’s examine how a right understanding of the gospel can free us from the joyless restrictions of legalism.



In case you’re wondering, breaking free from legalism doesn’t mean you stop reading your Bible, praying, or sharing the gospel. If you and I want to grow in our faith, we need to take advantage of the tools God gives us in these important spiritual pursuits. The issue is our motive and our understanding of what it means to be saved by grace. 

Remember what happened the day you first repented of your sins and trusted in Jesus Christ? Romans 3:26 says that, in that moment, you were justified, or declared righteous, before God. 

That word justified is important. It refers to your status before God. When you put your faith in Jesus, God, the judge, hands down the verdict that you are righteous. He transfers the perfect, sinless record of Jesus to you. 

This is amazing grace at its most amazing. In the moment that you first believed, your past sin didn’t cease to exist. You hadn’t done any good work that could somehow make up for your disobedience. 

Yet God completely and totally forgave you. He not only wiped the record of your sin away, he credited the righteousness of His Son to you. 



However, the power of the gospel doesn’t end when we’re justified. When God declares a sinner righteous, He immediately begins the process of making that sinner more like His Son. Through the work of His Spirit, through the power of His word and fellowship with other believers, God peels away our desires for sin, renews our minds, and changes our lives. This ongoing work is what we call “sanctification.” 

Sanctification is a process—the process of becoming more like Christ, of growing in holiness. This process begins the instant you are converted and will not end until you meet Jesus face-to-face. 

Sanctification is about our own choices and behavior. It involves work. Empowered by God’s Spirit, we strive. We fight sin. We study Scripture and pray, even when we don’t feel like it. We flee temptation. We press on; we run hard in the pursuit of holiness. And as we become more and more sanctified, the power of the gospel conforms us more and more closely, with ever-increasing clarity, to the image of Jesus Christ. 



Do you have a clear grasp of what justification and sanctification are? 

Without understanding the distinction between the two, you will be vulnerable to legalism. I encourage you to understand these theological terms, not so you can impress your friends, but because understanding the differences between justification and sanctification is vital to defeating legalism. 

Nearly every man and woman I’ve met who has struggled with legalism has had a faulty understanding of how justification and sanctification are related to each other, and how they’re distinct. We must distinguish between justifying grace and sanctifying grace, but never separate them. 

At the risk of repeating myself, let me line them up next to each other so you can clearly see the differences between them: 

  • Justification is being declared righteous. Sanctification is being made righteous—being conformed to the image of Christ. 
  • Justification is our position before God. Sanctification is our practice. You don’t practice justification! It happens once for all, upon conversion. 
  • Justification is objective—Christ’s work for us. Sanctification is subjective—Christ’s work within us. 
  • Justification is immediate and complete upon conversion. You will never be more justified than you are the first moment you trust in the Person and finished work of Christ. Sanctification is a process. You will be more sanctified as you continue in grace-motivated obedience. 

William Plumer sums it up well when he writes, “Justification is an act. It is not a work, or a series of acts. It is not progressive. The weakest believer and the strongest saint are alike equally justified. Justification admits no degrees. A man is either wholly justified or wholly condemned in the sight of God.”



So do you see the distinction? Now…here’s the mistake the legalist makes. He confuses his own ongoing participation in the process of sanctification with God’s finished work in justification. 

In other words, he thinks that godly practices and good works somehow contribute to his justification. But God’s Word is clear when it says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law …” (Romans 3:20). None of us earn God’s approval and love by our good works. None of us can add to the finished, complete work of Jesus on the cross. He paid the price of our sins. He satisfied God’s wrath. 

Our participation in the process of sanctification comes only after we’ve been totally accepted and made right before God through faith in Jesus. So yes, we work hard at obeying God’s word. We read our Bibles. We pray. We meditate on Scripture. We memorize Scripture. We share the gospel. We serve in our church. We fast. God commands us in His Word to do many things, and our obedience is both pleasing to Him and brings His blessing to our lives. 

But not one of these good spiritual activities adds to our justification. We’re never “more saved” or “more loved” by God. Our work is motivated by the grace God has poured out in our lives. 



The mistake of a legalistic plate spinner like Stuart is that he substitutes sanctification for justification. “Our greatest temptation and mistake,” writes Sinclair Ferguson, “is to try to smuggle character into God’s work of grace.” The legalist allows his performance of spiritual duties to become his preoccupation and a source of self-righteous pride. In doing so, he unwittingly walks away from the main thing—the gospel. 

I know the temptation to legalism. That’s why, when I complete my daily devotions and close my Bible, I make a point of reminding myself that Jesus’ work, not mine, is the basis of my forgiveness and acceptance by God. 

“Lord, I ask for Your grace and strength as I seek to serve You today,” I pray. “I thank You that all Your blessings flow to me from Your Son’s work on my behalf. I am justified by Your grace alone. None of my efforts to obey You and grow in sanctification add to Your finished work at the cross.” 

What joy the gospel gives me. I can approach the throne of God with confidence. Not because I’ve done a good job at my spiritual duties, but because I’m clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. 

God wants you to have this same confidence. He’s not impressed with your spinning plates. So renounce all self-righteousness. Make your boast the achievement and work of your substitute and Savior, Jesus Christ.