Legalism or License?

Let’s do neither!

3 min

“STANDARDS? That’s just legalistic.”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard that before! But before emotions get engaged and you pull out your sword to defend your side, let’s define our terms!

Legalism: the belief that we need to work our way to Heaven. Those who say, “I’ll get to Heaven, if I just do enough good,” are legalists. They are trying to do things, or not do things, as if doing or not doing will get them to Heaven. But this is false. “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags,” says Isaiah 64:6. We humans can never pay for our sins—that is why Christ had to come and suffer for us. He paid for our sins fully, and it is through faith alone, in Christ alone, that we get to Heaven.

License, also called self-indulgence: the belief that since Christ has died for us, we can do whatever we like. This is often excused as “freedom in Christ,” but Christ did not save us so that we could wallow in the mire of the world. Jesus Himself said, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 2:23). To paraphrase a pastor, “Christ died to save us from our sins, but not to be our ‘pack mule’ to carry us along with our favorite sins to Heaven!”

I actually think that the Church in America is more in danger of license than legalism. Look around—everywhere there are churches filled with people whose lives, loves, and focuses are indistinguishable from the world’s! We hear people self-righteously warning against legalism (exactly the problem most don’t have!). Such “warnings” can be a convenient “red herring” to distract from any real issues or need for repentance. 

And while license feels freeing at first—and since it appeals to our flesh, it can “feel so right”—it will bring ruin and judgment from God. “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (I John 2:15).

Now—while doing good in order to work our way to Heaven is legalism, we are called to do good, as the adopted daughters of God! “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation [behavior]” (I Peter 1:15). God is holy, and He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die a horrible death to save us from our sins. Now He calls us to seek Him and to follow in the holy path that Christ walked. And it is out of love and gratitude to Christ that we now seek to be set apart and walk in a different way than the world!

But holiness is not merely following rules. Holiness is directing yourself towards Christ and turning away from the world—and these two things will become evident because, as you do them, your life will reflect more and more of Christ.

We should not be fixated on rules (as if keeping dry lists while unconnected to Christ can save us)—we should be fixated on Christ and doing what He wants us to do. This will often manifest itself in principles in our lives, as we understand more of God’s desires and seek to please Him in every area of our lives.

We should not be fixated on rules . . . we should be fixated on Christ and doing what He wants us to do.

John Snyder says, “The law of God is now a friend who helps us to know which paths Jesus delights to walk on. If we want to live near Him, we will have to walk those same paths” (excerpted from Behold Your God).

And we can’t do this in our own strength. We need to rely on God—seeking His face more intently, asking for His help and strength and grace: and He delights to give it to us. “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you to both will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).

So—legalism or license? Let’s do neither! Instead, let’s become so filled with Christ and so excited about applying His commands to our lives because we love Him, that we shine as lights in this world.

Written by Elisha E.

This article was reprinted with permission from “The King’s Blooming Rose Magazine,” Volume 12, Issue 1. For more information on this publication for young women, visit

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