I have wrestled with the idea of holiness vs legalism for a long time. The following is a very rough working definition I’ve formed that helps me get through each day loving Jesus and my brothers and sisters in Christ more and more, by His grace–because quite naturally, I have very strong convictions which I think are biblical and I want everyone to think and do what I think is right (Does anyone else deal with that?). I sometimes face disappointment when a friend decides not to do a certain thing I think is right, and then I have to remind myself of these things and ask: Does she love Jesus? Is she trying to obey God’s word? Is she praying about her decisions? Is she seeking wise counsel? I have to remember that I am not the measuring rod by which all others are judged. Why is that so hard to remember?!!
Holiness is: the pursuit of Christ, counting all as meaningless compared to knowing, loving and obeying Him as He leads me everyday by His word and His Spirit. It means to focus on Him and be the fragrance of Christ to the lost, and fellow believers. The attitudes behind holiness are love, humility and dependence on God for righteousness.
Legalism is: following a particular set of rules in order to gain salvation or the favor of God. The attitude behind legalism is pride.
Holiness and legalism can lead to similar actions, but God is looking at the heart. Do I do what I do because I love God and want to obey what He has taught me or do I do what I do because I want to fit in or get some extra favor from God?
Holiness is not legalism. Obeying God is not legalism. Loving God’s word is not legalism. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; first the evil in our own hearts but also in the world. Some people fear God more than others. That doesn’t mean that the other people don’t fear God, but it is possible for some to fear more and be used by God as examples for His people–those who fear more and those who fear less should not judge each other or compare, but continue to seek the Lord and obey in what God has shown to them with joy and devotion to the Lord. We cannot decide whether another person is walking in holiness or legalism, because that distinction is made in the heart and only God can see that.
Holiness is good. Legalism is bad. Holiness is love of God above self. Legalism is self-love. Holiness is commanded in the Bible. Legalism is condemned in the Bible. Holiness leads to a love for the body of Christ, no matter what minor differences we have. Legalism divides God’s people over trivial things. Satan doesn’t mind of you are legalistic or if you give in to every craving of your flesh, but he hates it when you are holy. Any biblical conviction you have, while good in itself, can lead to pride. In order to prevent this, you must pray for God’s grace to remember that you are the worst sinner that you know and any good in your life comes from the Lord.
Pursue Christ. Pursue holiness. Lead by example. Don’t beat people over the head with your convictions. The joyful way you live out your convictions might convince others that what you believe is true, or even if not, it will help them to follow their God-given convictions with the same loving attitude, and this can only bring glory to the Lord.
One last reminder to self: no one person can represent what God is like. It takes all of creation to collectively declare the glory of God. So why should I expect everyone to be exactly like I am? It takes all of us to bear the image of God.
I want to be like Jesus: full of grace and truth. He is who I am following after, and I invite you to seek Him with me.
As a side note, the above keeps me from labeling myself with my convictions. As strongly as I feel about certain things, I want to be known for my love for Jesus much more than for what I believe about education, clothing, music, and so on. The gospel is another story. I’ll die on that hill.