The Trap of Legalism

“Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”—Galatians 2:16 (NLT)


There are numerous instances in the New Testament where Jesus defies the social norms regarding the law. John 5 references one specific story where Jesus is actually scolded for not obeying the law—or at least from the vantage point of the Pharisees. Jesus healed countless men and women from physical, mental, and emotional ailments. This specific time, He does it on the Sabbath—a capital crime in the minds of the religious elite. Jesus broke the mold, and looked beyond the letter of the law to the heart of God’s commandments.


Keep in mind, Jesus broke no commandment. Jesus fulfilled the law completely. You see, the Pharisees had added traditions to the law called the Halakah. This is extra biblical stuff, much of which is not directly supported by Scripture. It goes above the law as a way of preventing any possibility of potentially breaking the law. An example would be that in order to prevent anyone from going over the speed limit, people would not be allowed to drive at all. Ironically, by going to these lengths to uphold the law, the Pharisees were actually breaking the law (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32; Matthew 23:4)!


Jesus broke the mold for the sake of loving others. Because of this, we have to look inwardly and ask ourselves, “How many times have I been guilty of upholding the law?” Weird question, right? Whether we’re worried about upholding a moral reputation, or falling in line with the status quo of other believers, sometimes those things keep us from living and loving like Christ. When we see ourselves falling out of love with people and instead falling into religious routine, we find ourselves in a legalistic spiral.


Legalism is a dangerous trap that can leave Christians and those impacted by them more spiritually damaged than spiritually whole. So what do we do to escape legalism and chase spiritual wholeness? We seek the face of Jesus. Our works, whether perfect or imperfect, don’t justify us with the Father. When we’re more worried about what we look like, sound like, and act like for the sake of being a “good Christian,” we overlook the people around us we’re meant to love well. Jesus wants to set us free from these ladders of legalism. And the key to that freedom is love, mercy, and compassion.


Dig: Read John 5:1–23.

Discover: What stands out to you about the boldness of Jesus during this legalistic time period? How can you personally mirror His obedience to the Father?

Display: Ask the Lord to reveal the undercover methods of legalism that are strangling your spiritual wholeness. Remember that you can approach Him boldly! Although He may reveal hints of legalism shadowing your walk, don’t worry. We all struggle with forms of legalism! There’s nothing to fear or be ashamed of. The Lord is excited to bring you to a place of freedom from legalism and knows exactly how to get there with you.

About the Author

Cortney Gurr