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The Three Chains of Legalism

The Three Chains of Legalism

JANUARY 7, 2020

/ Articles / The Three Chains of Legalism

“It will be easy,” is what my friend, Steve, kept telling me, saying it would be easy to write on walking free. I don’t know why he thought so. Maybe it’s because he was so free in Christ. Maybe he thought I was. I don’t know why, but I found out something else very quickly: the more I have tried, the harder it has become.

I want to walk in the freedom of Christ, but I still hear the chains of legalism rattling with each step I take.

Everywhere I turn I hear them. But I have noticed something. Not all of these chains sound alike. The pitches are different. The tones vary from one person to another. As I have listened more closely, I have discerned at least three kinds of chains, three kinds of legalism that keep us from walking in the freedom of Christ (Gal. 5:1).

1. Chains Around Our Necks

The first sets of chains are not hard to spot. Lots of people wear them around their necks with great pride. They make a noise that sounds something like this: “I can earn my way to heaven by being good enough to deserve it.”

2. Chains On Our Shoulders

The second set of chains I discovered in my life weighed heavily on my shoulders and they made a terrible sound. You know its sound too. “I think I’m a Christian, but I can’t be sure unless I prove it by good works.” I can’t tell you how many years I lived as a Christian with these chains rattling every time I moved.

When fear and hard work become the driving forces of our daily walks, we reduce God to a relentlessly strict, pedantic judge. It’s as if he sits in heaven just waiting for us to do something wrong so he can grab us, smash us like bugs, and send us to hell. What a terrible portrait of God! But it’s the picture that lots of Christians hold dear to their hearts. I did too for the longest time. In fact, I have to admit that it still rears its ugly head from time to time.

3. Chains Tangled About Our Feet

Now for the really hard one: the chains around our feet.

It’s the subtlest form of legalism. You’ve heard these chains rattle too. They sound like this: “I am so committed to Christ that I’m going to figure out precisely what he wants you and me to do for him.” In reality, there is some wisdom in this outlook. “Put a boundary between yourself and the edge of a cliff. Keep a margin of safety.” It makes good common sense when hiking in the mountains.

But it makes for terrible religion. It reduces the Christian life to constructing long detailed lists of right and wrong. Our hearts become preoccupied with figuring out precisely what God expects of believers in every imaginable situation, and with insisting that everyone meet those requirements.

A Broad Liberty Of Conscience

When the Bible does not tell us precisely what to think, do or feel in a particular situation, we have a measure of liberty. We must not use that freedom as an excuse to violate what Scriptures teach, but we also must never allow our conscience to be violated by the legalism of those who insist that we follow rules that go beyond the Scriptures.

But we must also recognize that the Bible does not specify in utter detail what we are to do in the particular circumstances we face in our lives. It draws parameters, but it does not pinpoint issues in minute detail.

Why would God give us a revelation that left so much room for the freedom of conscience? I can think of at least two reasons.

First, in many respects, Christian freedom comes from the fact that God has given us revelation in a book. The Apostle John admitted that “the whole world would not have room for the books” it would take to write down all that Jesus did (John 21:25). Can you imagine how many volumes it would take to give specific instructions for every situation human beings face? The Bible only describes general policies. It provides broad brushstrokes of what God would have us do with our lives. Beyond these teachings we live with liberty of conscience.

Let The Spirit Lead

Second, the freedom we enjoy in Christ also helps us see that our faith is more than a matter of rules and regulations. There is a personal, dynamic dimension of the Christian walk, which must be nurtured if we are to live for Christ. In other words, even with the Bible in hand we have to be led by the Holy Spirit who lives in us. He illumines and convicts us of the ways in which Christ would have us apply the Bible to our lives. We have to remember that the Holy Spirit never leads anyone to violate Scripture, but we must also hold firmly to the belief that his personal ministry to each follower of Christ leads us into proper application of the Bible for the particular challenges we face.

Christians who bind their own feet and the feet of others with long lists of precise rules that go far beyond the Bible run serious risks. They begin to think their lists are equal in authority with the Bible. Moreover, they soon eliminate the need for the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit. After all, they have worked out the details for themselves. Walking in Christ has become reduced to following a set of rules.

Break The Chains

I know that we are committed to doing our best to follow Christ in all areas of life. But let’s also be just as committed to resisting the folly of human legalism. I don’t just mean the legalism that says we must earn salvation, or the kind that says we must prove our salvation. I want to resist legalism of the third kind as well, the legalism that insists that we submit to some standard in addition to the revelation of God’s will in Scripture.

The chains of legalism are all around us. But I want them taken from our necks, lifted from our shoulders, and removed from our feet. It’s the only way we can ever hope to walk free. 


This post is an adapted excerpt of the article that originally appeared in RPM magazine (Vol. 1, no. 2, March 8, 1999), published by Third Millennium Ministries. Read the full, original article here.

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