How to Find Freedom from Legalism

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

In this episode Phylicia breaks down the importance of laying aside legalism while also sharing her own journey.

She also explores how legalism can come from places you may not expect.


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Welcome to Verity Podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer. And I am here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before. And they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here and I hope you’ll join me on this journey because every woman is a theologian.

Hi, friends and welcome back to Verity Podcast. I am looking out at a beautiful snowy landscape as I record this for you. We are finally getting our snow for the month of November, it’s a little bit late this year, we usually have snow on the ground at Halloween. And it gave us a couple of weeks probably, so we could get Verity Conference off the ground. I’m sure that was the reason [laughs]. We’re so grateful that Verity Conference went so well and that we did not have snow on the ground when we were moving everything in for that and now, we get to enjoy this beautiful landscape now that we’re resting up.

As I was thinking about what to do for this week’s episode. The Lord kept laying on my heart the topic of legalism. And many of you who have followed Verity Podcast for years have followed every woman a theologian know that legalism is something that I care a lot about. I would even say that the subgroup that I work with the most within Christianity are people who are coming out of legalism and coming into a fully free and confident faith. I am very passionate about helping people break free from the chain of legalism whether that’s conservative legalism or progressive legalism because as I’ll talk about a little bit in this podcast episode, those are both types of bondage that people experience today. And if you listen to last week’s episode, which was the recording of the Q&A panel from Verity Conference, I said in that panel, that I feel called to people who are trapped in legalism, because legalism is the farm team for deconstruction.

What I mean by that is, people who live in legalistic church environments where the law is heavy, will remain in a perpetual state of spiritual immaturity or babyhood in their Christian faith, they never actually grow up into a confident faith that is led by the Holy Spirit able to discern of their own will based on scripture and based on the spirits leading. They have a very stunted spiritual experience. Oftentimes, they don’t understand the Holy Spirit at all. They either only live by the letter of the law or they live by the license of their will. They don’t know how to align themselves to what God is asking them to do in specific circumstances. And because of that, I am passionate about helping people break free from that legalism, so that they can know Jesus and how good he is, but also so they can actually experience the abundant life that Jesus promised. It’s one reason I talk about the Holy Spirit so much.

I also talk about legalism a lot because I am a recovering legalist, if you will. I wouldn’t say that I still struggle with legalism but I spent enough time there that I know what it is like and I know the weaknesses of that belief system. And how tempting it is to turn something into a law. Because legalism is man’s shortcut to holiness. It’s our way of not having to sit and listen, not having to be intimate with God, not having to spend time with him, and instead just follow the rules and check all the boxes, whether those are conservative boxes or progressive boxes.

I want to actually read you a blog post that I have on my website on this topic because I thought I’ve already written about this, so I’m just going to read what I wrote about this years and years ago in a post called How I Left Legalism Without Leaving God.

I am a product of purity culture. I wore the ring, I read books, and I didn’t date in high school. I could tell you anything you wanted to know about courtship, I was immersed in the culture through my teen years both as a student and as a leader within the movement. I judged the girls who did things differently. I judged the girls who dated or who kissed before marriage. But in one year, the rules I’d accepted as law were overcast with a shadow of a doubt. I wondered if it was all a big lie. This Christian life, this righteous living, this purity. I was at crossroads and that was the day I left legalism.

There are entire forums designed for people scarred by purity culture and fundamentalism. A movement that began with good intentions has developed a cultish following, complete with rings and signed commitments and lists of do’s and don’ts to a society immersed in freedom of sexuality. The whole thing is absurd. To churches more concerned with grace and holiness, it’s extremist. But to those within the movement, it makes perfect sense. Legalism never starts with judgment. It starts with a genuine desire to please God because God does command us to walk in purity, 1 Corinthians 6 and God expects holiness from all who claim his name but that’s easier said than done.

Legalism makes holiness seem easier to do by replacing a living relationship with a list of rules. It always starts with God’s standards but legalism add to them. The marriage bed should be honored but courtship or submission is the only way. Women are to submit to their own husbands and all men within the church. Wives are to be keepers of the home and never work outside of it. These philosophies don’t happen overnight nor do they always begin an ill will. What makes them appealing is their ability to shortcut the walk of faith. Because rings and rules are the easy route. It is easier to follow a list than pursue the Spirit of God, it is easier to sign a paper than to dedicate our hearts to the Most High and it is easier to follow the applause of man than to seek the quiet approval of Jesus Christ.

Legalism is sneaky. It convinces us that the guidelines we’ve added to achieve holiness were written by God Himself. When we believe that man’s rules are actually God’s. When the rules fail us, we blame our disillusionment on God when it’s not even his fault. This is why girls who were raised right rebel, this is why the purity movement often doesn’t work, and this is why people reject the Christianity that actually isn’t Christianity at all. God never said you have to marry the first person you date or the first person you kiss. He said, be holy as I’m holy, 1 Peter 1. God never said women could never speak up in church or have dreams or work outside the home. He said submit to your own husbands in Ephesians 5. God didn’t command us to save our first kiss for marriage or avoid every single possible thing that could be sexual. He said be pure, 1 Corinthians 6. Legalism drives a wedge between the truth of God and our hearts that removes the necessity of a daily relationship with the Lord because all we need to do is follow the rules. It is not spirit led, it is not Jesus focused, and it is not grace driven.

God’s goal is not to produce a bunch of rule followers, but an army of Christ followers whose dedication to him produces lives of holiness. So, I left legalism. I stopped following the rules and began seeking the Spirit of the Living God within me. A voice I’d muffled with my own ideas of what righteousness was supposed to be. I saw him where he waits to be found in his word and on my knees. And as I sought him, he led me to purity. My husband and I still waited until our wedding day. I still love my children and love my home. I still am involved in my church. I’m still pursuing holiness in different areas of life. And I don’t do it because I’m bound to a list of limiting rules. I do it because I was shown grace while still a pharisee.

I do it because I finally looked in God’s word for myself and read what it said. Legalistic Christianity is not Christianity. It is man’s commentary on God’s commands. Galatians 1:9-10 says as we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed. For am I now seeking the favor of men or of God? Or am I striving to please men, if I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ. Don’t be deceived. Look into God’s word for yourself. Don’t reject him based on the actions of so-called followers. The Walk of Faith is a walk of freedom. Holiness comes by the Spirit of God inspiring us to action for Christ came that we may have life and have it abundantly.

John 10:10, the legalism that I allowed myself to be immersed in was the typical kind, the kind that we most easily recognize and is most talked about online. Conservative legalism, what you wear, how you date, what you watch, things like that. And if you’ve listened to anything I’ve ever said about holiness, you know that I believe what we watch and how we dress matters immensely. Listen to the episode on Modesty, listen to the episodes on Discernment. We do need to take care of what we’re consuming, and how it’s shaping us. It’s a discernment process we need to walk in but that’s the whole point. It’s a discernment process and it can’t be shortcut by someone else, just telling you what you can and can’t watch.

I grew up with people who would go to a movie theater in another city because they were so afraid of what people in our city would say if they saw them at a movie theater. And that’s an example of a fear-based conviction. It isn’t even a conviction. It’s legalism, it’s law because you’re afraid of what people will say about your choices. So, you’re not actually operating in the leadership of Christ on your life, you’re not actually operating in freedom, you’re in bondage to what people will say about your choices, which means that either your choices aren’t led by God at all most likely and they could actually be choices that are damaging you or maybe the movie that you were watching is completely harmless and yet you’re still living in a human-led spirituality. You’re worshiping what people say about you. You’re worshiping what people think of you instead of operating in the freedom and peace of Christ. 

That’s what legalism does. Legalism is the ultimate people pleasing and this is why you can have both conservative and progressive legalism. It’s just a different set of laws. Conservative legalism, like I said, don’t drink, smoke, or chew or go with boys that do kind of thing. But then progressive legalism oftentimes looks like well, you need to be more open to dismantling your theology, and maybe even getting rid of some really important core doctrines about Christ or maybe it’s politics like you need to vote Democrat or you need to vote for certain things or maybe you need to not be pro-life, because that’s not nuanced enough, or maybe whatever the countless new rules are within their camp that’s their legalism. You’re not a loving Christian, because you didn’t meet these benchmarks. You didn’t meet these checkmarks. And I talked about this on Instagram this week. It’s literally just the inverse in the Book of Luke, where Jesus tells “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” We love to use this story to talk about legalism because we say, look, there this Pharisee and this Tax Collector and they’re both praying to God, and the Pharisee says, “Oh, God, thank you so much that I am nothing like that sinner over there, those adulterers, those swindlers, I’m nothing like that man over there, but thank you that I am so righteous.” And the tax collector, meanwhile, is beating his breast and saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And in that story, when we read that story, we’re so quick to assume that we are the tax collector instead of the Pharisee.

And oftentimes in progressive spaces, what you’ll see is this constant pointing of the finger towards the Pharisee as the typical conservative legalist with no awareness that they have actually become the Pharisee themselves. “Oh, God, thank you that I am nothing like those Baptists and those Mennonites and those people who are so conservative, those pro-lifers, those Republicans, hmm,” It’s the exact same thing that’s happening on the conservative side. “Oh, God, thank you that I am nothing like those Democrats and those progressives and those people who are evil in all of these ways.”

Do you see? Do you see the heart issue here? The heart issue is self-righteousness. I have no need of God, I have no need to walk by the Spirit, I have no need to operate in his sanctification. And this is not a statement about politics. Well, I guess it is, let’s just be honest. And I am unequivocally pro-life from womb to tomb. But I will say that we need to be aware that whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on in America, and then, of course, around the world because I know we have international listeners who you don’t have our political parties, but you definitely have issues of your own within your country. The question we have to ask is, “Have I assumed that I am the tax collector in the Gospel of Luke, who is repentant and open to God? Or am I actually operating as a Pharisee? Am I living as the one who believes I am sinless, and I have done nothing wrong, and I have no need of grace because people who do not believe they need grace will not give it to others? And that is a characteristic of legalism.

When we decide who gets the grace of God, who’s too far gone for the grace of God, who is too pagan, too last for the grace of God. When we designate those people, we have forgotten who the gospel is for. Those who are forgiven much will forgive much and will love much. And of course, this doesn’t mean that we change the Gospel’s heart or that we make compromises on the truth or on the values of Christianity. But it does mean that we recognize legalism when it’s sneaking up on us. And we allow the Spirit of God to set us free from it. This episode could go so much more in depth, but I think I’ll leave it there for now. And hopefully, something from this gave you some food for thought and some encouragement. I pray for those who are coming out of legalism that you would understand the absolute depths of your soul. Just how much grace God has in Christ for you. He has already earned the righteousness that you desire, he has already proven and justified you. So, your only job, according to Jesus and John 15 is to abide in him, to remain in constant connection with him, to live in him. Your only job is to remain connected to him. And when you do that, Jesus said, “You will bear much fruit” and so prove to be His disciples.

If you really want to prove that you are his disciple the solution is not meeting the benchmarks of progressivism or conservatism. If you want to prove that you are Jesus’ disciple, you will abide an intimate relationship with Him through His Word, through prayer, and through following the leading of the Holy Spirit. And if you need help with any of those things, I have episodes about all of them, and we have resources in the Every Woman a Theologian shop. So those are there to help you. We have episodes just in the last couple of weeks on how to pray, how to walk by the Spirit, and how to hear the voice of God. So, all of those will be helpful to you in this. But my prayer for you is that you would know the freedom that he has for you. Jesus came that you may be truly free, that you may experience abundant life and that’s not just eternally that begins now. An abundant life means one that is not in bondage to the opinions of people or in fear of what people are saying about you or to you. It’s walking by the Holy Spirit and if you have made sinful decisions repenting of those and turning from them, and walking in the justification of Jesus Christ. He is your advantage. He died on the cross for a reason and you get to live as if that’s true. Legalism cannot save you and it will never protect you. And it will always betray you. But Jesus Christ will do none of those things.

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