Legalism for the 21st Century

oldswimwear.jpegIn the 18th century it was showing any skin, sabbath breaking, or failing to wear a hat in public (men).

In the 19th century the church added going to the (live) theater and playing cards.

In the 20th century it was dancing, drinking, movies, tattoos, and piercings.

In the 21st century, all that stuff is okay. But legalism still thrives under a different guise. The church has rightly shed its archaic taboos. Thank God. But we’ve substituted a different legalism. Not a legalism of rules, but a a legalism way more depressing and harder to spot.

man-in-stocks.jpegI entered full-time vocational ministry age 20 as a children’s pastor. Later youth pastor. Then church planter and pastor.

I got my baptism of fire as a young 20-something sitting on a church board. It was a large church board–22 men at times. Great guys who all wanted to see God’s best. We just could never agree how to get it.

I’ll never forget a heated discussion about why Christians should serve God. One of our venerable board members, a man whom I respected then and still respect today, closed off the discussion by slamming the table and announcing with finality: CHRISTIANS SHOULD SERVE GOD BECAUSE IT’S OUR DUTY AND OBLIGATION.

whipped.jpegHmmmm. I sat there stunned and, I gotta admit, confused. I couldn’t argue; it wasn’t my place. These men were twice and three times my age. Plus, I didn’t know what to say. Running through my mind was the question: “AREN’T WE SUPPOSED TO SERVE GOD OUT OF GRATITUDE?” Still, I couldn’t argue that it was also our DUTY to serve God… How could I put that contradiction together?

I did an unscientific study of some megachurches and the topics of their messages. Really important topics like relationships, finance, parenting, marriage, sexuality, pornography, serving the world, sacrifice, time management, trusting & following Jesus.

Relevant topics, to be sure. The church needs to be talking about all this stuff. I love the creativity and directness and practicality that today’s church uses to address these burning issues. But…

tieddown.jpegBut this is where the new legalism creeps in.

  • It is not a legalism of RULES: don’t dance or drink, go to movies, or play cards.
  • It is not a legalism of DUTY: grin and bear your walk with God; sanctification by grim determination.
  • It is not a legalism of LAW-KEEPING: the imposition of Mosaic or other requirements on today’s Christians.
  • It is not a legalism of SUPERIORITY: in which we look down our self-righteous noses at those nasty outsiders.
  • It is not a legalism of SCRUPLES: the superadditon of requirements and prohibitions the Bible never imposes.

Nope. It’s a new legalism.


I guess I should define my terms. What is legalism anyway?

Legalism is the belief that humans by human effort can merit the approval of God.

That’s why I suggest that 21st century legalism is a legalism of omission.  Let me explain.

Every time we churches offer up the PRACTICAL steps of sanctification we create an internal “ought” in our listeners. A duty, an obligation, a demand. An external pressure to conform to the standard we have just erected.

  • You ought to spend quality time with your kids.
  • And have a date night with your spouse.
  • And tithe and/or give offerings.
  • And have a budget and financial freedom.
  • And serve God somehow.
  • toobusy.jpegAnd use your spiritual gift.
  • And not use pornography.
  • And wait till you’re married.
  • And read your Bible and pray.
  • And love your loud neighbor.
  • And not sin or be critical or gossip.
  • And share your faith.
  • And not waste time.
  • And be in community.
  • And do what Jesus would do.
  • And not be lazy.
  • And have plenty of free time and take breaks.
  • And be organized.
  • And give back to your community.

The oughts add up, don’t they? And how can you argue with this list? They are indeed duties and obligations of the Christian life. Genuinely, authentically, unarguably, biblically.

That’s why our churches are preaching these highly relevant, practical topics–a development for which I’m truly grateful.

We are even preaching the PRACTICAL STEPS along with the “oughts” so you can make them happen. See how nice we are?

And therein lies the 21st century legalism:


Sorry for shouting.

It’s a legalism of omission. I’m telling you what to do but omitting the ONLY POWER by which you can do it in a manner pleasing to God. I am sending you on a quest to merit the approval of God BY HUMAN FRICKIN’ POWER. The essence of legalism… and you never saw it coming.

And you, dear Christian, take in ought after ought after ought until you are crushed by a weight you were never intended to bear.

Leaving you three options, as I see it.

  1. Drop out of church altogether.
  2. Fake it (and feel guilty over your repeated failures, but don’t let anybody see the mess within).
  3. Get therapy because there’s obviously something way wrong with you.

I am so, so sorry.
Paul writes, “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God–and righteousness and sanctification and redemption– that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.”” 1 Corinthians 1:30, 31, NKJV.

Translation: if it’s good and holy and liberating and it happened in your life, it only happened by the power of Christ, so quit patting yourself on the back.

It also means there is a fourth option for our churches–the only hope for the redemption of American Christiandom…

I’ll save that fourth option for my blog tomorrow.  I’m going back to bed.


Dad update:  My dad (Roy) has come through his extensive surgeries so remarkably well that the doctors are amazed… for which we give all glory to God.  Thank you so much for praying.   Yesterday he began radiation & chemo–a six-week regimen.  Please pray that God would eliminate the nasty side effects, and bring him through great.  His swallowing and speech are excellent.  Overall strength is too.  Please pray that he not be utterly wiped out through the radiation/chemo.  Thanks.


8 thoughts on “Legalism for the 21st Century

  1. Thank God 4 u Bill! Please keep yelling! You are to me, God’s prophet of grace.

    Week after week I sat there listening to my senior pastor preach the oughts. I have heard enough “OUGHTS” to drown ten times… but they are so subtle.

    So let me add a couple more “OUGHTS”:

    You ought to grow out of dysfunction and have your inner life together…
    You ought to be experiencing joy and happiness (the pressure alone kills happiness).
    You ought to only grieve for a certain amount of time.
    You ought to have inner peace.
    You shouldn’t (ought’s sister) be sad because God loves you sooo much.

    It is true that we ought to have these things. But it depends where you put the “ought” in your mind. It is a verb that weighs on us (obligation)? Or is it a verb that weighs on God (consequence of having faith)?

    Bill, check out my new site:

    Your Student,


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  4. Might I humbly add one “option”; Replace “ought” with “want”

    Want to spend quality time with your kids
    And have a date night with your spouse
    And tithe and/or give offerings
    And have a budget
    And want to serve God
    And use your spiritual gift
    And never use porn.
    And wait till you’re married
    And (#1) read your Bible every day and pray without ceasing
    And (#1A) love your loud neighbor
    And not sin, be critical or gossip
    And (#1B) share your FAITH (what a Joy)
    And not waste time (opps)
    And be in community
    And do what Jesus would do
    And not be lazy
    And have free time, be organized and give back…

    With NO exaggeration, for twenty years after becoming a Christian I wondered why I didn’t like church and honestly didn’t care for Christians. I also got really stuck on
    2 Cor. 5:17
    “Therefore, If anyone is in Christ, he is a NEW creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new.”
    Not for me, not for twenty years of playing the game. Why hadn’t I changed?
    I had to seriously question every aspect of my faith and ask myself “What do I really believe?”
    Until, as you suggest, I came face to face with the Supernatural Power of The Holy Spirit and the Indwelling Christ. Suddenly faith became real, the Word of God became real and Christian living became real.
    Then I found out…there can be joy in being a Christian. Nobody has to tell me I ought to have that.I WANT that!


  5. Thankyou for seeing and putting things into such a grace perspective….I’ll tell you a way it has drastically changed my life. I used to beat myself up by the “oughts” I would hear preached (sometimes I still do). But honestly, when I remember God’s grace and see the “oughts” through a grace lens, I get excited by some of those “oughts” and see them as life giving. And even if I can’t get it all together right now, I’m overjoyed that His Spirit is in me and wants me to look like Christ. And He is beautiful.
    thanks for helping me see His more of His heart.

  6. Some of you have said “legalism” had you for 20 some years. I’m afraid to say it surely has been longer than that for me. BUT! A big but! Even though the churches I attended were teaching the “ought tos,” somehow the Word of Truth from the Bible and a trial-by-error approach to living by the power of the Holy Spirit, I managed to live grace but couldn’t put a “definition” on it. I also had parents who were self taught the freedoms in the Bible and refused to chain us children up in the legalism we were taught at church. Praise God!! So, even with the failures of the church environment, grace can still be understood and lived, with more difficulty because others who are bound up think you’re really bad!! I’m sure my youth church leaders felt we were the “rebellious” ones and just didn’t conform to their legalistic way of thinking. My parents enjoyed square dancing in a church anti-dance, cards, movies, drink, smoking, etc. etc…

    I’m grateful because I found the grace freedom far quicker than others in my age group. When Dr. G was discovered by us about four years ago, imagine my joy to hear his grace sermons, grace living, the power of God in us!! Wow, very refreshing indeed!

  7. Wow. This is book-worthy; a fresh spin on an important concept, I think. I’ve been chewing on the circular pattern of shame, fear and pride – especially in Christians: (false shame caused by believing lies leads to fear we’re not good enough leads to pride trying to balance or disprove shame somehow). The ‘oughts’ contribute largely to that cycle by extending and perpetuating shame, I think. We can never measure up. The underlying lie is that we ever thought we could (by doing ‘oughts’ in our strength) in the first place. Thanks for filling in that piece of the puzzle…

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