Legalism is a ministry killjoy. It destroys the natural joy that comes from serving others in ministry like nothing else I’ve seen. I’ve seen more ministries ruined by legalism than anything else.
What is legalism? Legalism happens when we substitute our rules and rituals for our relationship with Christ. It’s a subtle trap that takes the focus off of what God has done for you and slowly turns it to what you have done for God.
In Philippians 3, Paul tells us flat out that he’s tried legalism. In the process, he points out five different ways he had been a legalist—ways that still haunt many of us today.
Legalism is putting your trust in rituals. Paul says, “I was circumcised eight days after I was born according to the Jewish law” (Philippians 3:5). Today, a Christian might say, “I was baptized,” or “I joined the church,” or “I took communion.” All of those are good, but they don’t earn God’s approval.
Legalism is putting your trust in a race. Paul says, “Of the people of Israel, I was of the tribe of Benjamin” (Philippians 3:5). I’ve got the royal pedigree here. It’s like people today who say they have a relationship with God because their uncle was a missionary or their mom was a believer. It doesn’t work that way. Everyone has to make his or her own decision to follow Jesus.
Legalism is putting your trust in a religion. Paul says, “I’m a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). Some Christians today say the same thing. They point to their denomination when asked about their relationship with God. When we get to heaven, God won’t ask us what denomination we are—he’ll ask us how we responded to his Son, Jesus.
Legalism is putting your trust in rules. Paul also says, “In regard to the law, I was a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). The Pharisees were the spiritually elite. They turned the Ten Commandments into 613! Ten just wasn’t enough for them. They would not eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath because the hen had to “work” by laying it. They would not scratch a mosquito bite on the Sabbath because that was considered work. By bringing attention to his background as a Pharisee, Paul is saying, “You want to talk about rules? I kept the rules!”
Legalism is putting your trust in reputation. Finally, Paul adds, “As for zeal, and as for legalistic righteousness, I was faultless” (Philippians 3:6). In other words, Paul was saying he was a superstar legalist! Today we might brag about how many people attend our church, how long we pray, or how many people we led to Christ last week. The end result is the same—they won’t make God any happier with us.
Nothing is wrong with any of these. The problem comes when we think they give us points with God—they don’t. He loves us unconditionally. If you start trusting in these things, you’re going to lose your joy and your ministry will crumble.
The antidote to legalism is grace. Grace means we don’t have to earn God’s love, and we don’t have to earn his smile. God is always smiling at us. Because I deserve it? Not a chance. Because I keep certain rules and regulations? Not a chance. It’s because I’m covered with the blood of Jesus Christ.
The problem for many of us in ministry is we subtly shift our perspective from what God has done for us to what we are doing for God in ministry. That’s dangerous—very dangerous. God won’t love you any more or any less no matter how you serve him. What you get out of service is joy. You don’t get approval. God approves of you, but it’s not because of what you do. He approves of you because of what Christ did for you already. That’s grace.
The Christian life is not a ritual and it’s not about rules—it’s a relationship. Religion is based upon performance, but Christianity is based on a person, Jesus Christ. Don’t ever forget that or your ministry is finished. And you’ll lose your joy. Nothing is sadder than a cynical person in ministry.