Last week I left you with a question: How do you cultivate a love for God in daily life? This week I want to look at two of the greatest enemies of loving God—legalism and condemnation.

Two Great Enemies
Photo credit: Connor Tarter

Living with Handcuffs

My generation tends to overuse (and often misuse) the word “legalism.” We might look at someone who grew up praying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday in church and say, “That’s kind of legalistic.” Or we may get turned off by “quiet time” with Jesus when it involves always doing the same pattern over and over again.

The truth is—legalism is a real struggle for a lot of Christians in ways so subtle we don’t even notice.

Here’s the definition pastor and writer C.J. Mahaney gives legalism in his book, “The Cross Centered Life”:

Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God.

I fall into the trap of legalism when I try to perform to receive approval from God. It’s a facade, and it’s exhausting. I can’t live up to God’s standard—no one can. Trying to justify myself is like trying to wrangle my way out of handcuffs.

When I live like that, I show myself and others that there’s nothing “free” about me.

The Constant Fear of Handcuffs

If legalism says, “I can work hard to earn God’s favor,” then the other side of the coin is condemnation.

The lie of condemnation is that God saved me from my handcuffs, but I had better watch out! If I do something wrong, God’s going to slap those shackles back on my wrists before I can say, “Jiminy Cricket.”

[callout]Do you struggle with condemnation? I do. Here are several questions Mahaney poses.

  • Do you relate to God as if you were on a kind of permanent probation, suspecting that any moment He may haul you back into the jail cell of His disfavor?
  • When you come to worship do you maintain a “respectful distance” from God, as if He were a fascinating but ill-tempered celebrity known for lashing out at His fans?
  • When you read Scripture does it reveal the boundless love of the Savior or merely intensify your condemnation?[/callout]

Each of these questions bring back a time (or many times) when I’ve felt distant from God. Asking for His forgiveness can feel like begging for Him to take off the shackles again, to give me one more chance.

No one wants a God like that. I don’t—do you? No one wants a “Helicopter God” who constantly hovers over our shoulder, waiting for us to mess up so He can smite us. “See?” He would say, “I gave you another chance, and you blew it again.”

Truly, I don’t think God says that about me; I think I say that about myself. But if I’m judging myself more harshly than God, there’s a problem.

A Life with No Handcuffs

Recently, I was leading a discussion group with a bunch of high schoolers, trying to explain the difference between the Law in the Old Testament and “the law that gives liberty” from James 2. As I spoke, I remembered the beginning of Les Misérables.

In it, the ex-convict Jean Valjean seeks shelter with a bishop. The next day, he is caught by police for stealing the bishop’s silver. Shockingly, the bishop tells the police he gave the silver to Jean Valjean, and he tells Valjean that he should have taken the candlesticks, too! In parting, the bishop leans in to Valjean and speaks these words:

Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.

If you’re familiar with the story, that moment remains with Valjean for the rest of his life.

In a very real way, I believe Jesus speaks those words to us when we believe Him for salvation. He neither waits for us to justify our way out of handcuffs nor stands over us to slap them on. Instead, He removes our handcuffs and says, “You no longer belong to evil, but to good.” He isn’t giving us something to aim for; He’s telling us what already is.

Legalism is pointless because I can’t win. Condemnation is pointless because Christ already won. We hope for a clean slate, but Jesus breaks our slate and gives us His, forever sealed in His perfect blood.

The two great enemies of loving God—legalism and condemnation—last only until we realize the true scope of the cross. “He became sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.”

Join the Conversation


  1. So what would you say is the distinction between the “law of the OT” and the “law of Liberty”? I am in many conversations about this with folks who often will say we now live under the NT requirements as the OT is not relevant. I will point out that just as no one but One can keep the law of the OT; no one but One can keep the law of the NT either. At the heart of it most in the church simply apply their own interpretation of the NT laws/commands as a new standard for both condemning others and self justifying themselves. I’ve heard pastors speak of the law of Moses, law of sin & death, law of Liberty, law of the Spirit & life, law of God, law of Messiah/Christ, etc… How many different “laws” are there? There is only one which God has ordained and it is revealed throughout the Scriptures OT & NT. In James 2 he mentions it (specifically Leviticus 19) and as you mentioned we will often misapply it both toward ourselves in self justification but also toward others in judgement/ condemnation. We like to determine “who is out” and why we are “in” usually based on our own legalisms. The purpose of all the teachings of God is to reveal how to rightly relate to Him and then how we are to rightly relate to One Another. This is the righteousness of God which He brings forth in us (and which I think Victor Hugo was driving at also).This is what the Holy Spirit is empowering in us. Legalism is applying unbiblical/extra biblical standards on oneself or to others as a means of acceptance and justification. It is always good to remind ourselves that we are saved by grace through faith – period. And once we are saved and set free we now are called to live differently (the story of Les Mis in that he too understood what he deserved but received grace). But I think it is misleading (CJ) to present obedience to God’s Word and all that He commands as legalism. This is not how the Scriptures define legalism nor obedience. Righteousness is obedience to all He commands and this is seeking to live in accordance with His standards as revealed throughout the Bible OT & NT (after we have understood His grace & forgiveness because no one can earn it with works). Remember the writers of all the NT letters only had one standard to draw from and they saw and experienced how The Word/Messiah Yeshua/Jesus the Christ manifested it and integrated it into His life and teaching. You are correct to condemn legalism and condemnation yet it is also important to define those concepts distinctly and apart from the calling to teach the nations about God’s free gift of grace and to obey all that God commands Matthew 28:20.

    1. Sorry I also forgot one last reference as I think John 14 mentions a few things about obedience as a demonstration of our love for Messiah Yeshua/ Jesus Christ verses obedience as legalism.

      1. Hi Derrick! Thanks for sharing your feedback. I really appreciate you taking the time to expound on the roles of obedience and grace in this topic. The reference to John 14 is excellent, as Jesus Himself says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (14:15). When Mahaney talks about legalism, he’s presenting it as the lie that “On my own, I can obey God’s Law enough to receive His approval.” I love that God’s grace not only frees us from self-righteousness and condemnation, but also empowers us toward right living through His Spirit. “If you love Me” begins with God’s work in our lives: “We love because He first loved us.” Paul rightly writes: “The love of Christ compels us.”

        My own love for God is stirred when I realize my obedience is graded on Christ’s righteousness, not my own. Though certainly some take advantage of God’s grace (as Paul writes in Romans 6:1), we are called to respond like Valjean, realizing “God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance” (Romans 2:4). If faith in the “law that gives freedom” doesn’t lead us to action, James makes it quite clear that such faith can’t save us (James 2:14). The law that gives freedom is Christ’s work! When we rightly understand freedom, we are compelled to tell the nations.

        1. A hearty and Hebraic “Amen!” And by the way I’m not “condemning” CJ, I just wanted to clarify legalism a bit more. Some folks toss the baby out with the bath water when it comes to perspectives of the OT. Jesus/Yeshua didn’t condemn all Pharisees, just the legalists who did not rightly understand the Word of Truth. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and Paul were all Pharisees who came to a proper understanding of the Word of Truth fulfilled in Messiah Yeshua from Natzareth and who like Jesus Christ Himself (although He did it perfectly) sought to live a faithful life in righteous accordance with all the teachings of the Scriptures (i.e. the Old Tesrament/ Hebrew Bible). Sometimes I think, after acceptance of His Work through redemption, we would understand how to love God more by walking in greater obedience to His plain and simple Will & Word. While in some respects all our actions were and will be judged (on the cross & before the throne) obedience isn’t about being graded or evaluated (i.e. What we will get for it) but rather since we have already and eternally experienced God’s grace, obedience is more about demonstrating our gratitude to Him for it (i.e. Our response by giving back to God an offering in thanksgiving). While obedience is pleasing to Him we shouldn’t obey for any favor to be bestowed our way but rather to bless Him & His name as we also bless others.

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