Your Good Behavior Cannot Save You; The Problem with Christian Legalism


As Christians, it’s natural to have a desire to please God through our behavior. Think of a little child who says “please” and “thank you” because they know it makes their parents happy. But what happens when our efforts to please Him start looking more like working to earn something from Him? Legalism is the idea that we get right and stay right with God through what we do instead of who we put our faith in. This is called works-based righteousness and it is of no eternal value.

Listen to Apostle Paul admonishing the Galatians for attempting to tie their salvation to their ability to manage their behavior: You foolish Galatians who has bewitched you? How did you receive the spirit? Having begun by hearing with faith, are you now trying to stay right with God or perfect yourself by human effort? Galatians 3:3

Colossians 2:6 puts it like this: Just as you received him, so walk in him.

How did we receive him? How did we accept the gift of salvation? We said, “Lord Jesus Christ I cannot save myself only you can.” I can’t – you can! A dependent attitude and a belief in the power and sufficiency of Jesus Christ is what it takes.

The Sermon on the mount found in Matthew 5 & 6 – is filled with radical teachings that call for us to be perfect just as Christ is perfect. The Sermon on the Mount is an evisceration of anyone who thinks they can live out the spirit of the law.

  • If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
  • It says that anger is equal to murder, that looking is equal to adultery.
  • Calling someone a fool results in you being thrown into hell.
  • It says that you should let anyone borrow money from you without asking questions of them.
  • It also says that If someone assaults you, you must give them the other cheek to slap.

This sermon takes place before Jesus went to the cross. With this sermon, Jesus introduces a standard that His Jewish audience could not live up to. He wants them to come to the realization that the standard of perfection is one they cannot meet. He wants them to understand their need for a savior. He is making the case for grace, which comes after the cross. Because it’s Christ’s death and resurrection that secures our salvation. His death grants believers forgiveness of all sins past and present, while His resurrection secures for us new life in Him.

The person filled with pride believes that he can save himself outside of Jesus’s monumental sacrifice. They do not admit this, maybe not even to themselves, but their actions reveal it. This is a legalistic person. Whereas the humble person looks at the perfect example of Christ and knows they cannot meet this standard, and in turn they depend on Jesus’ righteousness, and His sufficiency instead of their own. They are filled with awe and thankfulness that Christ has met that perfect standard for them! If you are perfect in your own right, why would you need a perfect God? My friend you are far from perfect – Only Jesus is. Lay down the pride of legalism and rest on the sufficiency of Jesus Christ.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. – Matthew 7:13-14

The arrogance of self-improvement and human achievement is a wide-open gate of distraction. Grace is a difficult truth to conceptualize. You may think you’re being virtuous when you trust in your own behavior and “goodness” to save you. But what you’re really doing is rejecting the free gift of Christ’s righteousness. God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. – Ephesians 2:8

So now that we have established that your behavior cannot save you. What place does upright behavior have in Christian living? “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything"—but not everything is constructive -1 Corinthians 10:23. When you truly understand what God has done for you and who you are in Him, sin loses it allure. There really is nothing out there that can satisfy you like life in Christ can. As believers we continue to sin, as James says: We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. -James 3:2.

But even though we stumble, we don’t stay there. Even when we struggle, we don’t make a practice of it. Why not? Because once you have tasted and seen the goodness of God, once you’ve wholly accepted Him as master of your life, sin can no longer rule over you. Romans 6:14 puts it perfectly, saying: For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. When you curse someone out, you struggle with feelings of discomfort and guilt after it. When you do something that is unworthy of the call you received from God, you feel it! It’s not a comfortable place to be.

That discomfort you feel and that yearning to do better is evidence of your salvation. It is uncomfortable for a believer to sin. It doesn’t mean that we don’t, it just means that it’s not our nature. What happens when you catch yourself sinning so much that you begin to make a lifestyle out of it? To that, I would remind you of this verse in Romans: Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12:2

When we have stopped meditating on God’s word, it shows up in our thoughts, when we have disordered thoughts, these show up in our behavior through our actions. Take Roman’s advice and renew your mind regularly on the word of God. Not to get more saved, but to remind yourself of how saved you already are. Remember, we are not doing anything to get more saved. Jesus said, “it is finished” – John 19:30. The irony is that it is in the meditating on how saved you already are that gives you the power to walk in line with your calling. Ephesians 4:1 says, it best: Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God.


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