I used to think the legalists were the ones trying to be vegan (and make everybody else so); those who did a lot to prepare for Sabbath and kept it for 26 hours each week; the ones trying to be obedient—like the title provocatively suggests (at least it got you to start reading this!). But I now realise that’s not what makes a legalist.
There is a story in Genesis 4 that turns the modern idea of legalism on its head.
It’s the story of Cain and Abel.
Abel did everything God asked, the way God asked him to do it. He brought an offering of death that foretold Jesus’ atoning sacrifice.
Cain also worshipped. He built an altar. He brought a sacrifice. But not as God asked.
Hebrews 11 records the story in this way: “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (verse 4, NKJV).
The issue wasn’t merely that Cain didn’t get the details right—that he just brought the wrong thing. Cain stopped living a life of faith. He stopped trusting that the only way to be saved is through the death of a substitute.
They both brought an offering. The difference is simple yet profound: Cain brought what he thought would be good enough.
When God doesn’t accept Cain’s offering, Cain gets angry. Cain feels God owes him acceptance. Cain’s mentality is legalism. He is 100 per cent trying to work his way to being accepted.
Legalism is salvation by calculation. It’s calculating what is the least I need to do to please God—to be saved. Legalism is a mindset that says, “It’s good enough”; to assume that God should be happy that I’ve given Him anything at all; to think that I don’t actually need to give Him what He’s asked for.
Faith is not calculating what’s “enough”. Faith simply chooses to say, “I acknowledge I don’t know what’s right and wrong. I have no power to conquer the devil, to redeem myself.”
Faith submits. Faith says, “God said it, so I’ll do it.” Faith is the posture of acknowledging that God is so much beyond us. We are so undeserving. We’d be ridiculous to refuse to do anything God asks of us.
Being more faithful in keeping the Sabbath, paying tithe and honouring marriage—these aren’t acts of legalism. The person of faith will do what God asks because they trust that God knows best, He is all and they assume an attitude of submission. That’s faith.
I’m tired of being accused of legalism regarding my observance of the Sabbath. Especially by Sunday keepers.
Keeping the Sabbath is an act of faith.
It’s easier to keep Sunday in today’s world. Social and economic pressures of work and sports make Sunday the easier option. By far.
But going to church on Sunday or just any day is more like legalism. It’s the mentality of “This is good enough”—even though the Bible explicitly says to keep the seventh day holy.
Legalism is functioning through calculating “what is enough?”
But the gospel teaches that only death is enough.
There are no calculations in the gospel of Jesus Christ. You and I can’t fix this, so Jesus had to say, “I’m going to come as a human and die to defeat the devil, sin and death”, (see Genesis 3:15).
Our role is to take a position of faith, believing that anything God promises is true, 100 per cent sure. So we just submit to it.
The moment we ask ourselves, “What will be enough?”, we are at risk of falling into legalism.
"Faith is total submission and trust of what God has asked. Anything else is legalism."
I see within myself the spirit of Cain. I look at the priority I place on my pastoral work: my sermon preparation, visitation and Bible study. They all just have to fit in around the rest of life.
“How much time have I got left for this?” I find myself calculating and bargaining regarding the very thing that I’ve given my life to God for, in response to His saving grace and calling on my life.
How often do we find ourselves saying, “This is good enough” when it comes to the things of God?
If my good deeds are filthy rags, what hope do I have in calculating what’s good enough? My sermon, my prayer, my generosity, my helping hand—if my good deeds are as filthy rags, what hope do I have in calculating?
The only calculation that means anything is to ask, “Will I give my whole life to God?” The only thing we can do if we are going to be people of faith is to submit it all.
I cannot do enough. I cannot perform. I can’t calculate what’s good enough. Nothing is good enough.
The act of coming to Him in faith looks like doing things the way He’s asked me to. That’s faith; not an arbitrary belief. Faith is doing what Abel did—bringing our offering the way God asked (see Hebrews 11:4).
The gospel frees us; it brings hope. The gospel is absolute liberation—but only when you give it all. Unless you give it all, you’re constantly going through this calculation of “what’s good enough?”
Unless we give it all, we are like Cain. We say, “I know God says this, but that is all I am willing to bring.” Our heart isn’t completely in it.
God calls us to be people of faith; to strive to follow God in everything we do.
Faith is total submission and trust of what God has asked. Anything else is legalism.
Abel submitted. Cain calculated.
Abel was a man of faith. Cain was a legalist.
God doesn’t accept a calculating faith. A faith of submission is acceptable to God.
Let’s be people of faith. Submit to the Lord; don’t calculate what is good enough. Sure, we struggle and sometimes fall. We need the forgiving grace of Jesus. But our posture is not one of legalistic calculation of the bare minimum required; it is one of total submission. That’s faith.
Boris Jovinov is senior pastor of Newcastle church, North New South Wales Conference.