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“I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.”

Psalm 119:32 NIV84

Faith inspires, but rules burden. I grew up believing more in reputation and keeping up appearances than in being genuine. Living a compliant, rule-driven life was a way I tried to maintain control of how people perceived me and control the outcome of my choices. Yet, the more I tried to appear perfect and having it all together, the more frustrated and insecure I grew, not knowing who or what I was meant to be, and powerless to break free from what I was most ashamed of. Holding onto a rule-keeping lifestyle, only left me more isolated, irritated and insecure. It was only after studying the Bible that I discovered what it meant to live by placing my faith in God rather than in having a moral performance to impress people. I was finally free to be me when I understood God’s purpose for my life was not defined by my own sins and setbacks, but was meant to free others from theirs.

The following Scriptures are a guide to choosing faith over legalism, to help you live by faith rather than rules, and to discover whom God meant for you to be.

Faith Inspires, Legalism Burdens

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. 5 “Everything they do is for show…

Matthew 23:1-5 NLT

A legalist is consumed with people – “everything they do is for show.” This is why legalism has a crushing affect on relationships. Legalistic people prefer to approach relationships from a moral hierarchy rather than with an honest heart, pleasing to God.

  • Are you more ready to critique others than you are to reveal your own weaknesses?
  • Do you seek control in relationships rather than inviting influence from them
  • Does your personal example inspire or intimidate others to change?

Faith is God-centered, Legalism is Self-centered

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. 2 Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. 3 How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? 4 Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it?

Galatians 3:1-4 NLT

Legalism is based on the belief that human reasoning and effort can lead to a point of self-sufficiency. We try to rely on our ability to accomplish and overcome what only God can do. This prideful mindset makes us increasingly self-centered, and decreasingly God-centered. It leads to a hardening to the Cross and disregard for the grace of God

  • Who do you turn to first when facing personal limits or adversity? God or people?
  • What motivates you to change? Are you internally motivated to change (God-centered) or externally motivated to change (people-centered)?

Faith Embraces Limits, Legalism Hides Them

9 I am the least important of the apostles. I’m not even fit to be called an apostle. I tried to destroy God’s church. 10 But because of God’s grace I am what I am. And his grace was not wasted on me. No, I have worked harder than all the other apostles. But I didn’t do the work. God’s grace was with me.

1 Corinthians 15:9-10 NLT

Paul didn’t discover who God destined him to be until he embraced his weaknesses. Rather than deny them, he exposed them to illustrate the power of God’s grace in his life – that God chose and enabled him to change lives even though Paul tried destroying lives in his past. Faith shares and learns from weaknesses and failures believing that God works best through them, whereas legalism tries to display regimented or rigid self-restraint to overshadow our underlying weaknesses.

  • How grateful are you for the limits God allows you to have in your life?
  • Do you see them as opportunities to show God’s power or deny them?
  • What limits and weaknesses do you try to hide?

Faith Energizes Love, Legalism Undermines It

So stand strong for our freedom! The Anointed One freed us so we wouldn’t spend one more day under the yoke of slavery, trapped under the law.
6 Here’s the thing: in Jesus the Anointed whether you are circumcised or not makes no difference. What makes a difference is faith energized by love.

Galatians 5:1, 6 Voice

God frees us from our past guilt and sins, so we would not be limited in our love for others. The main objective of a legalistic person is to avoid guilt and the disapproval of people by focusing on appearing morally superior or above others. This is the exact opposite of love. It takes faith to love. Love takes risks giving their heart. Love helps others discover their destiny rather than fighting for our own social status.

  • Are you energized and motivated to love others? Do you take initiative or wait for others to initiate with you?
  • Are you energized and motivated to help others succeed rather thane conscientious of who notices your own success?
  • What rules or behaviors do you need to reject in order to build honest relationships that inspire hope and change?

Written by

Ray Kim

Ray Kim is a Southern California native who made the Bay Area his home after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. He is passionate about community service, and is spearheading such efforts as the E-Hoops program at the University of San Francisco.