Overcoming Legalism in Youth Culture

“You have to get an A on that test!”

“You must at least get a 4.0!”

Working in an Asian church, these are the pressures my students are often under. They are told that they must perform in order to be successful, earn their place, or even to belong. When they hear this from everyone around them, its easy for the same perfectionist mandates to creep into their relationship with God. They can begin to think that they must perform for God in order to have His approval. This is called legalism.

Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness and justification through obedience and actions. A legalist might say, “I am right with God because of all of the spiritual duties that I performed so well. Through those activities, I have gained God’s approval!”

If we are honest, we are all prone to the tendency of legalism. When we have had a good week, with little to no sin and lots of Bible reading, we look forward to Sunday morning where we we’ll sing praises to God and pray with sincerity and zeal. But on the following week, when we sin in a way that we are particularly ashamed of, and maybe haven’t read the Bible or prayed all that much, we hesitantly approach God and find it difficult to worship and pray freely. We can’t escape the feeling that God disproves of us.

If we’re honest, deep down we are inclined to assume that God disapproves of us – and that His disproval will go away with our good deeds. And if we do good deeds, or avoid sin, we can fix it! When we think this way, our confidence is no longer in the gospel but on our performance.

When your performance slides, when you aren’t reading the bible as often, or maybe you’re partaking in certain sins, does your peace and joy slide too? Do you find yourself more aware of your sin than the finishing work of what Jesus accomplished on the cross? Do you think of God as being disappointed in you, rather than delighting over you? If you have answered “yes” to these questions, you struggle with legalism.

In Romans 4:2-5, Paul says that if Abraham’s good works had provided him with God’s acceptance, Abraham could brag and boast about what he did to gain eternal life. Then Paul makes it clear that Abraham was justified – that is, he was made right with God – not because of his performance, but because of his Faith. Scripture is clear, we cannot earn our place with God. Our good deeds and spiritual duties add nothing to the work of Christ on the cross.

Struggles with legalism tend to come from a faulty understanding of how justification and sanctification are related. Its important for us and for our students to understand the difference.

Justification means we are declared righteous. Sanctification means we are made righteous – daily conformed to the image of Christ. Justification is our position before God, a position that becomes permanently ours at the time of our conversion. It is immediate and complete upon our acceptance of faith in Christ. You’ll never be more justified than you are the first moment you trust in the Person and finished work of Christ. Sanctification is a progressive process. It is a transformation that continues throughout our life on earth, as we continue in grace-motivated obedience.

How do we help our students and how do we, ourselves, overcome the temptation toward legalism? We must pray for the grace to remember that Jesus’ work, not ours, is the basis for our forgiveness and acceptance before God. There is nothing we can do or not do that will make Him love us any more or less. When we feel like God disproves of us, we remember that truth. When we feel like we have to prove ourselves to others – via good grades, athletic awards, or even doing our daily devotionals – we remember that truth. When we feel like our identity is in our works, rather than the work of Jesus on the cross, we remember that truth.


Jon Lilley is the Youth Pastor of Cleveland Chinese Christian Church. He and his wife Kate are the proud parents of one incredible boy named Noah. Jon enjoys theology, technology, and anything related to social media. You can follow him on twitter @pastorjonlilley

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