Legalism is a silent killer. Like carbon monoxide, it is odorless, colorless, tasteless, and has the power to lull the mind into a deep sleep from which it will never emerge. So, I never recommend a person remain in a place where the poison of legalism has displaced the fresh air of grace. One individual cannot rescue an organization that is permeated with legalism. He or she can only escape, leave the poison behind, and seek a place of grace. Then, as the dulling effects of legalistic religion wear off, he or she can call others to follow. But no one, not even the fully recovered, should ever reenter such a place.
However, we have a responsibility to respond to legalism when it seeks to invade places of grace. Pastors, teachers, and leaders must confront legalism aggressively by taking specific action. I find in JOHN 5:1–18 three responses to legalism in the words and deeds of Christ.
First, we must expose legalism. The truth of the gospel—the good news of God’s grace received through faith—must refute the claims of tradition, custom, or any other standard of righteousness not explicitly taught in Scripture. And where Scripture is clear, it must be applied to call people to celebrate the Spirit of God living within them through joyful obedience.
Second, we must combat legalism. Legalism is an enemy that cannot be met with violence; however, like in any war, we must fight with courage and conviction, recognizing that combat requires toughness. Without setting aside kindness, we must be willing to confront the legalist with his or her lies. In the words of Jess Moody, the author of A Drink at Joel’s Place,
The only way to live with such a person as this is to be intolerant of his intolerance.… If you resist him in this fashion you can expect him to come at you like a bull elephant with a mad on.
He’ll speak to you and of you like eight thunderstorms but you must keep up the pressure because it is the only way to break his precast psychic mind-set.
His rhino charge will come at you with bullying fascism. There is no fence limiting the lies he will tell to bring you down.
As Paul says, he will “spy out your liberty” and do everything in his power to enchain you and break your spirit. You simply must not let him overwhelm you. Every time he slaps you, hit him in return with a great big dose of love. If you keep it up he will either repent or crucify you.31
Third, we must overcome legalism. We do that by proclaiming grace louder, more often, in more places, and to more people than the false prophets of legalism. People only choose bondage when they fear that freedom is unreachable, impossible, unaffordable, or unreal. Once people experience grace and learn that it can be theirs, legalism doesn’t stand a chance.
Swindoll, Charles R. 2018. John. Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary. Tyndale House Publishers.