The Thin Line Between Legalism and Immorality

woman walking on high wire 

Years ago, a religious leader in what was known to be a legalistic Christian school lost his footing in the Christian world when it was discovered he was leading an immoral life. After that, I heard a pastor address the problem by answering the questions of his shocked and disappointed congregation.

Why? How could this happen?” everyone wanted to know. I don’t recall much of what he said. But I vividly remember this one profound statement.

“There is a very thin line between legalism and immorality.”

Why is this so? According to Got Questions Ministries, “The word ‘legalism’ does not occur in the Bible. It is a term Christians use to describe a doctrinal position emphasizing a system of rules and regulations for achieving both salvation and spiritual growth. Legalists believe in and demand a strict literal adherence to rules and regulations.”

Legalism is a dangerous, demanding and tragic walk on the high wire of life. It’s dangerous, because it can cause a person to slip and fall into oblivion. It’s demanding because it requires a person to depend upon one’s own inner resources to conform to a strict set of man-made rules. And it’s tragic because one can develop an element of pride that keeps people from knowing God, rather than leading them to Him.

Walking a high-wire requires focus and balance. Disaster can occur when a person focuses on the wire that wobbles instead of the pole that balances.

We all have our weaknesses and challenges. The question is how do we deal with them? I hesitate to share the following with you because I don’t want to influence you if God is guiding you in another direction. I want to be sure I speak truth and not error. So hopefully, God will help you discern that for yourself.

I confess I enjoy good stories via television, movies and books. And I’m well aware the material doesn’t always meet the standards God has placed in my heart. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget to seek the Lord’s guidance on the matter and I begin to wobble and lose my spiritual balance. When this happens my self-inflicted guilt can take me to a dark place where an inner voice warns me to draw a stricter line.

Give all that up, the voice says. No television, no worldly movies or books. And when this happens, I literally get a little sick at my stomach. And my dark place gets even darker. I don’t think I can do that, I bemoan. And then my fear out maneuvers my faith.

This happened to me recently and the best way I know to share what God taught me is to share my study notes with you. In Jesus Calling, I was reading about strongholds and the devo closed with this suggestion:

You know that stronghold you need to demolish. Strategize with Me (Jesus) about how to defeat the enemy. You will win with Me by your side!”

According Merriam-Webster, to strategize means “to make a plan for achieving a goal.” My goal was to discern God’s truth and to allow Him to guide my thinking and choices. All I needed was a plan. So I prayed.

But before I share my prayer with you, I want to give you three truths God taught me that day: 1. The enemy leads with darkness; God leads with light. 2. False piety can turn others away rather than lead them into freedom. 3. The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of convicting us of sin without taking us into darkness. That is, as long as we are willing to listen and obey.

    praying hands   My prayer on September 12, 2015:

Lord, if there are strongholds in my life, I need YOU to reveal them to me. The enemy would have me draw very strict and rigid lines across my conscience, inducing guilt where you grant freedom. Help me to recognize the difference between unwarranted guilt and true conviction.

You know I enjoy watching and reading interesting stories. Would you have me avoid anything that is not directly an example of the purity in your character? If this were true, I would have to stop breathing.

And yet, somehow I believe you want me to live in this world but not of it. And that doesn’t require a big, bold “No” to everything not directly from You. Rather, it requires me to remain intact in my relationship with You while I discern wisdom in dealing with the right and wrong of things I watch or read.

The only way I can do this is to spend quality time with you and to focus on the balance that you give me as I practice your Presence in my life.                                                                   

Your Word teaches me:

  • to seek peace of mind and heart from You, not the world. (John 14:27 NLT)
  • to pursue quietness and confidence, rather than allowing stress and worry to rob me of my rest in You. (Isaiah 30:15 NLT)
  • to be careful to avoid pride or any other obstacle that can keep people from knowing You. My desire is to influence their thoughts and guide them toward the freedom of knowing and obeying Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5  NLT)  Amen


For further insight on the subject of legalism, please take time to check out these references:

1. “Got Questions Ministries seeks to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by providing biblical, applicable, and timely answers to spiritually related questions through an internet presence.”

2. Why Jesus Hates Legalism (Luke 11:37-54) by Steven J. Cole

Now, let’s talk.  I John 4:1 warns us to test the spirits to see if they speak the truth of God. In what areas has God helped you to discern His truth as you carefully maneuver the high wire of life?

woman on computer


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