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Legalism, License & the Tightrope of Bible Application

Graphic of a person walking on a tightrope, representing the carefulness required to navigate the Christian life

So you want to apply the Bible to your life, do you?

That’s wonderful news, since the Lord Jesus (Matt 7:21–27) and his apostles (Jas 1:22–25) want you and me not only to hear the word but also to do it. But what should that “doing” look like?

Sometimes people warn of the danger of creating behavioral rules to either attain or maintain God’s favor. And at other times, people warn of cheap grace, where the gospel’s freedom is misunderstood to mean repentance is unnecessary. The tug-of-war between these perspectives may cause Bible application to feel like crossing a lava pit on a tightrope.

Both sets of warnings are on to something; the dangers on either side are real. And both sets of dangers may have the same solution: holding fast to the main points of biblical texts.

Clarifying definitions

Before I expand on my proposed solution, however, let me first clarify some definitions. The dangers I’ve introduced are often labeled as legalism and license. Those two words are used loosely enough that I ought to define what I mean by them in this article.

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Legalism is when one adds to the Bible

God did not want Israel to add to his law (Deut 12:32). Proverbs expects that those who add to the Bible will be exposed as liars (Prov 30:6). Jesus denounced Bible addition as a nullification of God’s word (Mark 7:9–13) and a neglect of the law’s weightier matters (Matt 23:23).

We must understand, however, that obedience is not legalism. God expects to be obeyed (Ezek 20:19). Jesus expects to be obeyed (John 14:15). The prophets (Jer 42:21) and apostles (2 Thess 3:14) expect to be obeyed. It is not an act of legalism to obey the commands of Scripture in the fear and love of the Lord who made and redeemed you (Rom 1:5; 16:26).

License is when one subtracts from the Bible

Like the serpent in the garden, the licentious person wonders whether God really said what he said and whether his word perhaps doesn’t need to be obeyed after all (Gen 3:1). The licentious swerve from the truth (2 Tim 2:16–18) and wander from the commandments (Ps 119:21) in order to satisfy the desires of their senses (2 Pet 2:1–3).

We must understand, however, that grace is not license. The point of God’s grace is not to leave people in and to their sin but to make them a new creation (Gal 6:15–16) and to raise them from the dead (Rom 6:5–14). God abhors it when people abuse his free grace in order to ignore sin (Jer 7:8–11) or to continue sinning (Rom 3:8).

Pursuing a solution

If legalism involves adding to God’s words, and license involves subtracting from God’s words, the solution to both must involve—God’s words! When Bible application feels like walking a tightrope between these two dangers, the solution is simply to stay on the tightrope.

And when we do, we find that the tightrope is more like a broad place, like standing on a huge flat rock.

For example, the problem with the legalism of the Pharisees was that they had set aside God’s commandment in favor of their traditions (Mark 7:9). The traditions they added to Scripture loomed larger than the Scripture itself, to the point of making God’s word void (Mark 7:13). The problem with their legalism was not the detailed applications of God’s commands but the neglect of God’s commands in favor of detailed applications (Matt 23:23–24).

And when the apostle Peter took on the licentious teachers among his congregations, he called their teachings false, their sensuality destructive, and their words blasphemous (2 Pet 2:1–3). His answer to such false teaching was to take people back to the examples (2 Pet 2:4–16) and the teaching (2 Pet 2:17–22) of Scripture. He showed the power of God’s word (2 Pet 3:5–7, 13), and he called upon the ignorant and unstable to stop twisting it (2 Pet 3:15–18).

Legalism and license tend to emerge when we fail to account for a verse’s context and apply it without having grasped the biblical author’s main argument. Let me give two examples.

Example 1: 1 Peter 5

Perhaps you’ve heard you ought to cast all your cares on the Lord, because he cares for you (1 Pet 5:7). But how ought we to apply this command?

A legalistic approach might lead to developing a habit of daily prayer. Or perhaps confession and reflection with a trusted peer.

A licentious approach might minimize feelings of guilt over sin in favor of assurance from the limitless grace of Christ. Or perhaps a shift in attention away from sin that ought to change and toward God’s merciful kindness.

In this case, both approaches produce potentially positive results that could be supported from other Scriptures. But consider how much more this text has to offer if we only take the time to study it closely.

Peter speaks to folks scattered around the world suffering a great deal for their faith (1 Pet 1:1, 6; 2:12; 3:9, 14–16; 4:1, 12–14). First Peter 4:19 concludes that those who suffer according to God’s will ought to entrust their souls to their faithful Creator even while they pursue the doing of good.

Then in 1 Peter 5:1–4, he instructs church elders how to do good while suffering. In 1 Peter 5:5–6, he instructs those under the authority of the elders how to do good while suffering. Perhaps part of the latter’s suffering arises even from the command to submit humbly to weak and fallen church leaders!

So the “cares” or “anxieties” Peter has in mind are the anxieties of elders called to selflessly lead a group of sinful people in the midst of a persecuting world and the anxieties of church members called to humbly submit to a group of sinful elders in the midst of a persecuting world. This doesn’t mean we can’t apply 1 Peter 5:7 to other cares or anxieties. But our “tightrope” of application will be far more secure the closer we keep it to Peter’s main point.

Example 2: Philippians 3

Paul writes in Philippians 3:13–14 of “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” Memorable phrases like these have a way of entering a church’s vernacular through repetition, inviting both legalism and license like dinner guests.

Legalism can grab hold of these verses and create a series of behaviors or boundaries to help people improve themselves or their standing with the Lord. Set aside the failure or suffering of the past. Take up a glorious vision for the future. Pursue it with utmost intention and commitment. Discipline your self-talk.

License can make use of these verses to provide a measure of consolation and covering. What you’ve done before today doesn’t matter. What you do after today doesn’t matter. When God looks at you, he doesn’t see your sin, so you shouldn’t either. Set your hope fully on the grace to be revealed to you at Christ’s coming.

Both approaches have much to commend them! Neither one is completely mistaken. But with respect to Paul’s message in this text, both views can be corrected by more careful study of the passage’s main point.

That which is “behind” and worth “forgetting” has to do with Paul’s résumé of spiritual accomplishments (Phil 3:4–9). And that which is “ahead,” for which he strains forward is the resurrection to which he has access by means of knowing Christ (Phil 3:10–11). So the main idea of this passage is about neither suffering in the past nor personal vision for the future. It is actually about repenting of self-reliance and coming to realize we have absolutely nothing to offer to make us right with God.

We obey God when we refuse to allow our obedience itself to become our confidence before him.

Making progress

As you apply the Bible, remember that grace is not license, and obedience is not legalism. God the Father sent Jesus to die so he could transfer people from the kingdom of darkness into his marvelous light. Jesus rose from the dead so we would rise and be seated with him in the heavenly places. Jesus is now making all things new, beginning with the household of God.

So the best way for you and me to avoid either legalism or license in our Bible application is to sharpen our ability to study the Bible. Here are two articles to help you take the next step. As we practice identifying the arguments and main points of the biblical authors, we’ll be equipped to apply those main points confidently and not find ourselves walking a skinny tightrope.

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Written by
Peter Krol

Peter Krol is president of DiscipleMakers campus ministry in Pennsylvania, and the author of Knowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Study the Bible and Sowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Lead Bible Studies.

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Written by Peter Krol