Question & Answer Forum: Legalism & Forgiveness

What is legalism?

We must attempt to answer this question by looking at this term in two ways. One has to do with positional righteousness (i.e., salvation), the other with practical righteousness (i.e., sanctification). Concerning our position, legalism is an effort to obtain or maintain a righteous standing with God by human ability. In Acts 15:1 we have an example of an effort to obtainrighteousness by law keeping: “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” In Galatians 3:3 we have an example of an effort to maintain righteousness by law keeping: “Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” Both attempts are contrary to Scripture. Romans 3:20 says, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight.” Galatians 5:1 says, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” The word “yoke” lacks the article and refers therefore to any yoke (i.e., legalistic system), not only the Mosaic law. We are neither saved by our works nor are we secure by our works. A believer’s positional righteousness cannot be improved. We have been made the righteousness of God through Christ (2Cor 5:21), not through any ability of our own.

Practical righteousness is another matter altogether. God expects us to pursue righteousness (1Tim 6:11; 2Tim 2:22), and to yield our members “as instruments of righteousness unto God” (Rom 6:13). Practical righteousness is achieved by the gracious help of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:13) and obedience to the Word of God alone. This is where a more prevalent form of legalism arises. Concerning our practice, legalism is an effort to obtain or maintain a “righteous” standard that goes beyond what is taught in the Word of God. Although a believer’s motives can be sincere, the dangers of this type of legalism are numerous. Conformity to human standards can actually neglect the will of God (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42), violate the Word of God (Matt 15:3), and do great harm to the people of God (Matt 23:4).

Either type of legalism is a relationship to a “moral” code rather than to a living Christ. A balanced text with which to conclude is Galatians 5:13: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.”

David Petterson 

If I have offended a brother, gone to him and apologized, and he has not accepted my apology, what is my responsibility?

This question illustrates the truth of Proverbs 18:19: “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city.” There are things we can do and say to seek forgiveness from one we have offended that tend to be overlooked. First, it is critical to verbalize our regret by actually stating, “I am sorry.” This admission should even include details that indicate we understand the depth of the hurt we have caused (e.g., “I am sorry that I hurt you by what I said,” or, “I feel terrible that I disappointed you by what I did”). Second, we need to take responsibility for our wrongs. If we deflect even the slightest bit of blame in our apology, it will likely be regarded as no apology at all. Third, proper restitution needs to be made in certain cases. Examples of these could be the restoration of a sister’s reputation or the repayment of a financial loss. Fourth, communicating a sincere desire to change our behavior will go a long way toward achieving forgiveness. Asking the offended person to help in this regard can be very beneficial (e.g., “How could I have said this in a different way that would not have been offensive?”). Last, specifically ask (not demand) to be forgiven. This will assure them that we value the relationship and also means we are putting the future of the relationship into their hands.

We need to remember it may take time for the offended party to grant forgiveness. If we still feel that after having done these things, waited patiently, and forgiveness has not yet been granted, it may be wise to specifically ask what could be done to obtain it fully. If the offended party still refuses to forgive us, we must leave the situation in God’s hands knowing that He will judge righteously (1Peter 2:23). It is encouraging to know that He is even more concerned about righteousness than we are.

David Petterson