Legalism: A Danger on the Path to Salvation


By Dr. Hal Knight

For John Wesley salvation was not a status attained but a path to travel, with the goal to increasingly love God and others as we have been loved by God in, Jesus Christ. He knew that there are dangers along the way that can get us off that path or keep us from getting on it. In the next several articles I am going to look at those dangers.

We begin this month with the danger of legalism. This is when Christianity is turned into a set of rules to be obeyed as a condition for an afterlife in heaven. Sometimes legalism can be very strict—Wesley himself practiced a rigorous form of legalism for a time prior to his Aldersgate experience in 1738. But legalism can also be only mildly demanding.

This is what we see today. For many in America what God requires is that we be “good” persons, for it is good people who go to heaven. This is the default religion of most Americans both in and out of churches. It is the assumption behind popular depictions of the afterlife in songs, cartoons and the words spoken at the remembrances of celebrities and other public figures who have died.

Being a good person, in this view, isn’t hard. It means not committing horrendous crimes and otherwise being a “nice” person. While we all think and do things we shouldn’t, God is loving and easily forgives what we do.

Wesley believed a mild form of legalism was the most common perspective among the people of England. He noted that “by a religious man is commonly meant, one that is honest, just and fair in his dealings; that is constantly at church and sacrament; and that gives much alms, or (as it is usually termed) does much good.” (Journal, Nov. 25, 1739). In America today attending church or being “religious” is no longer seen as necessary to being a good person, so our form of legalism is even less demanding than that in Wesley’s day.

The truth, as Wesley saw it, is that we are not as “good” as we think we are. Our attitudes toward and relationships with others are compromised by placing ourselves and our desires at the center of our lives. Our motivations and desires are not characterized by love for God and others. We are not faithful disciples of Jesus Christ because we do not have the heart of a disciple. At best we dutifully do what God wants even though it is not what we really want to do.

But even if we were as “nice” as we think we are, salvation is not about being good enough to make it into heaven. It is about a new life which we receive through faith in Jesus Christ. We come to know God’s love for us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and place our trust in him. Then as we live out our new life through worship, prayer, community and service to others the Holy Spirit enables love increasingly to become our motivation and desire, shaping how we live in the world. This is “true religion” for Wesley, and he urges us not to settle for anything less.