Moving Beyond Legalism and Libertinism by Frank Viola

“History,” Martin Luther said, “is like a drunk man on a horse. No sooner does he fall off on the left side, does he mount again and fall off on the right.”The same can be said about the Christian life. (So it seems to me anyway.) Some have accepted the gospel of legalism. Reformed people tend to restrict legalism to be the attempt to earn salvation by human works. But for the genuine Christian who is saved by grace, legalism goes much deeper than that.


Legalists are people who believe salvation is by grace alone, but sanctification comes by their own efforts of trying hard to be a “good Christian.” Legalists tend to push their own personal standards onto everyone else. They are quick to judge other people’s motives, thinking the worst of them and their intentions. They confuse obedience with trying to serve God in their own strength.

They demand other people do things that they themselves would never carry out. They regard the sins of others as more severe and grievous than their own. (Philip Yancey described the legalist perfectly when he said, “Christians get very angry toward other Christians who sin differently than they do.”)

Legalists also feel it’s their right to become intrusive meddlers, or as Paul put it condemningly, “busybodies in other men’s affairs.” They are blind to their own self-righteousness, and they pride themselves on being “clean” on the outside (without realizing they are defiled on the inside). For all of these reasons, they unwittingly bring a lot of pain and heartache into the lives of others, yet sadly they seem to be out of touch with this.


In reaction to legalism and the devastation that it brings to other people, some have accepted the gospel of libertinism. Libertines are folks who live the way they want and have skirted the Lordship of Christ and all that it means.

They are apt to justify carnality by pulling the “grace card,” the “I’m free in Christ” card, and the “don’t judge me” card. For the libertine, grace becomes license to live in the flesh and silence their conscience. Some libertines have rationalized to themselves that they can continue to practice a particular transgression and God is “cool with it,” regardless of the carnage it brings.

Some libertines have gone so far into deception they have reinvented Jesus in their own image to justify their rebellion against the Lord and clothe it with spiritual talk. Others have gone further off the beam and have become practical atheists. Note that there are degrees of legalism and degrees of libertinism. But these descriptions should give the general flavor of each.

In short, the libertine lives as if there is no God. The legalist lives as though she/he is God to everyone else.Both attitudes are incompatible with the life of Christ.

Complicating Factors

What complicates the situation further is that . . .

The legalist doesn’t know that he/she is a legalist and tends to view all non-legalists as libertines. The libertine doesn’t know that she/he is a libertine and tends to view all non-libertines as legalists. Without the Holy Spirit’s illumination, this deception is difficult if not impossible to break. The truth is, we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. And we all need Jesus Christ to forgive, deliver and keep us each day from both the defiling acts of the flesh and the self-righteousness of the flesh.

Lordship & Liberty

The “gospel of legalism” and the “gospel of libertinism” are both in sharp contrast with the gospel of Jesus and Paul, which I call the gospel of Lordship and Liberty (I talk more about how these two words can go hand in hand in the chapter “The Three Gospels” in my book Revise Us Again.) But the gospel of the New Testament is rooted in reality—the real Jesus—and it sets us free from the defilement of the flesh and the self-righteousness of the flesh, both of which come off the same tree. Both of which bring bondage and cause untold pain to others. For both violate love, the nature of God’s own life.

One of the things I’ve learned in my spiritual journey is the closer someone gets to Jesus Christ, the less judgmental, self-righteous, harsh-toward-others, and selfish he or she will be. Again, we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. And we all need Jesus Christ to forgive, deliver, and keep us each day from both the defiling acts of the flesh and the self-righteousness of the flesh.

Frank Viola

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