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  • Writer's pictureApril Knapp

Legalism Vs. Discipline: 4 Lies We Believe & 4 Truths That Set Us Free

In my ministry to young women, the number one reason I hear for not studying the Bible is that they don’t know how. The number two reason is “I want to read the Bible, but I don’t want to be legalistic about it.”

I get it. I grew up as a little Pharisee trying to earn God’s favor by my good works. When the gospel set me free at age 14, that long rooted weed of legalism took a while to die. For a long time, what I thought was discipline was really legalism and what I avoided out of legalism was actually discipline. Legalism and discipline were muddled together like two balls of similarly colored yarn. As God began working out the knots, I realized legalism and discipline have less to do with the action and more about the heart behind the action.

In the dictionary, legalism is defined as “ strict adherence to a law or prescription.” It is mindless and driven by fear. Discipline is defined as “ activity, exercise, or regimen that develops or improves a skill.” It is mindful and rooted in a desire for godliness and driven by gratitude.

If you were training for a marathon, no one would tell you to stop running every day because it’s legalism. So, why we do we say this when it comes to something far more effective on our souls like studying God’s Word?

Here is a list of some of the lies of legalism- and the truths about discipline that set us free:

Legalism says, “I am accepted because of what I do.” Discipline says, “I am accepted by Christ because of what he has done.”

Reading the Bible every day does not make us more loved by God or more acceptable to him. It does not change God’s view of us whatsoever, but it does change OUR view of God. Legalism is reading the Bible every day so we feel acceptable to God. It is driven by fear. Discipline is creating a habit of reading God’s Word so we can know him more fully. It is driven by love and gratitude.

Legalism says, “I have to check all of the boxes.” Discipline says, “I want to experience the Spirit.”

When we view reading God’s Word as another box to be checked on our spiritual To Do list, it will have little effect on our souls. Our motivation becomes fear and control. We believe that if we check all of our spiritual boxes, we are right before God and, therefore, things will go right for us. This is a complete lie. Sometimes our boxes are all checked and our life falls apart. Sometimes no boxes are checked and God lifts us up in his mercy.

When our motivation for reading God’s Word becomes a desire to experience the Spirit of God, the Bible moves our souls. The Holy Spirit cannot be boxed in by ticks and check marks. When we struggle with motivation, we can begin by praying that God will motivate us with his Spirit instead of legalism.

Legalism can also play out in how we study the Word. We may think if we cannot follow a certain prescription or method, then it is useless to do it at all. Discipline tells us that the method does not matter because the Spirit works beyond methods. I’ve discovered that in different seasons of life, different methods and plans for studying God’s Word work. How I study God’s Word changes. A new mom with a sleepless infant and an empty nester are not going to study the Bible in the same way. They are in completely different seasons with completely different times and capacities. Legalism tells us to feel guilty if our “quiet time” doesn’t look a certain way. Discipline tells us to simply spend time in God’s Word to know him better.

Legalism says, “This will help me change myself.” Discipline says, “This will change me.”

Many times, we go into studying God’s Word with self-serving motives. We think that if we can make a list of applicable steps, then we can accomplish these tasks and make ourselves more acceptable to God. We also can read what we want to read and avoid true introspection of our souls. Checked boxes make us feel more comfortable and in control than exploring the depths of our confusing, messy souls.

Just as reading the Bible does not make us more acceptable to God, it is also not a means to make us more acceptable to God. When we read the Word with an open heart, we allow God to change us. This may mean exploring the messy places of our heart and asking hard questions.

Legalism says, “I don’t feel like doing it, so I don’t. Then, I feel guilty.” Discipline says, “I don’t feel like doing it, but I will because I know God will work in me regardless of how I feel.”

Studying God’s Word is not always exciting. Some days, it is mundane and seems to make no difference in our lives. Legalism drives us to skip reading the Word when it stops serving us. Because legalism also tells us that Bible study makes us more acceptable to God, we also feel an incredible amount of guilt when we skip it.

Discipline, on the other hand, tells us that the exercise of studying God’s Word is good for our souls whether we feel it or not. Over time it changes us, though we may not feel it in the moment. If we skip a day or two of studying God’s Word, we are free of guilt because we know we are accepted by God regardless. However, we may feel a sense of loss or sadness because we missed an opportunity to experience God’s presence.

Legalism is binding, but discipline sets us free. May we be people of discipline and not legalism. May we encourage one another to embrace discipline and relinquish legalism. I believe when we do this, the Word of God will speak to us in deeper ways than we’ve ever experienced.


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