Legalism, Holiness, and Licentiousness

A recent response by Ed Stetzer to a Christianity Today article reminded me of a pressing issue in many churches in regards to ideas of legalism, holiness, and licentiousness.[1]

Quite frequently pastors are accused of preaching legalism. Recently a pastor I know faced this accusation. It was a shocking accusation because this pastor makes God’s grace through Christ the center of his preaching and teaching. As a matter of fact, to find some hint of this in his preaching I read sermon notes and listened to a number of sermons and found, at least from my perspective, his sermons had made it clear we can never do anything on our own to earn God’s favor apart from the finished work of Christ. Several others gave their feedback as well, and no one agreed with the accusation.

Perhaps the problem was this pastor had emphasized holiness and the need for righteous living in his recent preaching episodes and some misunderstood. They misjudged motives and failed to understand the present passion of the preacher. His preaching had been focused for a time upon God’s judgment upon unrepentant sinners—intentional to emphasize the seriousness of sin. It’s not a pleasant preaching subject, but it is Scriptural. He felt like as Baptists we often emphasize God’s mercy and grace but neglect to proclaim the righteous judgment of God upon sinners who reject the Gospel of Christ. We forget how much God hates sin!

Another problematic view by some who cry “legalism” is licentiousness. This is the idea to which many who follow the reformed doctrinal view of perseverance fall prey. It is the belief that since I have been saved by grace, and I am forever saved, I can live as I wish without any boundaries.

Often those who practice licentiousness accuse those who try to hold them to a standard of righteousness of preaching legalism to them. The truth of the matter is that genuine believers strive for holiness. To be holy is to be like God—to be like Jesus. We want to be like HIM! Furthermore, we are commanded to be holy. 1 Peter 1: 15-16 says, “But as he which has called you is holy, so be you holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be you holy; for I am holy.” To clear up understanding, let’s define the terms.


a.       a strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.

b.      in Theology; the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works; the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.[2]


a.       the quality or state of being holy; sanctity.

b.      Synonym: godliness.[3]


a.       unrestrained by law or general morality; lawless; immoral.

b.      going beyond customary or proper bounds or limits; disregarding rules.[4]

So what makes the difference? How can one be holy without being legalistic? How can one be free and yet remain holy?

My purpose for this post is to attempt to offer a clear viewpoint that helps us all to understand these three seemingly contradictory positions.

Theological legalism is primarily when one preaches that salvation is available by doing things that please God to earn his favor. Legalists preach that such things as avoiding sins like drinking, cussing, or loose morals helps one to establish righteousness with God, and actions like going to church, giving to the poor, and evangelizing the lost can win salvation from sin and eternal bliss with God. At another level, some preachers and/or churches are described as legalists who demand certain hair styles, specific styles of dress and demand other behaviors as a sign of righteousness.

Others who practice licentiousness believe they don’t have to conform to these “holy” standards such as faithful church attendance, tithing, studying the bible and more because they have prayed the prayer of faith and will go to heaven regardless of how they live. These people live their lives without any concern at all for pleasing God, and their lives give no evidence of a regenerate relationship with God.

So what’s the difference? We know that those who are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ will be conformed into His image and their lives will display acts of righteousness. However, while they still inhabit flesh, their lives are far from perfect.

The difference pertains to motivation.

If you are not motivated to live for Jesus and to live a life of righteousness, and if you are comfortable living licentiously, then it is doubtful that you are a child of God. Over and over again, Scripture tells us that those who are saved desire to live in obedience to Christ. 1 John 2:3 is one instance of this, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”

If you are struggling with whether your acts of righteousness are legalistic actions ask yourself this: Why are you doing the good thing that you do? If your answer is that you are doing it to gain and advance in your standing with God, then your act is an act of legalism. Scripture tells us that we can never earn favor with God through the things we do. Titus 3:5-7 (English Standard Version) reminds us of that truth , “5 He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

If you answer that you are doing it because you love Jesus and you want to try your best to act like Him and please Him because of His love for you, then your act is an act of freedom in God’s grace. Galatians 5:13 reminds us of the freedom to obey, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

When I was a small child, I obeyed my parents because I had to. If I didn’t obey, there were, let’s say, REPERCUSSIONS. When I obeyed, I did so to avoid punishment. Sometimes it may have been to try to earn more favor. I took out the garbage because I was told to—legalism.

As I got older my motivations changed, and now one of the ways I show love for my parents is to do things like taking out the garbage because I want to. I love them and I want to please them because they love me—freedom to serve in righteousness.

So, in summary, if you are a child of God, Live for Jesus obediently and righteously because you want to, not because you have to. It is true, His love has rescued those who are His once for all and forever, and we are eternally His. Let His love compel you to love Him with Holiness!

As always, we love reading your comments and interacting with those who are interested in our lives. So please feel free to share your thoughts with us on this blog, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or any other way you prefer.

About Derek McCosh

I am a fortunate recipient of the Grace of God, a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband, a father, a pastor, and a church planter. I am passionate about glorifying God through evangelism, missions, expository preaching, teaching and mentoring. I am a husband to the most gorgeous woman alive, who loves Jesus and serves as a rock for me. I am a father of two beautiful daughters, a loving special needs son, and of two active Ghanian sons. I blog about whatever I feel led to share to encourage others to follow Jesus and live out their faith for His glory!
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4 Responses to Legalism, Holiness, and Licentiousness

  1. Nice post, Derek! As a Catholic I’ve always wondered how Protestants reconcile the “once saved always saved” with the many scripture verses that command us to do good works (i.e., “Faith without works is dead” in James). We don’t believe that charitable works earn our salvation, but Jesus is quite clear in his many parables, especially the Judgement of Nations in Matthew 25. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, you do unto me.” The sheep and the goats BOTH referred to him as Lord when they asked “Lord, when were you hungry that we didn’t feed you?” Clearly they recognized him as their savior. But it was the sheep who cared for the poor that Jesus assured as his children and the ones who didn’t serve the poor were cast away. That whole concept of sanctification is so important. Reminds me of what CS Lewis said about prayer. “Prayer changes us, not God.” Charity is love acted upon for the sake of others in God’s name. Thank you for posting this on Facebook!

    Angie McCosh Vogt


    • Derek McCosh says:

      Thanks Angie. Ephesians 2:8-10 clears it all up best. We are not saved by our works of righteousness, but we are re-created by God’s Grace through Faith–all God’s work & none of ours–to do the works that God in His unfathomable sovereignty designed & planned for us.

      As someone cleverly put it: Works of righteousness are not the root of our salvation in Christ; they are the fruit!

      In regards to eternal security, I’ve heard it said, “The faith that fizzles at the finish had a fault from the first.”

      Appreciate the interaction.

      To the Glory of Christ!


  2. Brian says:

    I hope this isn’t a nit-pick. Your definition of legalism and licentiousness were right on. I appreciate your saying that if you are not motivated to obedience you are probably not saved. The notion that having a desire to do good works is, at some points, assurance of salvation.

    Your summary statement does not seem to reflect the entirety of your post. Sometimes we need to be obedient even when we don’t feel like it. (Romans 6:15-25) Sometimes subjecting our will to the will of God is required. (Galatians 5:24). Fearing God is a great part of the saved life. We are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. He will correct those that He calls His children.

    Obedience and works aren’t solely based on my desires. I sometimes have to ask for the ‘want to’ because my selfish will is a hard nut to crack (Romans 7:14-25). Sometimes I obey out of fear.

    Ultimately, like you said, it has to come down to love. The cool part of love is that we are not slaves any longer to licentiousness because we can live according to the spirit. If we are acting as slaves to sin, we need to revisit our salvation…

    Thank you for your good post.


    • Derek McCosh says:

      Hey Brian,

      Thank you so much for interacting.

      I believe you are right to say we as followers of Christ should obey even when we don’t want to. That is our struggle isn’t it? (See Romans 7). We want to obey, and to obey purely out of love is obviously best, but we are not yet complete. I empathize with your condition.

      Praise the Lord, though, we are no longer slaves to sin. We are free to live for Him & His glory forever!



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