Legalism, License, Lordship and Liberty

When my editor read the pre-publication manuscript of REVISE US AGAIN, he told me that the chapter called “The Three Gospels” had a huge impact on him.

“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.)

In the chapter entitled “The Three Gospels,” I discuss three distinct “gospels” (messages) that many contemporary Christians have accepted.

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 that 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 that 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 that 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.

Forgive the personal reference, but when I was in my teens, I came to the Lord through a legalistic denomination. I was fed a steady diet of the gospel of legalism and was surrounded by legalists. Thus I used to be a legalist without realizing it. But God was merciful.


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.

(Regarding the “judge not” card, the Bible gives us a sharp paradox on the matter of judging. There are scores of texts that exhort us to judge and scores of texts that forbid us to judge. I have written a blog post that I will release sometime in the future that resolves this paradox. It’s tentatively called To Judge or Judge Not?)

Some libertines have rationalized to themselves that they can continue to practice a particular transgression and God is “kewl wit dat,” irregardless of the carnage it brings. (A mark of sin is that it produces unnecessary pain in the lives of others. Sin and love are the exact opposites. Love is benefiting others at the expense of yourself. Sin is benefiting yourself at the expense of others. Sin is selfishness; love is selflessness. Love is a greater force than sin – God’s life is more powerful than satan’s nature – and “love covers a multitude of sins.”)

Some libertines have gone so far into deception that 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

In “The Three Gospels,” I discuss both the gospel of legalism and the gospel of libertinism in great detail, comparing and contrasting them and giving examples for each.

I then contrast these two “gospels” with the gospel of Jesus and Paul, which I call the gospel of Lordship and Liberty. And I explain how those two words go hand-in-hand.

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 that 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.

To my mind, this chapter (though not the best in the book in my opinion) is worth the price of admission. And it goes into much more depth on this subject.





  1. Scott says

    Frank, did you ever post “To Judge or Judge Not”? If not, I think it would be great if you did — many of us would benefit from it. Thanks.

  2. says

    thanks for sharing, Frank… i have been a legalist, and i am still recovering from being a libertine. i think there is always a temptation, once someone realises that they are a legalist and want to change, to fall into the extremity of being libertine. (it’s for freedom that Christ set us free, you know…). but God is very gracious. he puts up with a lot of our mistakes and childishness. he is the one to lead us out of legalism and libertiness.

  3. kenneth dawson says

    i think the problem in christianity is episteology verses ontology–the christian life can only be lived out by a divine being and i am crucified so the lord jesus is my christianity not me.

  4. Charlotte says

    HELP!!! I’ve recently joined a group that is saying that you must check every thought, every voice you hear, you must repent of every sin and trace its root back in order to get healed. This just doesn’t feel right to me. Is this legalism?

  5. Anita says

    Hi… Ahhh Yes! I was born into and lived 16 years of catholisism so when I discarded that for evangelical christianity I thought I had broken the chains of legalism …. it wasnt till 30 years later I saw that I had just traded them for more invisible chains. An insidious lie …believing I was free. The legalism of the latter 15 years of evangelical christianity nearly destroyed my 2 young children , the deception is so thick , BEHAVE THIS WAY AND THAT WAY… THEN YOU GET MY LOVE …teaches the church and we pass it down unawares.
    Freedom/Liberty came to me this year…. I think the pendulum has to swing a bit at first… the grieving process of years of deception, the sadness of those we love still there etc … but regardless of Libertine … I would still rather err on the side of Grace than of Law ! I have seen a huge change in my childrens and my life! WOW ! Thanking God and wishing I had seen all this sooner than this year ! : ((

  6. says

    I am definitely a legalistic libertinian. I draw a deep hard line in the sand, but give a lot of mercy. In the end both sides hate me. I feel the Holy Spirit leading me in this, but the constant push back from everyone does make me question myself quite a bit. Thanks for the article, looking forward to reading the book.

  7. says

    Thanks Jennifer. Most (not all) of the people who frequent this blog feel the same way that you do. They are “beyond evangelicals.” So you are among friends here who are tracking with you 100%. You may want to subscribe to the blog so that you will get my next post, “Beyond Evangelical: Part II” whenever it’s published.



  8. Jennifer says

    Frank, thanks so much for this post. It’s brilliant. I agree that most Christians I know at least are either legalists or the other. I have friends who are so judgmental. They think they are more righteous than other people. but they don’t realize it. I don’t like being around them to be honest. I have other friends who don’t believe that God chastens his children as the Bible says, that Christians aren’t saved from God’s wrath as the Bible teaches, and they have made Jesus like them because they can’t understand him. I’m so glad that there are people who believe in his lordship but also are liberated by his grace.

  9. Mark says

    I began in the spirit, then because of the teaching that I was under, tried to be perfected in the flesh. “legalism” Legalism robbed me of all of the joy I experienced as a new saved christian and replaced it with fear. Fear that I had not done enough, fear that I was not good enough, fear that I would never be perfect. I thank God, I thank you Lord, for delivering me from a legalistic church and doctrine.

    I found myself feeling like I was better than others because I felt that I lived on a higher moral ground. God spoke to me one day and said “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made you free”, and I understood no “work” that I could do justifies me in the eyes of God. JESUS is MY RIGHTEOUSNESS! and my salvation, and my justifier, and my deliverer.

    Although I have never adopted the libertine view of living any way that I want and thereby frustrating the grace of God, I lived the legalistic view, which strangled the grace of God in my life. I thank God through Christ Jesus that I am now free! Free to SERVE Him His way, and not my way. I trust solely in His power and grace brought to us through the blood of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that libertines use grace as a cloak for sin, and legalists ignore grace altogether.

    It is only by grace through faith that we are saved, and NOT OF OURSELVES, it is the GIFT of God. Legalism-trying to pay God for the gift of salvation libertinism-counting the gift of no importance or value Jesus paid the FULL PRICE for our salvation. The price that God asks us to pay is in denial of self so that we can experience the fullness of the life of Christ in us. I pray now because I want to draw closer to Him, not as a work to secure salvation. I live as obedient as I am able through the Spirit in order to give the Holy Spirit a home that He will not be grieved in, rather than to secure my salvation.

    I am no longer trying to earn my way to heaven! Jesus IS MY RIGHTEOUSNESS!

    I am grieved by both camps now. Those that feel that their works or own righteousness purchases a place for them in Christ, and those that feel that they can count the blood of the covenant as nothing and live in the flesh.

    I thank the Lord for His mercy on me. Sometimes the spirit of legalism tries to come back but I guard my heart and mind using the Word of God as my shield, and I bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. If it isn’t in the bible, I refuse to entertain it.


  10. William Timmers says

    Nic, Yes, now I had been in libertine phase since August 18, 2009. I was in legalistic phase for 25 years, can’t wait to get REVISE US AGAIN book soon! Based on numerous positive reviews on the book, I am pretty sure, the book will REVISE ME!

  11. Nic says

    This is so true. I found myself being legalistic and libertine many times. It is possible! :) I hope and trust Jesus will continue to free me!

  12. says


    When I first read this chapter [in an old version of a book of yours that was revised] I was gob-stuck by your perspicacity in dealing with the faux “gospels” many of us have been sucked into.


  13. William TImmers says

    “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.”

    This is the reason why I am going to buy that book! Wonderful phrase!

    Yes, this is live testimony I had been in legalist environment for more than 25 years, too. And I am finally get out of that bondage to the church, I quickly became “libertine”, praying to God to erase EVERYTHING I had learned since I became Christian and RE-LEARN everything. I think the book will probably help me lot!

    One tiny problem is… I am Deaf, I have seen video trailer, while GREAT VIDEO! But… I hope that is a Modern Silent Movie with no voices that would require captions or subtitles?

  14. Gary q says

    So, if I live a principled life as a Christian, what is the key in keeping me out of the legalistic camp?

    • Tess says

      I think what keeps you out of the legalistic camp is having love as your motivator, rather than rules of correctness.

      For instance you wouldn’t kill, maim, destroy, do drugs because it hurts yourself or other people, not because it’s ‘good’ and ‘principled’.

      I know atheists who don’t cheat on their wives/husbands, commit crimes, abuse people etc, because of love and compassion for others. Surely we Christians can do at least the same, without having to have a ‘rule’ to tell you not to do harmful things?

    • says

      Gary: It all comes down to learning how to live by the indwelling life of Jesus Christ. See my podcast episode by that title. It goes into it.

      It’s not about trying to follow a principle or living out a certain virtue. It’s about learning to live by HIM. The fruit of that will be that you will treat other people the exact same way you would want to be treated if it were you standing in their shows. Legalism and libertinism deaden us to this spiritual instinct. And that’s why there’s so much hurt in the body of Christ. Much of it comes because of thinking the worst of others, reading into what they say, and doing things we’d never want done to us if it were reversed. Christ teaches us and leads us another way.

  15. says

    Thank you for hearing me out on this, Frank. I posted a note with some personal experiences with this. I tagged you, I do hope you’ll take a moment to check it out. It’s not long. :)

    • Tess says

      I read your Note Sislisa – it was so good.
      Freedom to me means having the freedom to go wrong, and know God will never ever love you one iota less for doing so.
      It doesn’t take much brainpower to work out that if you do go wild with your freedom that there are consequences. Those consequences are their own punishment really. It is not God disowning you or punishing you. He is like the father of the two sons – he loves both sons equally.
      On the news this week in Australia there was a 15 year old boy who disappeared for 3 days. He was found and brought back to his parents. His father said he did not ask him any questions – he was just glad to see him and check he was OK. This is our father – everything he does is out of concern for us. Love gives and love serves, it does not demand.

  16. says

    Great post…can’t wait to read the book!

    I very much look forward to your blog about the “judging” paradox in the Bible. I’ve sought understanding on that subject for a very long time.

  17. Tori Cooper says

    I have found all of this true… I have seen both extremes. I grew up in a very religious home, legalism was part of normal life. I had a tendency towards passively being controlled by other legalists. I was warned against those “libertines” aka “liberals” or “backsliders”. As a teen I thought my duty was to be perfect and obey authority & the rules presented to me. I was determined to never become a “libertine”. So I pretty much was stuck. God had to slowly strip that from me and I had to learn “Lordship” through obedience. It was not an easy road and still I am learning. The balance takes time, especially when exposed to one extreme for so long (20 years for me).

    I know that wherever there is control and manipulation, there is bondage. However with Christ there is always freedom. True liberty gives us the strength to choose love and life. I can finally rest and not waste anymore energy “striving”… God is good!

    Thanks for the Post, Tori Cooper

  18. Jennifer says

    I needed to read this. I never thought of it or realized it but I’ve been living like a legalist and so have many of my friends. This has brought me to repentance. I’m going to buy the book today. It looks fascinating.

  19. Chris Lovie-Tyler says

    I can relate to what many people here have said. I’ve tended towards the legalistic side, and have found it incredibly hard to break that. In the end, the only answer is death. Death to legalism, and death to libertinism. Death to everything that isn’t Christ.

    After nearly 25 years of being a Christian, I think I’m just now starting to get that.

    And what a relief it is. In the same way it’s a relief for someone who has a terminal illness to finally die, it’s a relief to a sin-sick person to finally die and let Christ take over. He is the only life we’re meant to live.

    Thanks for the post Frank; I appreciate it. And I can see many others do too.

  20. says

    Frank, I see your point and I have a few questions, if you don’t mind. Honest, I’m not being disrespectful..

    First of all, do you think the word libertine is a good word to use? The apostle Paul said we have Liberty in Christ..I feel that word ‘libertine’ with the definition you use..seems to tarnish the word liberty when we should be embracing our liberty. He even says that spies come in, to spy out our liberty.

    I also wonder..those who think “Great! My sins are paid for I’ll go live it up in smut land” they do.. isn’t that like the Prodigal Son and when the father saw him afar off he RAN to him..not knowing if he was coming to make an apology or not..and simply embraced him and welcomed him home. Of course, living it up like he did wasn’t good for him nor his family, but he did have the freedom to do so. And does’t God always meet us when we hit bottom to lead us back?

    I see the point in discipleship..learning how to respect our liberty and not use it as an occasion to be disrespectful to this gift of grace, nor to cause harm to others in the process.

    Your point that neither view is compatible with the life of Christ, I agree. And I think it’s a matter of discipleship and growth in their faith. But I am hesitant on the term libertine..simply because it creates a false image for those who claim Soul Liberty. As you’s part of the name of my blog. Soul Liberty Faith. I embrace my liberty, but I’m no wild stallion bucking my Lord either. Is it possible there could be a better word to use?

    I look forward to reading the new book, by the way. :)

    • says

      Lisa: You may be right. License may be a better word. Theologians have traditionally used legalism and libertinism, so I kept the terms to speak to those who are familiar with them rather than invent new words. And yes on the other question. Genuine believers who are libertine in their theology and practice usually find out the hard way that the consequences of this outlook aren’t good at all. To them or to others. For instance, in the first century some in Corinth adopted this view. And some repented after Paul’s strong letter (one of them apparently did after being put out of the church). The same happens today. Good thoughts as always. We so need Jesus Christ daily and every moment.

  21. says

    But being a legalist feels so right, Frank. Surely God is more pleased with me when I am striving to do right according to what I think He wants me to do based on my understanding of the scripture. You know if it wasn’t for a huge wake up call by the Lord I would still think this way and admittedly I still struggle with traces of it on a daily basis. What has changed my thinking the most is seeing that it is by God’s doing that I am in Christ and by God’s doing Christ has become to me wisdom, redemption, sanctification, glorification, etc… Only the life of Christ in me can please the Father. Wow, what a deliverance, what a good news this has been. Christ has also become this to me through others and so I thank God for the fellowship of other believers who help me to remember who I am in Him since I forget this daily. Thanks for this post Frank. I am actually just getting ready to start this chapter in the book.

  22. says

    Many Christians believe they have the right to tell everyone else what to do, while the opposing Christians believe no one has a right to question anything they do.

    The life of Christ calls us to a third way – speaking the truth with love, in humility, realizing that we could easily go astray as well, and often do. The way of Christ is not about control (legalists) or selfishness (libertines), but truth and love together.

    This is a wonderful and enlightening post. May Christ form His way in me.

  23. James says

    I’m new to your blog. I’m 28 years old and have never read a book of yours. I’ve heard that all you talk about is church, so I wasn’t really interested. After reading your archives and looking at your books on your website, you only talk a little about the church and mostly about other things. This post was amazing and I’m going to buy your new book now. I’m glad I checked out your blog and your website. thanks!

    • says

      James: So happy to hear this, bro. You’re in good company. 20 and 30 somethings are the majority audience for this blog based on surveys. I blog about 7 different themes. As the archives show, only one of them deals with the church. thanks for bringing this point out. I love it when people’s stereotypes are blown to bits. 😉

  24. Ant Writes says

    I feel as if you wrote this post to me personally, even though you didn’t. I was a pastor in a legalist denomination. For example, I couldn’t drink…ever. I knew it was bondage, but it was the price you had to pay, ya know? I’ve never been Libertine (I don’t think!), but with God’s grace, I’ve learned to balance my own sense of legalism with freedom in Christ. Great post. This post and your book were sorely needed.

  25. says

    Amen. I”m afraid I have been both; surrounded by both types.

    I’m in this “inbetween” place of learning who Jesus really was/is, not what the legalists or libertines say He is. Learning what the church is and should be. It’s a difficult learning, but worth it: “One of the things I’ve learned in my spiritual journey is that the closer someone gets to Jesus Christ, the less judgmental, self-righteous, harsh-toward-others, and selfish he or she will be.” {love this and so true}

  26. says

    I grew up in a very legalistic environment. Thankfully, unlike many of my peers, I came out of it with my faith intact. Every once in a while I reconnect with someone from my past who has, like me, found the life of Lordship and Liberty. Sadly, most either forsaken the gospel entirely or they are passing on the legacy of legalism to their children. Legalism has divided even my own family.

    I think your most powerful statements in this post are…

    “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.”

    While God has freed me from legalism, there is a part of me that must be a libertine because, too often, I view those who are not experiencing the Christian life the way I am as legalists–especially those in my own family. But, over the last few years, that is changing as well.

    Thanks for your excellent post!

  27. says

    Thankfully, I have never fallen into libertinism but I have most certainly fallen to the legalist side of the horse. But as I draw more near to Christ and His Bride the less legalisitc I become.

    Good post, my friend. Good post.

  28. Robyn G. says

    born and raised in a legalistic atmosphere and though all were loving and not overtly or harshly judgemental of others, the elevating of ones self by living life according to the “Do Not” list skews the focus and sets one up as “self righteous.” Also made it difficult to leave the traditional “church.” Now learning the precarious walk of “freedom” without abusing grace :) You are correct, Frank, about staying close to Christ…HE IS the “horse.” the truth, in this analogy and hugging HIM closely will keep us right where we need to be

  29. says

    I’m really slammed for time right now, but the next book I purchase is going to be Revive Us Again. I really like the promo video as well. Keep up the good work.

  30. Shannon says

    This is the best article I’ve ever read on this subject. I’m buying the book now.

    oh, the video trailer is awesome too.

  31. says

    I heart this post. :)

    I don’t think a lot of Christians actually take a look at themselves to see if they are living on either side of this coin. It’s so easy to go either way.

  32. says

    I’m one of the guys that has fallen off both sides of the horse. Today I’m learning to ride and remain mindful that the old me is dead so it does me no good to flatter him or regulate him. I have been set free but my freedom is for one purpose: to be a slave to Christ.

    I’ve been blogging about how God has been putting my flesh to death. I am beginning to see just how vital and perpetual this cleansing is. May the Lord have His way in us until Christ is all in all.

    • says

      Me too.

      I’ve found a good, but incomplete moto is “Don’t be legalistic, but self-controlled…”

      And finishes with “…by setting your eyes on Christ the Prize.”

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