Legalism: The Trap of Rigorism

This post is a continuation of our series on the Call to Obedience.  In previous posts, I have addressed the heresy of “cheap grace,” and began discussing the opposing heresy of legalism, starting with the trap of “brinksmanship.”

While brinksmanship is the foolishness of trying to define specific boundaries of sin’s cliff and then standing at its edge, rigorism creates fences to avoid the danger of ever approaching that edge.  And while those fences sound and indeed at times may be prudent, rigorism is simply another side of the brinksmanship coin.  Both are beliefs that we can achieve holiness by defining the stone-chiseled letter rather than the heart-inscribed word.

But where brinksmanship trusts in human wisdom to be able to skirt the boundaries of those letters, rigorism trusts in human strength to abide by them.  It is in its essence the heresy of works-based salvation, and if brinksmanship is the absurd notion that we can stand with safety at the cliff’s edge, rigorism is the equally absurd belief that, having fallen off that cliff, we are able to flap our arms hard enough to avoid the consequences.

Having fallen into the pit of sin and confronting its implications, we respond by trying to work our way out of it.  Rigorism is a twisted theology in which we convince ourselves that we are able to earn grace.  It is, at its heart, a reduction of the blessings of saving faith into animist or transactional religiosity – the belief that we are able to direct the divine by our own actions.

By idolizing our human power, we dismiss Jesus’ crucifixion as unnecessary, because we assert our own ability to earn salvation rather than trust in the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice to pay its price.  That may sound hyperbolic, but I don’t mean it to be.  If we were somehow able to work our way out of the chasm of sin’s consequences, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection would be unnecessary.

If brinksmanship is blaspheming God’s wisdom, rigorism is blaspheming God’s power.  We are saying we are confident in our sufficiency to overcome sin and thus have no need of God’s grace, but God’s Word says otherwise:

For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
– Ephesians 2:8,9

We must pray for those (including ourselves) who are caught in this trap of rigorism to be released from the striving for works-based salvation.  Yet those blessed to be so freed must be careful not to run from the jaws of this deadly trap into those of another – hopelessness – which I will discuss in the next post.

What do you think so far?  Do you agree or disagree with my claim that rigorism is blasphemy?  What are the common “baits” you have seen for the traps of brinksmanship or rigorism?  Please join in the discussion!

10 thoughts on “Legalism: The Trap of Rigorism

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  1. One of the baits I have seen with this rhetoric are that we, as sinful humans, can attain “purity” through obtaining from sexual activity and shutting down any attraction to another person. What this fails to recognize is two-fold.

    The first problem is attraction to someone is not inherently sinful, and is in fact a gift from God. With it, we can choice a genetically compatible spouse so that our children are healthy.

    The second issue is that we cannot be “pure”, everything we do is tainted with sin, whether it be in thought, word, or deed. Christ is the only thing that makes us pure, not our actions or ability to adhere to God’s law or man-made law.

    You’ve identified the issues with legalism with striking clarity, did you grow up in a legalism?


    1. Thank you for your comments, Rebecca. I think all of us grow up in some sort of legalism – even those who might espouse a “liberation” mindset.

      True freedom, I believe, is often a question of which master we choose to serve.

      Edit: Re-reading this, I found my reply to be a bit smug, which though unintended certainly wasn’t nice.

      So, to answer your question, I don’t think I grew up in an environment that would make most people think it extraordinarily legalistic, though certainly not excessively permissive either.

      But yes, I have gone through phases in which I attach special emphasis on complying with my interpretation of laws (scriptural or otherwise) instead of practicing true obedience. I still do that, but praise to God for how he shows me those errors – when I am willing to seek his guidance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. By the way, I took some time to review your blog and couldn’t find a way to post a comment there (my tech ineptness I am sure) so decided to respond here.
        First, congrats on your book. Second, my reading this morning included Colossians 2:20-23, which I imagine you have already found particularly applicable to your book’s subject, as well as the topic of legalism itself.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Aww, thank you, it should be coming out on the 31st or the 1st! 🙂 Which website did you visit? I don’t think we’ve enabled comments for yet but if it was a different website I will look into fixing he comments.

        I will read that today, I don’t think I included it in the manuscript but I love reading biblical passages pertaining to legalism.


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