12 min
By: Anshe De Vera

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Legalism and Licentiousness

Discipleship can be messy and sometimes, we find ourselves going to the extreme of either trying to control behavior or giving up on correction. How do we avoid these extremes?

I always say this to the people I am leading: “Discipling someone can be really messy.”

I mean, we’ve experienced being discipled by someone and we know that it isn’t easy trying to walk with someone. You will get to know some of the darkest and deepest wounds of a person. It takes time to keep walking with someone despite how many times they fall. It takes patience and humility—constantly tapping into the power of the Holy Spirit to discern what God is doing in that person.

But a lot of us, I included, fall into the trap of taking a shortcut: behavior modification. If you’re like me, you will constantly have a picture in your mind of what a disciple should look like, should be doing, or should be saying. It may or may not be intentional. We can easily call out the actions of a person and dictate what they should do. Hey, that’s easier than digging up the reasons for their actions, right?

Or maybe we fall into the other extreme: humanistic perspective approach. It is when we emphasize so much on empathy and the good in human behavior. It focuses on the individual person and their individual needs and wants. While it sounds good, it can be dangerous when the person cannot see the consequences of their action and its effect on the people around them. 

Apostle Paul reminded the church of Galatia with this:

Brothers and sisters, someone in your group might do something wrong. You who are following the Spirit should go to the one who is sinning. Help make that person right again, and do it in a gentle way. But be careful, because you might be tempted to sin too.
Galatians 6:1 (ERV)

Transformation doesn’t happen overnight.

It doesn’t happen right after a person receives Jesus. We can expect that person to still make a mistake and stumble and fall at some point in their walk with God—like we all have. Our goal is to restore, not to condemn. And, as apostle Paul said, in a gentle way. Yet, there is also a warning to be careful, lest we be tempted to sin as well. What did Paul mean by this exactly?

Behavior modification and the humanistic perspective approach are commonly known as legalism and licentiousness, respectively. How do we know when we are subscribing to either?


“Legalism” refers to putting the law above the gospel, the direct or indirect attachment of behaviors, disciplines, and practices to the belief in order to achieve salvation and right standing before God. Simply, it means self-righteousness.

The law is important. If not for the law, we wouldn’t know if we are sinning or not. But it’s not what brings salvation or transformation.

Out of concern, we usually tell people we are discipling what not to do in order to not sin and dishonor God. But over time, it may sound imposing and will look like a list of policies if we are not careful to explain the biblical principles of our actions.

How many of us have told a student that it is always more important to attend a church activity rather than to serve in their student government body?

How many of us have told someone to break up with their significant other who is not a Christian?

How many of us have discipled a person who identifies with the LGBT community and the first thing we say to them is that they need to act according to their true sexuality?

How many of us have used these lines: “bawal yan,” or “hindi yan pwedeng gawin”?

I am also guilty of these things. As I mentioned, it is easier to mold a person according to the standard of what we imagine a follower of Jesus should be. But I remember one of my leaders telling me, “That is sloppy discipleship.”

Even in a biblical account, Peter was rebuked by Paul when he wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore because he was afraid of the criticism of those who insisted on the necessity of circumcision, forcing the gentiles to live like Jews (Galatians 2:11–14).

These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.
Colossians 2:23 (NLT)

We lead people to God’s grace, not a set of rules.

We receive grace even when we fall short and when we keep stumbling, and that is why we can love people as much as we have been loved and forgiven. God’s benevolence and the unmerited favor that He gives lead us to repentance (Romans 2:14). Our transformation happens on the premise of a loving relationship with Him, not on any formula. Being on the same ground of grace, we bear each other’s burden and journey together in following Jesus. It is freely chosen love, not forced demand, that transforms hearts.


Licentiousness implies excessive, transgressive, and unrestrained freedom. It doesn’t uphold the law, but intentionally violates it. It tolerates sin.

The Bible is very clear that God is compassionate, but at the same time He is a just God. He loves and accepts us, but hates sin and does not tolerate it.

“It’s okay to not be okay.”

This is the title of one of the most watched Korean dramas right now. But this has been a prevalent worldview of many Christians. There is some biblical truth in that, but it is not the entire truth.

“It’s okay to not be okay, but we are not to stay like this forever.”

Many people quote this verse: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Apostle Paul knew that this can be taken out of context to the extreme, that is why he added: “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?” (Romans 6:1,2, NLT)

How many of us have shown too much empathy to a person who fell into sin that it just gave comfort but did not lead to repentance?

How many of us have justified our actions because society says “it’s okay,” “it’s normal,” “you’re just being yourself”? 

Loving someone does not mean we are giving license to sin and dishonor God. Jesus Christ, when an adulterer was brought to Him by Pharisees for judgment, did not condemn her but told her:

“Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.
John 8:10,11 (NLT)

Jesus Christ did not condemn the adulterous woman, but neither did He deny that she committed sin. He exhorted her to sin no more on the premise that forgiveness and grace has released sin’s grip on her. It is not God who accuses or condemns people. This is the work of the enemy. God, in His loving kindness, does not condemn us but helps us overcome our sin and weaknesses. He has given us the Holy Spirit and His grace to say no to sin and live in righteousness.

We deal with sin with the truth of God’s word.

Yes, giving empathy and being gracious is very important in leading people to Christ. But our role as followers of Jesus is to guide our fellow believers to what the word of God is saying, not to promote positive thinking just to make them feel good. We do not water down the effect of sin, but we help people to overcome it through prayer and accountability, because open rebuke is better than hidden love.

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
John 1:16,17

Both legalism and licentiousness result in superficial transformation and a shallow understanding of the gospel. But when we truly disciple others and lead them into the grace of God and the truth of His word, this will bear fruit in lasting change not just in a person’s life, but potentially, to one’s surroundings, too.

About the author
Anshe De Vera

Anshe is a full-time campus missionary in Every Nation Campus Fort. She has received the call to full-time ministry when she was in college. She’s been helping young women in their walk with God, especially in leadership, and loving it ever since. She doesn’t drink coffee but a lover of tea and anything sweet.

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