Legalism vs. Temperance

I have found that there are some important topics that nobody wants to talk about. I went to all my regular websites and found an entire category suspiciously missing. It goes by several names – temperance, moderation, abstinence, self-control, balance …

Part of my problem, I think, is that a couple of those terms have taken on very specific meanings even though they can be applied in lots of different situations.

Temperance, for example, has come to be used almost exclusively in relation to alcoholic beverages. Actually it means not going overboard with anything.

Abstinence seems to be used only when discussions involve premarital sex, rather than abstaining from any number of things that could be harmful.

When some talks about finding balance in their life, it seems to be most often used in the context of some new New Age practice, although having a balanced life is important for all of us.

All of these words have gradually taken on almost negative meanings because they deal with denying ourselves – which leads to my next issue.

These words have gotten kind of wrapped up in a perception of legalism. Why is that, do you think? Let’s take a minute and talk about what legalism is.

“le•gal•ism – noun 1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit. 2. Theology. a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.”1

Well, no real surprises there, I guess. Something that did surprise me though, was that there is no synonym for the word legalism. Did you know that? Also surprising is that it was coined as a word in the 1830’s or 40’s. Why, that is right in the midst of the Temperance Movement here in the United States. Go figure.

The thing is, legalism isn’t about behaviors, it’s about motives. So, temperance, moderate living, abstinence, finding balance and so on, are not legalism in and of themselves.

We can’t tell by looking. We’d have to know a person’s motives, and only God can do that.

“Many acts which pass for good works, even deeds of benevolence, will, when closely investigated, be found to be prompted by wrong motives. Many receive applause for virtues which they do not possess. The Searcher of hearts inspects motives, and often the deeds which are highly applauded by men are recorded by Him as springing from selfish motives and base hypocrisy. Every act of our lives, whether excellent and praiseworthy or deserving of censure, is judged by the Searcher of hearts according to the motives which prompted it.” (E.G. White, -Mind, Character and Personality, p. 348)

Do you think it’s possible to live an honorable, temperate Christian life for the right reasons? Or is everyone who tries a legalist? I guess we could have a long discussion about how to make sure you have the right motives, but then we’d kind of be making ‘not being legalistic’ into legalism. Ouch!

We’d also be focusing on the completely wrong thing. As long as we focus on what we’re doing and not doing, and how we’re feeling about what we’re doing and not doing, we’re not looking at Jesus.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33

Before we worry about anything else, we have to get our focus on Jesus. Whatever we do or don’t do before that is actually legalism. Anything before giving our lives to Jesus is worthless. It is impossible to live a truly healthy, balanced life without Jesus.

As it turns out, the one area of our lives in which we don’t have to be temperate, balanced, or abstemious is in our relationship with Jesus. We can throw ourselves completely and totally into that relationship – holding back nothing – and Jesus promises to direct our paths and make sure we will want for nothing. Mary did that. She forgot everything else when Jesus was around and just sat at His feet to learn from Him. And Jesus said that she had chosen the good part which would not be taken away from her.

Peter tells us how it actually works.

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:3-8

Whatever we call it – temperance, virtue, moderation, balance – it is worthless in any other context but one that centers on Jesus Christ. In fact,

“If you can start the day without caffeine; if you can get going without pep pills; if you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains; if you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles; if you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for

Image © John Baker from

it; if you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time; if you can overlook it when those you love take it out on you when through no fault of yours something goes wrong; if you can take criticism and blame without resentment; if you can ignore a friend’s limited education and never correct him; if you can resist treating a rich friend better than a poor friend; if you can face the world without lies and deceit; if you can conquer tension without medical help; if you can relax without liquor; if you can sleep without the aid of drugs; if you can say honestly that deep in your heart you have no prejudice against creed, color, religion, or politics; then, my friend, you are almost as good as your dog.”2

So, is a dog legalistic? Or does a dog love his master so much that he lives to please him?

Do we love our Master so much that we live to please Him?

Temperance, obedience, whatever we name it, is not our ticket to heaven. It is a demonstration to the people around us that Jesus is in complete control of our lives and an illustration of what He will do for them if they invite Him in.

Will you invite Jesus to be the center of your universe?

I will.

  1. Unabridged. Retrieved May 21, 2010, from website:
  2. Reprinted from “Mikey’s Funnies,” a daily e-mail humor list (6-26-02); submitted by Mike Herman, Glen Ellyn, Illinois


Legalism vs. Temperance — 5 Comments

  1. You mentioned about premarital sex. That's a big one nowadays (even in a church.) Speaking of calling sin by its name, when did we coin this term, "premarital sex" instead of the biblical term for it, which is fornication? If you go to and you type fornication, it defines it clearly as, "sexual intercourse between two unmarried persons." In Galatians 5:19-21, the so-called "premarital sex" or the right term of "fornication" is categorized under the same sins as witchcraft, hatred, drunkenness, jealousy, and even murder and says men and women who practice it “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

    This generation shouldn’t wonder why God is not blessing us nor our relationships nor our marriages for that matter -since we’re consummating our relationships before marriage. I understand it’s not easy when the enemy is constantly bombarding us with sexually-charged images in the media. I rather avoid media and make it to heaven than go to hell while getting entertained by the media (Matthew 5:30.)

  2. In the text quoted from 2 Peter 1:3-8, we see the order given to the experience of those who will partake of the Divine Nature. It begins with faith, and there at the 4th "step" is Temperance. This self-control is the result of faith, virtue and knowledge...and nothing that follows it can be achieved without it. Without this moderation that comes from faith, there can be no patience, Godliness, brotherly kindness or Charity, which seems to be the goal of this whole experience. (I like "charity" over "love" because love can be shown in many ways for many reasons, and usually because of a perceived benefit to the one who loves, where charity is appropriate at all times, in all places and with all people. Charity is simply responding to a need it can fill. There is no other requirement to show charity. You can demonstrate charity to someone you don't even like, much less "love".)

    Temperance is often the road-block for most who fail to show patience, Godliness, brotherly kindness and Charity towards their fellow man.

    True temperance can't be legalism because it can only come by faith and will lead to the experience that follows it, and the love(Charity) that results is self-sacrificing, which no one could rightly call legalism.

    • Thank you Robert. You've put the entire thought into context by reminding us that temperance is a step on the way to all of those better things that God has promised us if we do His will.
      Thank you for reading and sharing your wise perspective.

  3. I like "dog story". That is very deep and provocative. That explains a lot of why is free will so important to God.

  4. Such a good article on an important topic! So true that it is not so much about doing or not doing as loving or not loving. Anything that God asks us not to do is for our own good! He also gives us all the power we need to resist our selfish appetites. Meanwhile when we focus on Him and His love, we are changed to be like Him. Our every motive comes from that focus of Love, and our actions start reflecting that heart connection with God!


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