After I published my most recent post on my second blog two days ago titled, “Running the Race,” a friend of mine who regularly reads my posts liked it but said it tended to lean a bit too heavy on the side of legalism. I got to thinking about what he said as detecting legalism can be a very tricky business.
As fate would have it, this morning I received a weekly email I get from GotQuestions.org which contains their “Question of the Week,” and the question for this week is on legalism. The question asked is “What does the Bible say about legalism?” and their answer is as follows:
The word “legalism” does not occur in the Bible. It is a term Christians use to describe a doctrinal position emphasizing a system of rules and regulations for achieving both salvation and spiritual growth. Legalists believe in and demand a strict literal adherence to rules and regulations. Doctrinally, it is a position essentially opposed to grace. Those who hold a legalistic position often fail to see the real purpose for law, especially the purpose of the Old Testament law of Moses, which is to be our “schoolmaster” or “tutor” to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).
Even true believers can be legalistic. We are instructed, rather, to be gracious to one another: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Romans 14:1). Sadly, there are those who feel so strongly about non-essential doctrines that they will run others out of their fellowship, not even allowing the expression of another viewpoint. That, too, is legalism. Many legalistic believers today make the error of demanding unqualified adherence to their own biblical interpretations and even to their own traditions. For example, there are those who feel that to be spiritual one must simply avoid tobacco, alcoholic beverages, dancing, movies, etc. The truth is that avoiding these things is no guarantee of spirituality.
The apostle Paul warns us of legalism in Colossians 2:20-23: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Legalists may appear to be righteous and spiritual, but legalism ultimately fails to accomplish God’s purposes because it is an outward performance instead of an inward change.
To avoid falling into the trap of legalism, we can start by holding fast to the words of the apostle John, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17) and remembering to be gracious, especially to our brothers and sisters in Christ. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:10).
A word of caution is necessary here. While we need to be gracious to one another and tolerant of disagreement over disputable matters, we cannot accept heresy. We are exhorted to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). If we remember these guidelines and apply them in love and mercy, we will be safe from both legalism and heresy. “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). (Quote source here.)
A sentence that really stood out to me as I was reading the above description on legalism is this sentence:
Legalists may appear to be righteous and spiritual, but legalism ultimately fails to accomplish God’s purposes because it is an outward performance instead of an inward change.
Legalism is a touchy subject, and often we don’t recognize it when we are taking part in it. In a 30-minute sermon given on June 23, 2019, titled, “The Dangers of Legalism,” by Bill Bertsche, D.Min, Associate Elder and Executive Pastor at The Moody Church, he states:
Why is legalism so dangerous to our spiritual health? Legalism is believing that we can earn or keep favor with God by what we do. It flows from the failure to be humbled, broken, amazed, and satisfied by the grace of God in Christ. In this sermon, we learn about three dangers of legalism to avoid: a judgmental spirit, an insistence on man-made rules, and a marginalization of Christ as our supreme focus. (Quote source here and YouTube video of his sermon is available here.)
In an article published on June 16, 2019, titled, “3 Reasons Legalism is So Appealing,” by Ray Burns on his blog, “Onward in the Faith” (his article also includes a podcast at this link), he starts with defining legalism and then presents three reasons why legalism is so appealing. Reason #1 is “Legalism reflects our ideals”; reason #2 is “It feeds our pride”; and reason #3 is “It lets our actions replace our hearts.” Under item #3 he provides a list of “do’s and don’ts” that we can easily recognize:
Our motivations for legalism may differ, but the great danger of it is the same for all of us. If we break it down, legalism is little more than a series of boxes and checkmarks. We create an exhausting list of “do this, don’t do that,” and if we stick to that, we feel right before God.
- Don’t watch certain shows and movies
- Read your Bible
- Don’t use certain versions of the Bible
- Don’t use profanity
- Give money to the church
- Don’t work on Sunday
- Listen to Christian music
- Don’t wear jeans to church (or don’t wear a suit to church)
- Leave Bible tracts at a restaurant
- Don’t reveal too much skin
- Obey parents
- Don’t get a tattoo
- Go to church every week
- Don’t give money to liberal businesses
- Vote Republican
We assign a good deal of merit to these things, and as long as we satisfy them, we assume we’re right with God. Likewise, we tend to question the godliness of those who don’t, perhaps even doubting their very salvation.
But that shows us the greatest danger of legalism. If our primary focus is on what we do, there’s very little need to inspect our heart. We let our actions stand as our justification before God, heedless of the heart behind them. Yet Christ finds nothing but sorrow when we think that way. (Quote source and the rest of his article are available at this link.)
There is nothing wrong in doing those things listed above, but as the author states, if we think by doing them (or requiring others to do them as a sign of their own salvation) that these actions justify us before God, that is where the very real danger lies. Those actions (works) do not justify us before God. Ephesians 2:8-9 makes that point very clear:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
This brings us to the question regarding legalism versus grace. In answer to the question, “Law vs. grace—why is there so much conflict among Christians on the issue?” (legalism is an excessive adherence to law), GotQuestions.org explains the difference:
One side says, “Salvation is by grace and grace alone.” The other side counters, “That idea leads to lawlessness. God’s righteous standard in the Law must be upheld.” And someone else chimes in with, “Salvation is by grace, but grace only comes to those who obey God’s Law.” At the root of the debate are differing views on the basis of salvation. The importance of the issue helps fuel the intensity of the discussion.
When the Bible speaks of “the law,” it refers to the detailed standard God gave to Moses, beginning in Exodus 20 with the Ten Commandments. God’s Law explained His requirements for a holy people and included three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. The Law was given to separate God’s people from the evil nations around them and to define sin (Ezra 10:11; Romans 5:13; 7:7). The Law also clearly demonstrated that no human being could purify himself enough to please God—i.e., the Law revealed our need for a Savior.
By New Testament times, the religious leaders had hijacked the Law and added to it their own rules and traditions (Mark 7:7–9). While the Law itself was good, it was weak in that it lacked the power to change a sinful heart (Romans 8:3). Keeping the Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, had become an oppressive and overwhelming burden (Luke 11:46).
It was into this legalistic climate that Jesus came, and conflict with the hypocritical arbiters of the Law was inevitable. But Jesus, the Lawgiver, said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The Law was not evil. It served as a mirror to reveal the condition of a person’s heart (Romans 7:7). John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Jesus embodied the perfect balance between grace and the Law (John 1:14).
God has always been full of grace (Psalm 116:5; Joel 2:13), and people have always been saved by faith in God (Genesis 15:6). God did not change between the Old and New Testaments (Numbers 23:19; Psalm 55:19). The same God who gave the Law also gave Jesus (John 3:16). His grace was demonstrated through the Law by providing the sacrificial system to cover sin. Jesus was born “under the law” (Galatians 4:4) and became the final sacrifice to bring the Law to fulfillment and establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20). Now, everyone who comes to God through Christ is declared righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 9:15).
The conflict between Jesus and the self-righteous arose immediately. Many who had lived for so long under the Pharisees’ oppressive system eagerly embraced the mercy of Christ and the freedom He offered (Mark 2:15). Some, however, saw this new demonstration of grace as dangerous: what would keep a person from casting off all moral restraint? Paul dealt with this issue in Romans 6: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (verses 1—2). Paul clarified what Jesus had taught: the Law shows us what God wants (holiness), and grace gives us the desire and power to be holy. Rather than trust in the Law to save us, we trust in Christ. We are freed from the Law’s bondage by His once-for-all sacrifice (Romans 7:6; 1 Peter 3:18).
There is no conflict between grace and the Law, properly understood. Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf and offers the power of the Holy Spirit, who motivates a regenerated heart to live in obedience to Him (Matthew 3:8; Acts 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:14). James 2:26 says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” A grace that has the power to save also has the power to motivate a sinful heart toward godliness. Where there is no impulse to be godly, there is no saving faith.
We are saved by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). The keeping of the Law cannot save anyone (Romans 3:20; Titus 3:5). In fact, those who claim righteousness on the basis of their keeping of the Law only think they’re keeping the Law; this was one of Jesus’ main points in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20–48; see also Luke 18:18–23).
The purpose of the Law was, basically, to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Once we are saved, God desires to glorify Himself through our good works (Matthew 5:16; Ephesians 2:10). Therefore, good works follow salvation; they do not precede it.
Conflict between “grace” and the “Law” can arise when someone (1) misunderstands the purpose of the Law; (2) redefines grace as something other than “God’s benevolence on the undeserving” (see Romans 11:6); (3) tries to earn his own salvation or “supplement” Christ’s sacrifice; (4) follows the error of the Pharisees in tacking manmade rituals and traditions onto his doctrine; or (5) fails to focus on the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
When the Holy Spirit guides our search of Scripture, we can “study to show ourselves approved unto God” (2 Timothy 2:15) and discover the beauty of a grace that produces good works. (Quote source here.) For more information on grace, click here and here.)
I’ll end this post with the chorus from the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” composed by John Newton and published in 1779: Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost…
But now I’m found . . .
Was blind . . .
But now I see . . . .
YouTube Video: “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” by Chris Tomlin:
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