Legalism, What Exactly Is It?


     The term "legalism" almost always carries with it a bad connotation. This is true to the point of having persuaded many that matters "legal" are antagonistic to Christianity. Hence, many have an automatic aversion for matters of law and authority in the realm of Christianity. I think we shall find in our study, though, that under the general heading of "law," there is a large spectrum, having what I term legalism at one extreme end (the whole essence of man simply involved in law keeping) and antinomianism at the other end of the spectrum (those against law, period). The term legalist is often a synonym for Pharisee; hence, legalism and Phariseeism (see addendum). Since legalism and legalist are not in the vocabulary of the scriptures, as such, we will have to look to the English Dictionaries for help. I shall share with you the various common shades of meaning for legalism and then attempt to make scriptural application. Before we begin our study, though, I want us to establish that the New Testament is not anti law. Consider Jesus' teaching relative to the coming Judgment Day and why many, even religious people, will evidently be lost:

     "21: Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22: Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23: And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. 24: Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: 25: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. 26: And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: 27: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it" (Matt 7: 21-27).

     Notwithstanding the religious deeds of these considered people, Jesus said he will tell them to depart, those who worked "iniquity" (vs. 23). The Greek word for iniquity is anomia. Anomia means lawlessness or against law (a, negative, and nomos, law). These people, while religious, will have practiced antinomianism (what they did religiously, they did because it was simply something they wanted, while they rejected Jesus' teaching and authority in general (see Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine, pg. 260). Jesus' illustration in verses 24-27 exemplify the rejection of law and commandments. Jesus also presents himself as authoritative and his words as the expression of this regal authority (cp. Matt. 28: 18, Acts 3: 22, 23).

     Legalism, definition number one: "Strict adherence to law, especially to the letter rather than the spirit" (The Random House College Dictionary, pg. 765). An example of this negative definition of legalism is perhaps seen in the case of the Pharisees (Jn. 8: 3 ff.). The scriptures do not teach robotic conformity to God's law. Love is seen as the essential motivation for obeying God's commandments. Hear John, "And this is love, that we walk after his commandments…" (2 Jn. 6). Again, "For this is the love of God that we keep his commandments…" (I Jn. 5: 3). Rigid and mechanical obedience to the letter of the law, such obedience being cold and empty will not suffice or avail (cp. Gal. 5: 6). Hence, this legalism is wrong. In this vein, one might assemble as required, but simply do so without worshipping in spirit (Heb. 10: 25, cp. Jn. 4: 24).

     Legalism, definition number two: "2 Theology. B. The judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws" (Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, pg. 818). I am not sure how to view this definition or nuance. God's authority, law, commandments, and obedience thereto are requisite to man's salvation and, also, to how man views others. Paul knew that Peter had sinned, by using the gospel as the standard (Gal 2: 11-14, see particularly verse 11 and 14). The Pharisees placed much emphasis on obeying commandments, at least ostensibly. However, when it came to obeying them themselves, they often failed (Matt. 23: 2-4). Moreover, those who walk disorderly (not obeying commandments) are to be withdrawn from by God's people (2 Thes. 3: 6). Therefore, definition number two is not necessarily bad, according to the scriptures.

     Legalism, definition number three: "2 Theology. The doctrine that salvation is gained through good works (Random House College Dictionary, pg. 765). The scriptures irrefutably teach that man participates in his salvation by humbly accepting God's saving grace. Man does this "through faith" (Eph. 2: 8-10). Saving faith is always presented as active and obeying God's commands (Jas. 2: 14-26). Man is told, "save yourselves" and it is said of Jesus, "the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him" (Acts 2: 40; Heb. 5: 8, 9). However, the scriptures are equally plain in denying even the possibility that man can earn or merit salvation through his good works (Tit. 3: 5; Lk. 17: 10). Hence, all that advocate earned salvation are advocating legalism, in this bad sense of the word.

     Legalism, definition number four: "2. The doctrine of salvation by works, as distinguished from that by grace" (New Illustrated Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, pg. 559). Nuance three and four are very similar. However definition number four does not even allow the contribution of grace in man's salvation. This meaning of legalism has man alone saving himself and rising to such an intrinsic level that he can demand his salvation. This is precisely the very attitude that is denounced in Romans 4: 1-7. In Romans 11: 6, Paul succinctly shows that salvation is not the matter of a combination of perfect works that can demand salvation and God's grace. Paul is showing that if man could thus sublimate his energies, he would not need grace (see Eph. 2: 8-10).

     Legalism, definition number five: "1. Close adherence to law; strict conformity to law" (New Illustrated Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, pg. 559). While the Christian does not believe he has earned salvation, he does pay strict attention to God's law and commandments (Lk. 17: 10; Gal. 6: 2, Jas. 1: 22-25, 2: 1-13). It should be known and appreciated that Jesus never condemned or dissuaded close attention to law, even minute laws. Jesus taught adherence to all of God's laws:

     "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matt. 23: 23).

     In closing, I would suggest, based on the foregoing, that the term "legalism" can have both bad and good nuances. Simply considering the letter of the law, believing and teaching that salvation is a result of man's good works, or that man is saved without grace constitute legalism in the terrible sense of the term. Nonetheless, believing and teaching that the Christian must comply with God's laws out of love for God is not sinful but good and required. To simplistically say that all who stress conformity to law are legalists and, therefore, bad, is to sinfully indict the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (I Sam. 15 22, 23; Matt. 7: 21-27; I Jn. 5: 3). I shall close by quoting the inspired apostle John, "And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word; in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him" (I Jn. 2: 3-5).

     Addendum: The Pharisees were a prominent "sect" of the Jews. There were numerous classes, some closer to the true law of Moses, others extremely distant. The name Pharisee basically means separatists. Most of the Pharisees were enemies of Christ and the apostles (Matt. 21: 33-46; Lk. 12: 1).

     The problem with the Pharisees was in their preoccupation with the minute, they had forgotten the "weightier matters of the law." Jesus said, "...these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (Matt. 23: 23)." The Pharisees said, but they often did not do (Matt. 23: 3). They did works to be seen of men (Matt. 23: 5). They loved attention and religious titles (Matt. 23: 6-9). The Pharisees were often more concerned about keeping their own traditions than God's law. Hear Jesus, "Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition" (Mk. 7: 9). They made void God's commandments and rendered their worship vain (Mk. 7: 7, 13)

     Jesus had many severe confrontations with the Pharisees. On one occasion Jesus said, "let them alone, they be blind leaders of the blind..." (Matt. 15: 14). Be it known, however, that Jesus never rebuked any for sincerely keeping His commandments or for teaching God's law, in its purity, but he often rebuked the Pharisees for trusting in themselves and for their lofty views of themselves (Lk. 18: 9 ff.) Jesus never discouraged good works, but rather endorsed such (Matt. 23: 1-3). Notwithstanding, the motives of the Pharisees were wrong (Lk. 12: 1).