Frequently Asked Questions About Christianity, Answered Honestly!
What is Legalism?
Works of Law or exhortation to Obedience
-by Tony Warren
hen the question is asked, "what is the Biblical definition of legalism, and what constitutes a legalist," the answers one gets can be as varied and as diverse as the colors of the rainbow. It is a testament to the sad state of affairs in the Church that most professing Christians today would look upon any exhorting of obedience to God's laws, or witness to His judgments as a form of legalism. So what is Legalism? Many see it as preaching any of God's laws that doesn't agree with their point of view.
Legalism is what one calls any system which has them observe laws which they don't agree with, and a legalist is anyone who stands theologically to the right of where you stand.
This saying probably hits a lot closer to the mark in describing what many Christians believe than we'd like to admit. So what is legalism really? Simply put, legalism is any belief system that supports the contention that man's salvation is in some way connected to his own works, in accordance with law. Salvation either through maintaining good conduct, or else by some other meritorious action. Those who believe that man can get into the Kingdom of heaven by a strict adherence to the law of God, or who believe that we are toiling in this world to become worthy before Him, are "legalists." Whether these people believe that we must meet certain conditions (as baptism or Church membership), or that we must maintain a strict adherence to laws in order to keep from losing Salvation, these are all examples of legalists. In one way or another they believe that salvation in some way depends upon man's obedience to the law (thus the term, legalist). In holding such doctrines that are contrary to God's divine word, they become an adversary to the gospel truth of salvation by the faith of Christ (Grace) alone. For God not only makes it abundantly clear how we are justified in His sight, but also how we can never be justified.
There is no possibility of man standing "justified" before God, by keeping the law. The reason is because no man can keep the "whole" law perfectly, and that is what would be required for anyone to be justified by it.
- "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified."
Thus the very system that the legalist puts himself under, is that which rises up to condemn him. In other words, even if he could of himself keep "most" of the laws of God, and then would have even one sinful thought (transgression of the law), he would be guilty of breaking that law, and thus come under wrath of God. In offending in just one little point he would stand guilty of all. For God has declared that "the wages of sin is death -Romans 6:23." Man can never be justified or be looked upon as deserving before God by keeping the law. And anyone who believes that he can get right with God by his own strict obedience to the law of God, is by definition a legalist.
- "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all."
So why do legalists believe that they have support for their contentions? The answer is simple. They read passages like 2nd Corinthians chapter 3, where God says that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life," and they illogically presume from this that it's saying we shouldn't obey the letter of the law, or that we can't obey the law. But quite obviously God is not teaching us that obeying His laws kills us, nor is He saying that we can be obedient to the letter of the law (which would be blasphemy). God is telling us that "Salvation by trying to keep the law" is futile, and will only bring the judgment of death for failing to keep it faithfully. While "Salvation by the precious faith with us through the righteousness of Christ" is efficacious (2nd Peter 1:1), and the only way we can receive everlasting life. If we depend upon keeping the law (our own righteousness), our failure will condemn us to death, but a dependence upon Christ (and thus His Righteousness), will bring everlasting life.
We can never gain righteousness before God by attempting to merit it by keeping the law. Only by Christ, by whom also we have access by faith into this grace, is there meritorious works to be rewarded. And that not of ourselves, it is a by-product of the Spirit working within us. So we must be careful to understand that when God says that we are dead to the law, He does not mean that we no longer have to obey God's laws. Rather, God is declaring that 'when' we are not obedient (which is inevitable in the flesh), the law does not condemn us for those transgressions.
- "And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:"
By His death and resurrection Christ became the propitiation for our sins. By this we are not under law in that with His death, the wages for our breaking the law has been satisfied. Nevertheless, we also now live by the law because having been risen from spiritual death in Him has given us a new heart that we have an earnest desire to keep it. If we do not have this earnest desire to obedience, or if we look upon God's Grace as "carte blanche" to sin without conscience (as many do), then we are deceiving ourselves, and there is really no evidence of true salvation.
- "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."
If we confuse our own works of the law with Grace, the necessary distinction is blurred and we lose sight of what God meant when He said, "those who are justified by the law, have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4)." This is legalism and a departure from the doctrines of Grace. By the same token, if we separate ourselves from obedience to the law so that it becomes "set against" Grace, then there is an abandonment of real responsibility (Antinomianism), and we will see evidence in our lives of reprobation. So while we need to be careful not to label the "belief in obedience," legalism, we must also be careful that we do not make Grace an excuse or covering for our disobedience to the law.
The sad reality of modernism is that more and more Churches are using the word "legalism" pejoratively so that keeping God's commandments is almost seen as a bad thing. That is to say, they are misusing the word so that it might come up in a conversation condemning anything from preaching against homosexuality to preaching against women Pastors. In fact it has become increasingly popular among Ministers and Parishioners alike to accuse Christians of being legalistic whenever they bear witness to anything that the Lord has forbidden. Typically they will abrogate or made void any testimony against immorality, impropriety, or illegality, by labeling them examples of legalism. Likewise, those who faithfully witness that we should remain obedient, are called Pharisaic. And both these terms are usually used by those who don't really understand what either of them really mean. Many of these have fallen so far from the faith of our fathers that they no longer recognize the difference between legalism, and the righteous exhorting the Church to adhere to God's laws.
It seems that the exhortation to steadfastness in God's precepts, and the warnings against excess or the deceitfulness of sin is looked upon today as some sort of hypocritical judgment. And because many have been so sheltered away from sound historical Christianity, they often become jaded or confused when they hear faithful believers preach the examination of self for adherence to holiness and godly living. These orthodox Christians are falsely labeled legalists when they are doing nothing more than striving to be Godly, as our Lord has commanded them to do.
- "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.
- But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.
- For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end;"
Exhorting to strive to follow God's laws and remain on the straight and narrow path is not legalism, but historical Christianity. It is a good and charitable thing for faithful people to declare that the wide and popular gate is the way of transgression, not hypocrisy that anyone should condemn. The fact that so many won't endure sound doctrine today, and label it legalism that they may be justified is not unexpected. Yet we are to continue to rebuke, reprove and exhort patiently.
- "Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them,
- Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able."
2nd Timothy 4:1-4
They turn away their ears because they don't like to hear the truth because 'truth inspires change.' Allow me to demonstrate by practical example this misuse of this word. Some Church leaders have said that our manner of dress is strictly a matter of personal preference, and fits into the category of "Christian Liberty." They claim any teaching that establishes a dress code is therefore unbiblical, and an exercise in legalism. But it doesn't take much honest reasoning to understand that if we were to follow these false and unbiblical presuppositions, Christians could wear their underwear to Church. Or women could wear six inch skirts and (according to the logic of these theologians) they would still be perfectly within their (so-called) right of Christian Liberty. But this is nothing less than the spirit of disobedience at work as he was in the garden of Eden saying, "hath God said?" For there is no such Christian liberty, and the faithful Church that speaks out against such immodest dress would not be practicing a form of legalism, but obedience in the righteousness of Christ.
- "I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;
- Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
- For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
- And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables."
1st Timothy 2:9-10
God's "laws" are just tossed out the window in favor of modernism and the new age Christian philosophies of nullification, with no more than the word "legalism." Nevertheless, dress is not a matter of personal preference, for without such universal Biblical laws against such violations (1st Timothy 2:9, 1st Peter 3:3) concerning dress, we have wanton rebellion against God. We don't have Christian liberty or righteous freedom when we ignore God's laws, what we have is a return to the bondage of the world. And it is by the Holy Spirit of wisdom that we understand that our adhering to these laws of God is not a form of legalism, but sound Biblical Christianity. While obedience to the law is not what brings about salvation, obedience to the law is an "evidence" that we truly have become saved. It is the tangible proof that we trust and truly know Christ, and are not merely lying to ourselves.
- "In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
- But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works."
1st John 2:3-5
In other words, this is the 'true' evidence that we really know Christ and are truly saved. By this evidence we can know we have an actual personal relationship with Him, where our desire is to do His will and be obedient in His service. Understanding this most basic of truths, we will not call those who seek to faithfully keep His commandments, legalists. God says these who are obedient to his commandments (law) are those who have this evidence of truly knowing Him. By contrast, to those who disobey His commandments, labeling the strict obedience to His law legalism, He has other things to say about them:
- "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."
2nd Thessalonians 1:7-8
Those who do not know God, and who do not obey His laws, are the complete opposites of those who are truly "His people." Like those who call obedience to the law legalism, and who label disobedience their "Christian liberty," these will have a rude awakening when they stand before God on judgment day. For they do not abide in His laws nor walk in the light of Christ, as those who know God.
- "And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,
- In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ."
It is troubling to our soul to see professing Christians today fighting so hard against those who come testifying to the biblical precepts that clearly address their lusts, works, actions, code of conduct, and Christian values. Has the Church lost the ability to distinguish between someone bearing witness to God's word, and someone merely stating their opinions or personal preferences? The testimony of scripture is not personal opinion, rather it is the witness of things that are ordered by God. And the wanton transgression of those laws of God by professing Christians, under the guise of a word like "legalism," is not their faith in Grace. Rather, it is in fact an evidence that they have no faith, and do not truly understand Grace. It places man at enmity with God where he doesn't really know Him. The true believer doesn't think that Grace is an excuse to 'get around' God's laws. God forbid! He exhorts and tends to keep the law precisely because he is under Grace of God. Transgression of God's law vexes his soul, because God dwells within him.
- "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."
Living in transgression of God's laws because we know Grace abounds (is in abundance to cover all sins) is not the fruit of Grace, but an evidence that we do not know Christ, and thus are not under His Grace. The true child of God is born from above a 'new creation' in Christ, and can no longer live unrepentant in sin. Nor will he be predisposed to using colloquialisms like 'legalism' or 'Christian liberty' as a hiding place for his transgressions. For seeking Holiness and desiring that the assembly keep God's law, is not legalism, but a spiritual translation into the kingdom of righteousness.
- "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
- God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?"
1st Peter 1:14-16
So legalism is certainly not exhorting to Obedience to God's law. This is not something for the Church to condemn, and believers seeking to do what is lawful cannot be construed as attempting to gain salvation by the works of the law. These things are not acts of legalism. Rather these are living proofs and evidences of a changed nature. And because of this changed nature in man, the believer will repent of transgressions of the law, and he will examine himself, and he will attempt to make corrections. What he will not do is pretend that he is not committing sin, or continue to live in his sin under the auspices of a Church teaching that such rebuke of lawlessness is an act of legalism.
- "As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance:
- But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation;
- Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy."
2nd Corinthians 13:5
An exhortation to examine ourselves by the law of God that we make our calling and election sure, is not practicing legalism. It is the obligation and duty of every Christian. This astounding lack of discernment of the difference between sound judgments that we seek to be as close to God as possible (holiness - 2nd Timothy 3:17, 1st Peter 1:15-16), and of legalism, is like scales that have formed over the eyes of the Church. Judgments must be made in the congregation, and this is in no way practicing Pharisaic ideals or legalism. And those who label it thus do not have a firm grasp of what these terms mean.
- "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?"
Many undisciplined Christians today would call such judgments in the Church about Bishops "legalism," when in fact it is 'God's precepts' to keep the Church ordered, wisely governed, faithful, and sound. The trend of Churches in moving towards unorthodox the disdain of those who make Christian judgments is due in no small measure to weak and/or liberal Pastors rationalizing away any discipline, judgment, or chastisement of unfaithfulness. In their compromise of the gospel for the sake of alleged harmony, compassion, unity and charity, they have greased the Church for its slide into spiritual declension and apostasy. They have moved the ancient landmarks so far away from the word of God that they haven't a clue when they over stepped the boundaries. There really doesn't seem to be many boundaries left anymore.
- "For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;
- But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;"
The ancient landmarks, which once marked the boundaries of scripture, have been moved so far back that the words of men are now inside those boundaries, and masquerading as God's inspired word. And that is why today any judgment by the Church at all is considered to be unwise, evil, or uncharitable. And anyone who preaches that we must live righteously is labeled a legalist who is hypocritically judging others.
- "Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set."
Granted, sometimes Christians can be their own worst enemy. For we should not only preach God's word and declare what God's law forbids, but we should also help others to understand God's intention in giving these commandments. Yes it is true that it is enough to know that God gave them, thus we should unquestionably obey them, but it is also wise to be patient and explain God's laws in the Spirit of love.
2nd Timothy 2:24-26
It is the duty of Christians to instruct without bitterness or a misguided zeal, but with humility and leniency. And particularly to those who by ignorance or lack of information do err. For when people are taught in the Spirit of Christ they may be open to gain knowledge of the word, and begin to grasp what God intends. Thus they can better comprehend what they are hearing and reading. It is a rewarding experience to see when their heart is made joyful in obedience. When we teach a more thorough understanding of scripture, people find that by the Spirit working within them, they are no longer content with merely eliminating (what we might call) serious violations of the law. They will begin shaping their everyday lives in order to better serve God on a daily basis. It then no longer becomes a question of legalism, but a question of love of God's law, and of a changed and softened heart that their desire is to live by it.
- "And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient,
- In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth;
- And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will."
Great is the realization that exhorting application of Godly and Biblical precepts to man's life is not legalism (no matter how many professed Christians parrot this convoluted line), it is the increase given by God. Strict obedience to God's law is not wrong, it is the evidence God has graced us desire the earnest desire to hide His word in our hearts that we might not sin against Him. It's not something that we will abhor or disdain as legalism, but nourishment unto life.
- "With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments.
- Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.
- Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes."
The fact that faithful Christians have an earnest desire to obedience that they stress the need for the Church to obey the scriptures, is the Glory to God. Legalism is not hating the sin of the world, nor is it the teaching that Christians should flee from it. On the contrary, that is the love of God. "Friendship of the world is enmity with God, and whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God -James 4:4." We should all strive to be lawful and overcome the sins and lusts of the flesh. Having Biblical rules and guidelines to follow is pure Godliness, and refusing to compromise the word for the sake of artificial unity or ecumenism is a virtue. Living (and exhorting to live) a careful, lawful, moral and ordered Christian life, is not something to revile, but for the Church to encourage.
- "But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."
Having said this, it is important to understand that legalism is the belief that 'by' our faithfully adhering to good works or deeds or laws, we will merit blessings, rewards or salvation. Do not confuse the real meaning of legalism with that which many professed Christians teach. Many people today wouldn't know legalism if a book of law fell out of the sky upon their heads. And though it goes against the grain to speak out against such misuse of this word, we can by Godly conscience do nothing less. For it's not a matter of what seems right to man (Proverbs 16:25), but of what God declares is right. Let us not be 'lawyers' who search the scriptures only to seek loopholes in the law or to find ways to avoid keeping it. For our keeping God's law is not a matter to be grieved over or labeled legalism, it's a matter of love. Jesus didn't have disdain for those who loved the law and understood keeping it was evidence of true salvation. On the contrary, He bore testimony of those who keep His law in their hearts. His disdain was reserved for the "real" hypocrites who thought they could be righteous by keeping the law.
- "Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth."
Christ Jesus said that if we say that we have no sin (keep the law), we are lying hypocrites, and our sin remains. By the same token, He said if that if we continue in His word (keep His laws), then are we His disciples. Is this a contradiction? Does this sound like legalism for God to declare that if we keep His word, we are His disciples? Our conclusion must be, no, not at all. Neither keeping the law, nor exhorting others to faithful obedience to the law, is legalism. But dependence upon keeping the law to get us into the Kingdom, is. While legalists blend the law into the gospel so that there is no distinction (Salvation is somehow by law, and by Grace), antinomians separates the law and pits it against the gospel (Salvation frees man from responsibility to keep the law). Both are false concepts of Christianity. If we truly love God, we continue in His word and will keep His laws. It is the fruit of the Spirit of righteousness we receive when we are truly in Christ. By contrast, if we are just kidding ourselves about knowing God, we will look for excuses why we don't have to obey God's laws, while still professing to be under Grace. So you may call obedience, legalism. You may call disobedience, Christian liberty. But it is gross error and changes nothing. The preaching of the law "is" the preaching of the gospel, and thinking God's laws are passed away or burdens too grievous for us is not a sign of His Grace upon us, but of the works of the devil, and of worldliness. It's not a sign of Christian liberty, but of worldly bondage.
- "Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;
- And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
1st John 5:3-4
In the keeping of what Christ calls the first and greatest commandment, and our loving our neighbors as ourselves, we are keeping the law (Matthew 22:36-40). On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Shall we cast these laws out with a cry of legalism, or shall we understand that our love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:10). I suppose it all depends upon whether the spirit of disobedience or the Spirit of God to reveal these truths rests within us. In love we understand how the law is a part of our very being, and thus not subject to being abrogated as the ruling authority of our lives. Thus the misnomer of legalism is soon seen for what it is. The attempt by man to free himself from being bond servants of Christ, and live without any restraint by law. Is it then any wonder that sin abounds in the Church, and what is legalism is defined by the precepts of man.
- "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and His commandments are not grievous.
- For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith."
In conclusion, what makes people legalists is their shared belief in the value of the works of man, and the insufficiency of the work of Christ unto salvation. Let us not forget that the saints not only obeyed the law of God, they often obeyed them unto the death. It wasn't legalism, it was love of God's law.
May the Lord who is Gracious above all, give us the wisdom and understanding to humble ourselves before His law, and rightly divide the word of truth that we may be blessed thereby.
Copyright ©2002 Tony Warren
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