What Is Legalism?

By Jeff Klick

There are two ways to define a term or concept; define what it is, and what it is not. It seems whenever a conversation or sermon turns to "what should we do?" Or "holiness" red flags about legalism arise.

Legalism is usually defined as trying to earn or keep a right standing with God. If I perform, then I am accepted by God, if I fail to do something, then God is either angry with me or does not accept me any longer. By doing or not doing something I therefore earn the right to be accepted by God. This is wrong at the foundational level. We can earn nothing in the sight of a holy God but deserved judgment. We have right standing with God by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ at Calvary. We stand by God’s grace not our works -

Romans 3:20 - For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Ephesians 2:8-9 - For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Next, legalism often becomes a set of standards or rules that if kept; make someone more holy, better, or more mature than others. This is also false at the root level for -

Romans 3:23 - For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

1 John 1:10 - If we say we have not sinned we make Him a liar, and His word in not in us.

Romans 3:10 - as it is written: "None is righteous, no not one."

All of us have failed in the past; will probably fall short in the present and certainly in the future, therefore trying to keep some set of rules to be holy or better than anyone else is futile. All of us are struggling saints, saved by grace and walking in faith. We may be at different points on the Highway of Holiness, but we are all reaching for the same goal. We are all trying to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling". (Phil. 2:12) In addition, if we are saved, we are all children of God, join-heirs with Jesus Christ. (Rom. 8:17) Our comparison is not to others, but to our Lord.

So, if legalism is defined as trying to earn the impossible from God, right standing (justification) with Him by some way other than Jesus Christ and Him crucified... then what is it not?

  1. Being obedient to God’s specific commands is not legalism: 1 John 2:3-4 - And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. Whoever says "I know Him" but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him
  2. Living a holy life that is set apart unto the Lord’s service is not legalism: 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 - For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you 1 Peter 1:15 - but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct,
  3. Living a life separated unto Christ and separated from the fads and fashions of the world is not legalism: Romans 12:2 - be not conformed to the pattern of this world
  4. Conforming one’s life to be in harmony with certain standards decided upon by Spirit-led leaders of a local assembly of believers is not legalism. Acts 15:28-30For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell." So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.
  5. Forgoing my personal rights for the sake of my brother is not legalism: Romans 14:21 - It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble Romans 14:13 - Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

Summary:

Works do not save us, but once we are saved, we will work. The evidence of a changed life on the inside is demonstrated by the behavior on the outside. Even a quick reading of the New Testament will reveal hundreds of passages with specific commands and instruction to the believer specifically geared towards behavior. Standards, restrictions, both self and Biblically imposed are normal for believers and it is not legalism, but obedience. While legalism can be an issue, it seems like carnality should also be a concern. Seeking God and trying to obey His commands will produce far better fruit than trying to justify and demand my freedom to do as I please. We are slaves, bondservants of the Lord Most High – His wishes are the only ones that should truly matter. In our fleeing from legalism, I pray our destination does not end in license. True freedom only comes from bowing to our Lord daily.