Legalism: What it is and what it isn’t

I think it would be safe to say that most Christians would agree with the following sentiment: “Legalism is a nasty thing.” Truly, it’s an unnecessary pollutant that continually attempts to be smuggled into the Christian life. Now can you tell me what it is? Do you know how to define it? Here is where we notice some uneasiness creep in. Knowing that you believe something is easy, but knowing how to define what we believe…well that can sometimes be a bit difficult.

What I would like to do today is add a little bit more depth to what I said before. Previously, I merely touched the surface of a much larger topic. Maybe the equivalent of dipping your toes in the edge of a pool to test the temperature of the water on a nice summer day?

There is a reason that “theonomy” is viewed negatively in the minds of many believer’s. Some are the result of being hammered with a specific tradition.1 Others have misunderstood, misinterpreted and then misapplied certain biblical passages. One normal go to text is Romans 6:14b where Paul says, “…since you are not under law but under grace.”2 By lifting the passage out of its context, the text is made to say what the reader (interpreter according to tradition) believes.

In essence the conclusion drawn is akin to the following statement: “The law no longer applies to the Christian because we are ‘under grace.'” To say that is what Paul meant when he wrote that is to actually pit Paul against himself. For he said earlier in the same letter that our faith in Jesus does not overthrow the use and/or purposeful practice of the law: “On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3.31b).

Now as tempting as it is for me to dive right into Paul’s argument in Roman’s 6, I need to refrain until my next post. Then, I will attempt to present a sound exegetical argument for what Paul is actually saying in that verse, and how misunderstanding his statement ends up having a negative effect on your walk with the Lord. All I want to do today is explain what legalism is and what it isn’t.

Starting off with an Illustration

The other night my wife and I started watching the 90’s sitcom “Step-by-Step” with our kids. Maybe you’ll recognize it, maybe you won’t, but the show is about a blended family in Port Washington, WI. The newlywed couple each have three children from former relationships; six in all. Nothing is mentioned about those former relationships, at least not in the first few episodes, so you don’t really know what led to the circumstances you see in the Pilot and beyond.

Well as you can imagine the blending process is difficult. The children are naturally biased towards their biological parents. However, in the first few episodes both husband and wife do their best to ease the unification of two formerly separate families into one. Bear in mind they both have their own system of doing things. The dad is a bit laid back, and the mother is very orderly. Both work; he in construction and she as a beautician out of the home, but it is the mother that tries to get the house in working order.

To help facilitate the change she deems necessary she designs a highly detailed law-code for the home. This law code ironically or not has ten commandments that are meant to be followed. The desire of the mother is to bind the family together into one cohesive unit where they eat together, work together and live happily together. This is in response to seeing some early warning signs of broken relationships, and so it is hoped the new law-code will save them. As you can probably imagine, though, things do not work out as intended.

The law of ten ends up resulting in rebellion. The kids and husband rebel. Some are bribed into a false sense of obedience. Those individuals then play the part because they want the rewarded blessing promised to them if an external form of compliance is demonstrated. By the end of the episode one of the children has packed their bags to leave the home, and others are contemplating the benefit of returning to their former way of life. In the end, grace is extended to the children and the family relationship is mended because the law-giver was willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the others. Such an act of love healed wounds, and what the mother desired to be accomplished was actually brought to fruition. The end result was that the Law was not overthrown but upheld and the family seemingly prospered.

What Can be Drawn from the Illustration

There are a couple of important things that can be drawn from this illustration that confirm what the Bible teaches. There was a false assumption that the ordering of the law would grant salvation to those who obeyed, it did not because it could not. (**In the illustration if the family met the conditions of the law-code, then the family unit would be saved both individually and corporately).

Yet God’s Word is pretty clear that “…by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2.16; cf. Rom 3.28; 4.5).

The conditional clauses found throughout Scripture, in particular in reference to the Law-Word of God state that “if condition ‘a’ is met, then condition ‘b’ will follow.” Those statements do not refer to the ability of man, but the responsibility of man. They speak of what should be done, and if those conditions are met what the promised condition will be, but they never assume ability. The rebuttal to such teaching is, “Yes, but then why does God present the conditional clause if I am not able to do what is required?” To reveal a necessary truth.

First that we are sinners (Rom 3.20; 7.7; cf. Job 25.4), so that the trespass would increase (Rom 5.20; 7.5-13) in order to prove that we are all under a curse (Gal 3.10, 22; Rom 3.9, 23), and therefore shut our mouths and stop our boasting (Rom 3.19; 1Cor 1.26-31). Second, to reveal our need of mercy in that we are all rightly damned (Rom 1.18) in order to point us to Jesus Christ (Heb 4.16), for without the grace of God we are irrevocably lost (comp Gal 5.4 and 2Tim 1.9; cf. Luke 10.21).

  • “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2.5-7).

“What’s the second thing?” “Kris, you said there were ‘a couple things we see’ from the illustration.” Right…you’re right. Here’s the second. The law-code in the sitcom increased the rebellion in the sinners and it was shown to be incapable of saving (mending) the severed relationships (individually, corporately). Grace was needed to bring healing, but the law-code was not completely abrogated. After healing had been introduced into the story by the gracious sacrifice of the mother, the family out of love obeyed the law-code.3

What is Legalism? How Should we Define it?

This brings the discussion back to legalism. What is it? Some interpret legalism to be that which abides by a set of laws. That’s how Merriam-Webster defines it: “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code” (Def. 1). Before you starting shaking your head in agreement, I’d like you to think about what the definition from English is stating and how that comports with Scripture. (HINT:
Our definition must derive from the Bible, not the other way around).

Paul in preaching to the members of the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia said, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus of Nazareth] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed [justified] from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13.38-39). The point seems rather obvious through Jesus comes redemption from sin, not the works of the law (cf. Gal 2.21). But then, does this negate the lawful obedience of the believer?

According to the English definition of legalism (one often adopted by people in the Church) Jesus could be rightly labeled a legalist because he was obedient unto the point of death (cf. Phil 2.8). He never sinned because he never strayed from the written Law-Word of God. Therefore, attempting to conflate what the English here says about legalism and what the Bible says about obedience to the Law of God are found at odds with one another.

Now it is true that Scripture condemns attempting to live by the law in order to be justified. In this it only takes one offense for us to be condemned under the entirety of the whole law (Jam 2.10). And yet, we are at the same time told emphatically “By no means” (Rom 3.31; 7.7, 13), for it is through Christ “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8.4). In other words, Jesus atoning work on the cross afforded for us, who did not know the righteousness of God, that very righteousness that Christ knew.

  • “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor 5.21; Isa 53.11).

This in turn enables us to love and live for our Lord. How so? Being the righteousness of God implies that we walk rightly before our God (cf. Hos 14.9; Prov 2.20). This Jesus said his true disciples do because they love Him (John 14.15; 15.10), just as He loves the Father (John 14.31).

What Legalism is Not

True legalism is not obedience to God’s Law-Word—that is faithfulness.4 True legalism is setting up one’s own standard in order to obtain righteousness. True legalism proclaims that what I am able to do by my own power that will justify me before God. True legalism is a setting up of a foreign standard to govern one’s life. This is what Paul cried anathema to in his Galatian letter, for they added to salvation the rite of circumcision and other similar ceremonial type laws that were done away with in Jesus (cf. Gal 5.3, 12). This is what Jesus opposed for instance when he was asked why he and his disciples did not wash their hands before they ate (Matt 15.1-3; Luke 11.37-39), and many other legalistic standards they applied to the people (Mark 7.13).

What legalism is not is being obedient and faithful to the whole counsel of God. This requires study and discernment on our part, a tedious task to be sure but nonetheless fruitful for righteous living (cf. 2Tim 3.16-17). Next time we will look at the meaning behind Rom 6:14.



1 I feel the need to explain that statement about “being hammered with a specific tradition.” A traditional view is similar to a traditional custom (i.e. family gatherings around Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas) where things are performed and accepted because that has always been the case. Rocking the boat is not welcome in such scenarios. The same sort of thing can happen in our understanding of Christian behavior, practice and living. We are told by those who we look up to, to look at various subjects through the lens of a traditional understanding. Rather than testing the Scriptures to see if the things being taught and/or held to are accurate, an overarching assumption is made that they are. Failure to fall in line with the traditional understanding is deeply frowned upon. Over time those traditions become ingrained in our hearts (i.e. hammered in), and our convictions are situated in such a way to never question them and look down on others that do.

2 All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

3 It should be noted that there are some obvious variations in the story line that do not fit the Christian narrative. For one it is the sacrifice of the Son of God that opens up the grace of God for His people. The other notable difference is that the law-giver in Scripture does not allow His creatures to abrogate (change/alter) His law-code, but there are instances where we see that He does so as is His right. Those changes are not arbitrary but necessary depending on the new circumstance that He has established. One easy example is the way dietary laws have changed from creation to today in redemptive history.

4 J. A. Moytner writes, “In the OT as in the NT (e.g. Acts 5.32) obedience [to the Law of God] is a means of grace…That the OT concept of law is, in fact, the biblical concept of law is nowhere seen more clearly than in the continuance throughout the Bible of the same pillars of true religion: grace and law. For the purpose of God remains the same, the obedience of his people, an it remains true that those who walk in the light find that the blood of Jesus Christ keeps cleansing them from all their sin.” Walter A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, [1984], 2001), 675, 676.


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