Many of us have encountered this type of wayward Christianity. If we haven't, we've likely met someone who experienced legalism or who exercises legalism in their own practices. Even Jesus ran into people who practiced this in his day known as the Pharisees. In this article, we'll explore legalism's definition, instances in the Bible, and what this dangerous mindset looks like in the modern context.
“Legalism exists when people attempt to secure righteousness in God’s sight by good works. Legalists believe that they can earn or merit God’s approval by performing the requirements of the law,” Thomas R. Schreiner said.
Like the term Trinity, the word legalism is not used in the Bible, but instead describes principles clearly outlined in the Bible. At the heart of the legalism versus grace debate is understanding how we are saved and how we can have an assurance of our heavenly hope.
A legalist believes that their good works and obedience to God affects their salvation. Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in 1517 when he argued that Christians are saved by faith and faith alone. This went against the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation which claims salvation comes through both faith and our obedience (or our good works).
How Are We Saved?
“It is faith—without good works and prior to good works—that takes us to heaven. We come to God through faith alone,” Martin Luther in Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional.
Legalism Examples in the Bible
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in a temple that illustrates both a legalist's faults and the right attitude of faith.
The Pharisee boldly thanks God that he is “not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector,” and brings attention to his fasting and tithing. In stark contrast, the tax collector stands at a distance, not even able to lift his head to heaven, beating his chest, and praying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus tells the crowd that the tax collector – who pleaded for mercy for his sins, rather than the Pharisee who was proud of his spiritual accomplishments – was the one who “went home justified before God.” Jesus told this story to those who “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”
Legalism in the Church
Jesus would give the same warning to Christians now, reminding us that salvation is not found in our actions, good deeds, and works, but is rather found in the forgiveness and grace of God. Romans 3:23-25 tells us that while “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” “all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
How Are We Justified?
“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25).
Salvation by Faith Alone
Our salvation starts and ends with faith in the atoning sacrifice Christ made for us on the cross. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “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 is good news for everyone. Galatians 3:10-11 reminds us, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’”
What Does Legalism Look Like?
To further illustrate what legalism can look like, R.C. Sproul outlines three forms of legalism.
1. Focusing on God’s laws more than relationship with God.
Legalism forms “where one is concerned merely with the keeping of God’s law as an end in itself.”Sproul points out that legalism divorces obedience from God’s love and redemption. “The legalist focuses only on obeying bare rules, destroying the broader context of God’s love and redemption in which He gave His law in the first place.”
2. Keeping external laws without a truly submitted heart.
Closely linked to the first, Sproul says legalism “obeys the externals while the heart is far removed from any desire to honor God, the intent of His law, or His Christ.” Legalism divorces obedience from our relationship with God.
3. Adding human rules to divine laws and treating them as divine.
What Sproul calls “the most common and deadly form of legalism,” is when we add “our own rules to God’s law and treats them as divine… Jesus rebuked the Pharisees at this very point saying, ‘You teach human traditions as if they were the word of God.’ We have no right to heap up restrictions on people where He has no stated restriction.”
Obedience to God (Without Legalism)
Sometimes the term “legalist” is applied to Christians who honestly try to obey the commands of God. Does grace mean that we shouldn’t care about our actions?
Ephesians, directly after saying we are saved, “not by works, so that no one can boast,” goes on to remind us, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). Our good works will never save us, but Scripture tells us that God prepared good works for his people to accomplish.
Obeying God in Love
Millard J. Erickson goes so far to say in Christian Theology that to disregard God’s revealed commandments in the name of not being a legalist, is “an abuse of Christian freedom.” He reminds us of John 14:15 where Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands,” and John 15:14, “You are my friends if you do what I command.”
He continues, “Therefore, we must seek to guide our lives by these precepts. Such behavior is not legalism. Legalism is a slavish following of the law in the belief that one thereby earns merit…”
Grace is freely given to us when we have faith in Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on our behalf, and as we grow in our love for Christ, we obey him. We obey God not to earn our salvation, but because of our relational faith in Christ and our love for him.
Obedience is how Christians should live, not how they are saved.
As Luther explains in Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional, “We concede that we must also teach about good works and love. But we only teach these at the proper time and place – when the question deals with how we should live, not how we are justified.”
But against a legalist viewpoint of salvation, Luther argues, “The question here is this: How do we become justified and receive eternal life? We answer with Paul that we are pronounced righteous through faith in Christ alone, not by our own efforts.”
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