Legalism is like a disease. It is both highly contagious and deadly. It can go undetected and show no fatal symptoms for a long period of time. In the end, however, it always pays its toll. Iíve never heard anyone stand up and boldly proclaim, "I'm a legalist!" If someone realized they were bound by legalism they would surely put an end to it. Unfortunately legalism is very blinding. It's easier for a sinner to realize he is a sinner than for a legalist to realize he is a legalist. As long as we canít identify what legalism is, it can keep us in its bondage.
Legalism is oftentimes very hard to recognize and can be hard to distinguish from true holiness. This is because the actions of the legalist, and the actions of someone who possesses true holiness are generally the same. The difference is the motive of the heart. Oneís motivation is to save themselves, or keep themselves saved, while the otherís motivation is to please the One who died for them. Ray C. Stedman said:
Do you see how subtle this can be? The actual behavior can be exactly the same in the case of a legalist or of one behaving as an authentic Christian. They both may be real Christians and their behavior may be exactly the same, but one is legalistic and other is not. It is what is going on inside that is the issue in question. It is a matter of inner reliance. What are you reckoning on to meet this demand? Are you counting on your own ability, your own adequacy, your talent, your personality? Is that what you are reckoning on in order to accomplish what is expected of you? Well, if you are reckoning on anything other than the activity of God at work in you, you are a legalist! ... The most widespread form of legality in the Christian church is the flesh, trying to do something before God which will be acceptable to him.1
In order to recognize what legalism is, we must first determine what true Christianity is. Christianity "is to manifest genuinely Christ-like behavior by dependence on the working of the Spirit of God within, motivated by a love for the glory and honor of God. True Christian life is fulfilling a law by means of a unique power because of an overwhelming desire. It requires an outward standard or code of behavior, an inward power which makes it possible to meet it, and a motive which drives us on to do so."2
Legality on the other hand "is a mechanical and external behavior growing our [sic] of reliance on self, because of a desire to gain a reputation, display a skill, or satisfy an urge to personal power. . . . It is religious performance, scrupulous and meticulous in its outward form, but inwardly, as Jesus described it, Ďfilled with dead menís bones.í "3
Many believe that to avoid legalism, one must be an antinomianist (a person without any law). Nothing is further from the truth. Neither will the casting off of standards free one from legalism. Legalism is not the establishing of standards where the Bible does not address an issue. One must establish standards, or limitations for themselves. If one has a problem with playing tennis because it takes up too much of the time they should be spending with God, they might want to make a standard for themselves that they will not play tennis. Itís not that the game of tennis that is evil, but the individual gets addicted to the game and loses self-control, allowing priorities to be mismanaged. This limitation might change when they mature as a Christian and can play the sport again in moderation.
On the flip-side of the coin, it is legalism to establish standards for other people when the Bible does not address the issue. Even standards for oneís self can be dangerous if they have the wrong standard. It is possible to be legalistic in the standards you set for yourself. Legality then becomes a "making [of] unwarranted demands on yourself or on someone else, especially in areas which are not prohibited in the Scriptures.4
There are some things that are black and white in the Scriptures, but others are differing shades of gray. Those areas that are black and white must be preached, and preached hard! Even though the Bible is dogmatic on many subjects, there are other subjects in which it is not. There are some things in which "we are given a great deal of personal liberty, and it is legalism to make standards (particularly for someone else) in these areas."5 It is legalism when a Christian or group of Christians make rules for everybody else to obey. If others want to do the same things as a particular Christian groups, having the same convictions as they, that is great. If, however, they are being forced to do something against their will, or without understanding, it is legalism. It becomes legality when we make unwarranted demands upon others in areas not prohibited by Scripture.6
Daniel Segraves wrote concerning legalism:
Essentially, legalism is a reliance upon keeping the strict letter of a law as being meritorious, even apart from faith. As legalism is worked out, it is often expressed in an exaltation of human traditions to a status equal to or superior to God's commandments or in a slavish adherence to a specific rule while failing to note the principle behind the rule and to apply it in similar situations. While the attractiveness of legalism for many people rests in its deceptive promise of assurance of salvation in return for perfect obedience, what it actually produces is fear, condemnation, guilt, and uncertainty. This is because the legalist's faith is misplaced. It is in himself and his ability to adhere to a code of behavior rather than in Christ.7
"Legalism means strict or excessive conformity to a legal code or set of rules. In a Christian context, legalism has two negative connotations: (1) attempting to base salvation on the performance of good works or on the strict observance of rules and regulations and (2) imposing rules on self and others that are not based on clear biblical teachings or principles. We are guilty of legalism if we imply that a person attains salvation by his works or if we preach rules without principles."8 In fact, the basis upon which the legalist usually justifies his beliefs and practices is mere tradition and authority.
One of the fundamental flaws of a legalistic individual is his/her view of Godís law. The law of God is not some external code that God keeps or has made up specifically for mankind. Neither is Godís law arbitrary. He does not simply decide to approve of this and condemn that. Rather Godís law flows from Godís nature. It is a portrait of Godís person. When we obey Godís law, we are not merely keeping a code of conduct, but relating to God Himself. The law has no inherent value or dignity apart from God. When we keep or break Godís law we are relating to God Himself. Sin is not merely the breaking of a law, but transgressing against the very nature of God, thus creating a personal attack on God Himself. Thus legalismóthe idea that the law should be obeyed for its own sakeóis unacceptable. The Law is a means of relating to a personal God. When we relate to the law as a separate entity apart from Godís essential being and nature, we have entered the arena of legalism.
Paul warned about an ascetic legalism that was attacking the first-century church in Colossians 2:18-23. He said that one could be cheated out of their reward in Christ by four things. These four things were (1) false, or voluntary humility, (2) worshipping of angels, (3) not giving Jesus His proper place as the Head of the body of Christ, (4) and "subjecting one's self to human commandments and doctrines which teach that there is a spiritual benefit in abstaining from perishable created things which are not inherently evil."9 These things do have an appearance of true wisdom, but it is merely a self-imposed religion that is not able to help a person overcome their sinful nature (v.23). The humility and worship that these ascetics were performing were not from God, but came from their own human will, contrary to what Jesus taught concerning the worship of God. He said worship was to come from one's spirit (John 4:24).
This passage makes it clear that anything we abstain from or partake of in this physical world should aid us in overcoming the sinful nature and bring us closer to God. If this is not the design behind our actions then it is probably legalism and obedience to it should not be commanded to anyone seeing it is only a man-made rule. If one believes that this man-made, self-imposed, false humility and religion can grant them spirituality, holiness, or favor with God, they will lose their reward in Christ.
What kind of legalism is attacking the Apostolic faith today? The most common form is that which leads "the believer away from absolute reliance upon Christ toward a self-confidence based on his ability to do or to abstain from certain things not specifically commended or prohibited in Scripture."10 Concerning this type of legalism Daniel Segraves comments:
But the second form of legalism is more subtle, more difficult to detect and resist, and more apt to find acceptance among believers of every age, because it adapts itself cleverly to any culture and time. This is the system that makes one's interpretation or application of Scripture equal in authority to Scripture itself. Every ascetic practice can, for example, be defended by general scriptural calls to devotion, commitment, and holiness. Even resistance to technological advances can be justified by appeals to disassociate ourselves from the world. This can be witnessed among the communities springing from the Anabaptists traditions which repudiate zippers, electricity, automobiles and other modern inventions.11
Legalism teaches a salvation that is based upon human works instead of God's grace. This type of theology usually develops from a misunderstanding of how and where works fit into the born-again life. Legalism is a mentality, that leads to a way of life, which leads to doctrines not found in the Bible, which leads to a reliance upon one's performance, instead of Jesus' performance at Calvary for salvation, which leads to spiritual death.
The problems with legalism are endless. The worst problem is the eternal factor. If one relies upon their own works for salvation they will not make it to heaven no matter how moral they are seeing that they are going about to establish their own righteousness instead of relying upon the righteousness and grace of God (Galatians 2:21; 5:1-4). Salvation only comes by faith in Jesus' work at Calvary. One can not have faith in Jesus' work and their own at the same time.
David Bernard commented on the difficulties of a legalistic system by saying:
Furthermore, those who follow a legalistic leader will eventually begin to doubt the validity of the system because of its harsh and arbitrary rules. As children grow up in the system they begin to question the rules. When new converts enter the system they often accept everything uncritically, but sooner or later they, too, begin to analyze the rules.
If a church is founded on true scriptural principles it will withstand scrutiny of its teachings. The legalist, however, usually gives no justification for his man-made rules except tradition and authority. "This is what our church believes, and you must obey the church. This is what the pastor teaches, and you must obey the pastor." This kind of teaching will not be successful in developing true holiness.
Particularly in our questioning age, it simply does not work. People today are more sophisticated and educated than ever before. There is a greater willingness to challenge tradition and authority. Autocratic methods that people sometimes accepted in the past are less effective today. Furthermore, as the church enters an era of great revival, it must be prepared for the influx of thousands of new converts. If it relies on tradition and legalism, the new converts will either overwhelm it or fall away. If it teaches biblical principles of holiness, the new converts will embrace them as their own beliefs.12
Legalists always exhibit certain characteristics. Among the many, they exhibit periods of great highs and lows based upon their performance, frustrations with trying to become more holy, contentious, condemnatory towards others who don't do as they do, a lack of patience with others growing in holiness, and usually like to control others.
Legalism is not teaching against separation from the world. Rather it is believing that you can be saved from doing so. The Bible teaches us to be holy. If teaching separation from the world is legalism, then God is the best legalist! It is God who said that friendship with the world is enmity against Him (James 4:4). It is God's Word that tells us that true religion is to keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:27). It is the Word of God that declares if you love the world, then you do not love God (I John 2:15-16). If you do not love these commandments you do not love God. One will not find antinomianism in the Bible.
The legalist and a true holy man or woman of God may have the same "works," but they both have different understandings and perspectives of how and where their works fit into their salvation The legalist believes his works earn or keep his salvation, while the holy man or woman of God understand that they are living the way they do because they are saved. They just want to please their Lover. As Stedman said, "That is why, in any Christian activity, you have to be careful that your inner reliance is on God and not upon yourself. Otherwise it comes out all wrong and makes all the difference between heaven and hell, life and death. You can do exactly the same thing that someone else is doing and, if you do it with a sense of reliance on anything other than the Spirit of God, what they do will bless people but what you do will curse them."13
So what do you do if you realize that you are in bondage to legalism? It is very simple. All you must do is repent for your sin and believe that Godís mercy has forgiven you, and that His grace will help you live above this vice. Repent and believe. It seems too easy to be real, but it is the way that God has established. You can not work to please God, so why not just give up and allow God to justify you by your faith and trust in Him!
See also "What Legalism Is and Is Not"
1. Stedman, Ray C., Legalism (Palo Alto, CA: Discovery Publishing, 1995), p. 2, taken from the Microsoft Internet Explorer. <back>
2. Ibid., 4. <back>
3. Ibid., 5. <back>
4. Ibid., 3. <back>
5. Ibid. <back>
6. Ibid. <back>
7. Segraves, Daniel L, Collected Writings (Stockton, CA: n.p., 1992), p. 63. <back>
8. Bernard, David K. Practical Holiness: A Second Look (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1985) p. 33-34. <back>
9. Segraves, p. 74. <back>
10. Ibid., 75. <back>
11. Ibid., 76. <back>
12. Bernard, 66-67. <back>
13. Stedman, 4. <back>
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