Updated January 10, 2009 Republished December 9, 2004 (first published June 30, 2001)
“Legalism” is a term frequently used to describe Bible-believing Christians who are zealous for pure doctrine and who desire to maintain holy standards of living in this wicked hour. I am called a “legalist” via e-mail at least once a day! Consider a few examples:
“You, sir, are a legalist that the Pharisees would have been mighty proud of.”
“You have a narrow minded legalistic view of Scripture. ... I write contemporary praise music, music that is used in churches in worship of God. It’s not for your approval or anyone else no matter what denomination or off the wall sect of a denomination they are.”
“Your website makes me cringe. I can understand why this world hates fundamentalist Christians when you write legalistic articles like this. There is no humility in your critiques, only a pharisaical elitism that makes my stomach turn.”
The “free thinking” attitude that lies behind the charge of legalism was expressed at a “Christian” rock concert called Greenbelt ‘83:
“We don’t believe in a fundamentalist approach. We don’t set ground rules. Our teaching is non-directive. We want to encourage people to make their own choices.”
Those who have this type of mindset label the “old-fashioned” Bible Christian a “legalist,” but it is a slanderous and wrongheaded accusation.
WHAT LEGALISM IS
True legalism has a two-fold definition in the Word of God.
First, legalism is to mix works with grace for salvation (Galatians 1). This is the theme of the epistle of Galatians. Paul warns the churches against turning from the grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6) and emphasizes that salvation is not by works or law-keeping but by the grace of Christ alone.
“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” (Gal. 2:16).
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:10-11).
“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:24-25).
According to this definition, legalists today are any who add works to the grace of Christ for salvation. The Roman Catholic Church does this. So does the Church of Christ and the Worldwide Church of God and Seventh-day Adventism and many others.
Second, legalism is to add human tradition to the Word of God.
“Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:7-9).
We must be careful never to add our own tradition and teaching to the Word of God. There is one authority for faith and practice, and that is the Bible. Anything that is exalted to a place of authority equal to the Bible is condemned by God.
The Pharisees of old, in committing both of these errors, were true legalists. They rejected the grace of Jesus Christ and taught that the way of salvation was by the keeping of the law and they made their own tradition authoritative over people’s lives without a biblical basis.
The Roman Catholic Church also commits both of these errors.
Many others add things to the Word of God today. Christian Science adds Mary Baker Eddy’s writings. Seventh-day Adventism adds Ellen G. White’s writings. Many Pentecostals and Charismatics add (at least in practice) personal revelations and experience. Some old-time Pentecostals made prohibitions against drinking Coca-Cola and wearing necklaces and exalted these rules to the level of Scripture.
We must be careful when we seek to apply the principles of Scripture to Christian living that we do not fall into this trap today. For example, to set specific standards of modesty for female church workers that are supported by clear Scriptural principles, such as requiring a certain dress length and forbidding shorts, is not legalism, because the Bible requires modesty and forbids nakedness, even defining it as showing the leg and thigh and such (Isa. 47:2-3), and warns about the effect of female dress on the male (Mat. 5:28).
Setting standards can become legalism if the requirements go beyond Scripture. We must be very careful in drawing lines, that our lines are God’s and not our own. I have heard of churches that have forbidden men to wear pink shirts, because it is allegedly “feminine,” but this is going far out on a limb. The color pink, while vaguely associated with femininity, is not so intricately associated with it that we can make a law about it. Other churches have forbidden beards and facial hair. One mission that supports Central American national pastors has this rule, but it is more than ridiculous; it is legalistic, because not only does the Bible not forbid facial hair on men, it encourages it by the example of Old Testament prophets (Ezr. 9:3) and even Jesus Christ Himself (Isa. 50:6). Beards are mentioned 15 times in the Bible and never in a negative context. Another mission board required that missionaries cannot be interracially married and forbade the missionary couples even to adopt children of another race, but while there are practical issues pertaining to interracial marriages and adoptions, the Bible nowhere strictly forbids this.
Thus, we repeat, we must be very careful in drawing lines, that our lines are God’s and not our own.
WHAT LEGALISM IS NOT
Having seen what legalism is, let us now consider what it is not.
In a nutshell, for a Bible preacher to urge God’s people to obey the details of God’s Word by the grace of Christ cannot be legalism, because this is precisely what God requires. Consider the following Scriptures very carefully.
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10).
Here we see that while the blood-washed saint is saved by grace without works, he is saved unto good works. The believer obeys God’s Word, not in order to be saved but because he has been saved. It therefore cannot be legalism for a preacher to urge God’s people to keep the works of God contained in the New Testament faith. I have counted 88 specific commandments in the epistle of Ephesians alone. Consider this one: “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11). This is a far-reaching requirement. The believer must guard every area of his life, every activity, to make sure that he is not having fellowship with the works of darkness. Not only so, but he is reprove the works of darkness. This is one of the verses that spoke to my heart 32 years ago and convinced me that I had to put rock & roll music out of my Christian life. It is certainly an unfruitful work of darkness, but the requirement does not stop with music. It involves every part of the Christian life, dress, companionship, music, entertainment, literature, relationships with churches and professing believers, you name it. To take such commandments of the New Testament faith seriously and to apply them rigorously cannot, therefore, be “legalism.”
“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee” (Titus 2:11-15).
Here, again, we see that the grace of Christ does not teach Christians to live carelessly but to live strictly. The grace of God teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, which is a far-reaching obligation. It means that we are to examine every area of our lives and churches in order to root out ungodliness. Again, this involves every aspect of the Christian life, dress, companionship, music, entertainment, literature, you name it.
And notice in Titus 2:15, that the Spirit of God concludes this passage about avoiding ungodliness with the following exhortation to preachers: “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee.” The preacher has a solemn obligation before God to speak, exhort, and rebuke on the basis of these passages. It cannot, therefore, be any sort of “legalism” if a preacher takes this obligation seriously and applies this teaching to every area of life, speaking, exhorting, and rebuking about ungodliness and worldly lusts in the area of music and dress, companionship, entertainment, etc.
“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” (2 Tim. 4:1-2).
Here we see a similar obligation to the one in Titus 2:15. The preacher has a solemn responsibility before God for his preaching and he will give an account to Jesus Christ. He is to preach the Word. What part of it? All of it! He is not only to read the Word verbatim; he is to preach it and to apply it to the people’s everyday lives. He is to reprove, rebuke, and exhort. He is to make sure that the Word of God gets down to where the people live, to apply it to every aspect of their individual lives, their family lives, their employment, their service for Christ, their companionships, their entertainment, their dress, their music, you name it. The Word of God speaks to every area of life, and the preacher is obligated to follow it wherever it leads. This is definitely not “legalism.”
“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:20).
This is part of the obligation of Christ’s Great Commission. Those who believe the gospel and are baptized are to be taught to keep ALL things that He has commanded. This is another far-reaching requirement. It means that the churches are to be concerned about all of the New Testament faith and not just some part of it that happens to be popular at the moment, and they are to train their people to keep all of it. The churches are obligated, therefore, to teach separation from the world, separation from false teaching, rejection of heretics, church discipline, the reality of eternal hell, repentance, denial of self, everything; they must teach the popular things and the unpopular. To take Christ’s commandment seriously and to seek to be faithful to the whole New Testament faith cannot, therefore, be “legalism.”
Strict obedience to God’s Word by Christ’s grace is the way of liberty, not 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” (John 8:31-32).
The love of God is to obey His commandments. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3).
The believer does not keep the Word of God in his own power and strength or to his own glory. He keeps it by the power of the indwelling Christ and to His glory. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).