Doctrine of Legalism

July 19, 2010

Preface:   Our human system of work and reward is like this: I work for you and you pay me. This is obviously legitimate, it’s the way commerce works under divine institutions and free enterprise. But the religious legalist is convinced that God works by the same system – or at least he hopes so. He says: I work for God and God rewards me by saving me and blessing me in some way. That’s not how God operates. He has no need or desire for our works; in fact, our works are offensive to Him. Isa. 64:6, “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags…” If I try to impress God with my works, He discards them as filthy rags. Grace Notes:


Rom. 11:6         Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.

Doctrine of Legalism
1.     Fundamental to understanding legalism, is to understand the concept of grace. Grace is all that God is free to do for mankind because of the work that has been done on our behalf by the Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. Grace means that man has received from God that which he has not earned or deserved. Nothing that we are, and nothing that we can do, is enough to qualify us for anything that the Lord has to give us. In fact, our human works are a matter of arrogance, which God will not tolerate. Isa. 64:6 describes how God views our works: All our righteousnesses are as filthy [lit., menstruous] rags in His sight.2.     The concept of legalism:1)     Legalism is the belief that you can do something meritorious and thereby be rewarded in some way by God for doing good works or following some religious system of customs, laws and/or rituals.2)     Legalism connotes any system of merit, by which a person tries to please God, or to assist God, or to glorify God by means of his own human power.3)     Religious legalism promotes a system of works as man’s approach to God. Religious legalism is whatever system that teaches that a person can do something to earn or merit salvation or blessing from God.4)     Religious legalism also refers to any system of religious bondage imposed on someone by another individual, or by an organization, that attempts to make that person a practitioner of legalism. Often, bullying tactics or ostracism are used to keep people in line.

5)     Legalism includes the concept that God will bless, help, and prosper the one living according to whatever legalistic standards have been established. These standards may be the application of the norms and standards or society, some subgroup of society (a particular church or denomination), or from a misinterpretation of the Bible (e.g., Sabbath-keeping in the Church Age).

6)     Therefore, legalism is the belief in and the practice of human religious regulations and taboos because one believes that is the way to please God, to become spiritual, and to live the Christian life. Legalistic people, because they work for God’s blessing, often confuse cause and result, and thereby misunderstand grace.

3.     There are four principal spiritual transactions in which human works are not acceptable to God: salvation, spirituality, spiritual growth (resulting in spiritual maturity), and eternal rewards. Very briefly, legalism is against salvation by grace (Gal. 1:6–9 2:16), spirituality by grace (Gal. 3:2–5 5:5), and the freedom to live the Christian way of life by grace—which is the freedom to live apart from pressure imposed by a religious community or a taboo list (Gal. 4:8–11 5:1–5).

4.     As an aside, Satan has two overall strategies with regards to people on this earth: (1) to keep them from the gospel; and (2) for those who have believed in Jesus Christ, to neutralize their spiritual lives. Huge numbers of believers have had their spiritual lives neutralized by legalism (which means, nearly nothing of what they do on this earth has any eternal consequence). Legalism is used by Satan to accomplish both of these objectives.

5.     Legalism and salvation:

1)     Legalism in salvation is the concept that you must do something more than have faith in Christ in order to gain God’s approval (or you must do something other than or in addition to exercising faith in Christ). That is, even in some legalistic Christian faiths, there is the belief that there is a set of additional works that must be done or that there is some often poorly-defined set of minimal standards which must be adhered to in one’s lfe. If you do not meet those standards, then you did not really believe in the first place; or you had a head belief, but not a heart belief. Let me emphasize that this is a false view of salvation.

2)     There are many religious systems which teach salvation by works, or which try to mix works with faith, such as:

(1)    Believe + keep the Law of Moses.

(2)    Believe + be circumcised.

(3)    Believe + water baptism.

(4)    Believe + confess your sins.

(5)    Believe + give up your bad habits and fully surrender; make Jesus Lord of all.

(6)    Believe + make a public display or some sort (come forward or raise your hand); or have great sorrow or a show of tears.

(7)    Believe + join a church.

(8)    Believe + live some minimal sort of Christian life. This is what is found most often in today’s Christianity. Those who promote this sort of legalism will never state is in this way, but they will carefully explain, “If you still do thus-and-so, maybe you did not really believe in Jesus in the first place.” Or, “Maybe you have a head belief but not a heart belief.” If there is no evidence of salvation, then, perhaps you were never really saved. “After all,” they will tell you, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature;” (not understanding what they have just said). This is the most insidious attack upon salvation. The believer who is under attack for not acting like a Christian then has two ways to go: he can abandon his faith altogether because he did not have enough faith or he can enter into a life of legalism, adhering to whatever set of standards that quasi-Christian group has established.

(9)    What is added to faith is just a matter of the time and place; Christian converts in Paul’s day were told they needed to believe and be circumcised; it is unlikely that any significant group of legalists today adds circumcision to faith in Christ.

(10)  However, the gospel of Jesus Christ is to have faith alone in Christ alone; it is believe + nothing. Placing your faith in Jesus Christ is a non-meritorious choice; and that is our only means to connect with God. We have no other means by which we can initially establish a relationship with God. Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by Me.” (John 14:6). God saved you through faith as an act of kindness. You had nothing to do with it. Being saved is a gift from God. It’s not the result of anything you’ve done, so no one can brag about it (Eph. 2:8–9; God’s Word™).

3)     Legalism is diametrically opposed to salvation by grace. Gal. 1:6-9 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting Him Who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to the one we [originally] proclaimed to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is proclaiming to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (WEB, slightly modified). Gal. 2:16 Still we know that a person is not justified [i.e., made right with God] by [perfect obedience to] the law of Moses, but rather through faith in [the person and work of] Christ. [Knowing this] we have trusted in Christ Jesus [to save us], so that we might be made right with God by trusting in Him and not by [our compliance with] the requirements of the law of Moses. Because by such law-compliance no one can be made right with God. (AUV–NT)

4)     Rom. 4:4–5 Now wages are not considered a gift if the person has to work for them, but [rather] an obligation [of his employer]. But to the person who believes in God, who makes ungodly people right with Himself apart from doing good deeds, that person’s faith is considered by God [as the basis] for being righteous. (AUV–NT) Or, to state this in a different way, how can salvation be the gift of God if you have to work for it?

5)     Legalism becomes a heavy yoke or load to live under. No man has the ability to impress, bribe, coerce, or trick God into giving him salvation. The attempt to work for your salvation is taking on an impossible burden. In Matt. 11.28–30, [Jesus said], “Come to Me, all of you who are overworked and overburdened and I will give you rest [i.e., spiritual refreshment]. Accept My reins [on your life], and learn about Me, because I am gentle and humble, and [in My service] you will experience rest in your spirits. For My reins [on your life] are easy [to respond to] and the burden I place [on you] is light.” (AUV–NT; pronouns referring to Jesus are capitalized)

6.     Legalism and fellowship with God:

1)     Grace is the means by which our fellowship with God is restored. We name our sins to God and God forgives us these sins. 1Cor. 11:31 1John 1:9

2)     We are forgiven, not because we feel badly, we do penance, we promise never to commit that sin again; we are forgiven because Jesus Christ died for that sin on the cross. The means by which our fellowship is restored is based upon grace, and not upon legalism. Again, all we do is admit our sins.

3)     This naming of our sins both restores our fellowship with God and resumes the filling ministry of the Holy Spirit. Being led by the Spirit is not a 50-50 proposition; we are either led by the Spirit or we are not. 1John 3

4)     Legalism in the Christian life is using some meritorious system in order to get back into fellowship (into God’s good graces, so to speak). This could include penance, begging for forgiveness, promising never to commit a particular sin again, promising God an overall improvement in your life, working up a deep sorrow over your sins, confessing your sins to a priest, doing penance, etc.

5)     Some adherence to certain norms and standards are not wrong—such as functioning under the laws of divine establishment, which is a divine code designed for all people in all nations. Adhering to the laws of divine establishment make you a better person socially, and this adherence makes for a better nation, but it does not make you spiritual. You can be a good person in society, and yet not filled with the Holy Spirit.

7.     Legalism and the Christian life:

1)     After salvation, legalism is abandoning grace as the basis of our spiritual lives.

2)     If we are saved by grace, then it is logical that spirituality and spiritual growth are also by grace. Gal. 3.2–5 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (ESV, mostly) Gal. 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV)

3)     As believers in Jesus Christ, we have the freedom to live the Christian way of life by grace—which includes the freedom to live apart from pressure imposed by a religious community or a list of taboos. Gal. 4.8–11 Previously, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and empty elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once again? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. See also Gal. 5.1–6.

4)     Some forms of legalism are easy to define; e.g, Legalism is the belief in and the practice of human religious regulations and taboos because one believes that is the way to please God, become spiritual, and live the Christian life. This could include tithing, going to church, and not doing the things which some sub-group of Christians tell you not to do (don’t misunderstand this to mean that the Christian can do anything).

5)     Legalism is a set of do’s or don’t’s, adherence to which mean that a person is spiritual or a good Christian. Here is the problem: with a list of do’s and don’t’s, quite obviously, Charley might be better than Lucy who might be better than Linus when it comes to adherence to this list. However, in the Christian life, there is no such thing as a 50 percenter. You are saved or you are not; you are spiritual or you are not. Now, there are different stages of growth, but this is completely different from imperfectly following a list of do’s and don’t’s.

8.     Legalism versus grace apparatus for perception:

1)     Grace apparatus for perception is terminology developed by R. B. Thieme, Jr., which means that all believers have the same ability to grow through knowledge of Bible doctrine and the same ability to be productive in the plan of God, no matter what their mental or physical deficiencies. If a person is able to understand the gospel and to believe in Jesus Christ, then he is able to execute the Christian way of life as a mature believer. We all reach spiritual maturity in the same way: God’s grace system, which is the ability to understand with all the saints what the will of God is. Eph. 3:18–19

2)     Every believer has the same crack at the Christian way of life—including Christian maturity—whether they have an IQ of 70 or of 130.

3)     The full doctrine of the grace apparatus for perception is found here and here.

4)     Examples of legalism in the Christian Life, which are also examples of pseudo-spirituality and the pseudo Christian life. These are things that Christian churches, groups and believers do, instead of actually growing in grace and the knowledge of God’s Word.

(1)    Taboos: thinking one is spiritual because he doesn’t do certain things or follows a certain do’s and don’t’s. I don’t know that this is really much of a part of mainstream Christianity as it used to be.

(2)    Imitating Personalities: the idea that living the Christian life is conformity in dress, mannerisms, speech, etc. I have observed this, and it is quite entertaining, but unrelated to the spiritual life. This can occur in all kinds of churches. How many Sunday School teachers at Berachah Church attempted to imitate Bob’s personality when teaching young children?

(3)    Relative Righteousness: “your sins are worse than mine, therefore I am more spiritual” or “I am spiritual and you are carnal.” Spiritually is an absolute state—you are or you are not.

(4)    Ecstatics: spirituality by speaking in tongues, groaning, getting in a trance, fainting. This is a very big deal today (primarily the speaking in tongues and the trance-like states) and has been a corruption of the Christian life for over a century now.

(5)    Asceticism: spirituality by self-sacrifice or extreme self-denial; giving up normal activities or even necessities in the mistaken notion that God is impressed. This is not generally found in the U.S. anymore, where we tend to be very self-indulgent; but is more common outside of the U.S. This is a very big deal in monasteries.

(6)    Ritualism: This is the idea that one is spiritual or growing because he goes through various forms of ceremony or ritual. Spiritual maturity is ascribed to those who do this and look really holy while doing it. In the Apostle’s day, the Jews promoted circumcision as necessary to the Christian walk. These days, any sort of ritual may be used, including singing (I am not saying that singing is wrong, but it is mostly unrelated to spiritual growth, unless one concentrates on the words and the words are Biblically accurate).

(7)    These examples often take the place of spiritual growth. That is, instead of being filled with the Spirit and learning Bible doctrine and growing, one or more of these other things are offered up instead.

(8)    This describes most churches today. They practice various forms of legalism, rather than the filling of the Holy Spirit (by naming one’s sins to God—1John 1:9) and growing in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2Peter 3:18).

9.     Legalism and false systems of production:

1)     One of the biggest problems of legalism is, confusing means with results. Legalism posits the idea that you are spiritual if you are faithful in praying, giving, witnessing, attending church, and so forth. But these legitimate activities are a result of Christian growth and the filling of the Holy Spirit. When the emphasis is placed upon doing these things, that is putting the cart before the horse. These things are not the means for spirituality or growth in Christ.

2)     The grace principle is this: when you are in fellowship, occupied with Christ, and controlled by the Holy Spirit, all of your activities bring eternal reward (gold, silver, precious stones—1Cor. 3:10–14). You are producing divine good, and the spiritual power for your efforts comes from God as a grace provision. The amount that you produce is, of course, limited or enhanced by your spiritual growth.

3)     When you are out of fellowship (with unconfessed sin), you are occupied with yourself, you control yourself, everything is chaos. You therefore produce human good (wood, hay, and stubble—1Cor. 3:10–14). There is no spiritual power supporting your efforts, and there is no reward for them in heaven. This describes most believers today. Most believers today spend a majority of their time out of fellowship, and they only get back into fellowship by accident (they shock themselves so much with a series of sins, that they acknowledge these sins, and are restored to fellowship).

4)     Obedience to God’s Word is not legalism. Remember the definition. Everything you do has the potential for reward in heaven, under the right circumstances. The key is being in fellowship, and growing by grace and the Word of God.

5)     The legalist thinks that the good works he does for God will not only keep him in fellowship and walking with the Lord but will also make him more spiritual and a great Christian. This is confusing means and results.