“Legalist” and “Legalism” are hateful terms, reserved for the very worst among us! In its true form, it is an obstacle to salvation, at the very least. However, today we are seeing a rise in a new form of legalism. No doubt this form of legalism has been in existence over the centuries, yet it has grown in popularity during these last days to epidemic proportions. Good, God-fearing churches and families are becoming infected with the disease of this new legalism, and it threatens the annihilation of true discipleship to Christ, and even the knowledge future generations will have of a pure Gospel witness. This is dangerous stuff, and we must guard against it and contend for Bible truth which is opposed by this new legalism. As Jude 3 tells us, “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
Let’s be honest. The terms “legalism” and “legalist” are not found in the Bible. However, just like the word “rapture,” the truth behind the words “legalism” and “legalist” are found clearly set forth in Scripture. If we are going to understand what a biblical legalist is, we must understand what the Bible teaches about the subject. Without entering into a detailed study on the subject, legalism is portrayed in two separate, yet coexistent, ways in the Bible. Both of these portrayals of legalism are found in Acts chapter 15.
The Law to Obtain Salvation
Acts 15:1 says, “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” This is the requirement of the Law for salvation. There are a great many “Christian” religious organizations which fall into this category. From the Roman Catholic Church and Church of Christ to the Seventh Day Adventist, there are scores of religious organizations which hold to some formula of law or requirement in order to receive salvation. Many of these laws or requirements are based to some degree upon the ten commandments given to Moses upon Mount Sinai. Of this Law Paul says in Galatians 3:21, “Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.” So, the biblical legalist tells us to follow the law (whatever they declare that law to be) in order to achieve eternal salvation. No matter how they explain it, the legalist is asking his followers to submit to certain rules, which will mix with their followers’ faith and the grace of God to achieve salvation. Of course, Paul teaches that practice to be contrary to the truth in Galatians 2:16: “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.” Therefore, no man or woman has ever been, nor ever will be made right before God by the works of the Law, whether it is the law given to Moses or any law ordained by some religious organization. Also, in Romans 11:6 Paul says, “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” This simply means that we are saved either by the grace of God or our own works, not a mixture of both.
The Law to Preserve Salvation
Acts 15:5 says, “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” While it does not directly state this, it does seem to imply that these of the sect of the Pharisees were teaching the keeping of the Law in order to preserve salvation. There are a good many “Christian” religious organizations which hold to this form of legalism, from the Pentecostal and charismatic movements to the Mennonite and Amish, and the list goes on. These legalists will teach that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone but will continue to teach its adherers that they must each follow a certain code of conduct or rules in order to maintain that salvation. Paul teaches about this very thing in Galatians 3:3. “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” So, just as with receiving salvation, the preservation of salvation is not a mixture of grace (Spirit) and works. Of course, this teaching also denies the truth of eternal salvation, as taught in Scripture. Hebrews 9:12 says, “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained ETERNAL REDEMPTION for us.” Hebrews 10:10-12 says, “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ ONCE FOR ALL. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered ONE SACRIFICE FOR SINS FOR EVER, sat down on the right hand of God;” The simple truth is that we can never be good enough to obtain salvation by our own works, nor can we ever be good enough to preserve our own salvation by our own works. That is why our salvation and preservation are placed firmly in the hand of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, Who can never fail! Jude 24 and 25 says, “Now unto HIM THAT IS ABLE TO KEEP YOU FROM FALLING, AND TO PRESENT YOU FAULTLESS before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.” 2 Timothy 4:18 says, “And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and WILL PRESERVE ME UNTO HIS HEAVENLY KINGDOM: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
The term “legalism,” as it is commonly used today, bears no resemblance to that which is defined for us in Scripture. This form of “legalism” has no bearing over the salvation or preservation of the individual. Instead, this is a considered misuse of the term to belittle any and all who wish to follow the Lord with all their heart, and wish to teach others to do the same. If you believe that a Christian should not involve himself in any particular practice, you are a legalist (1 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Corinthians 6:14-16). If you believe that a Christian should avoid any particular activity, you are a legalist (1 Corinthians 6:8; 10:14; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). If you hold to any decent dress standard, you are a legalist (1 Timothy 2:9). To hold to that definition of “legalist” and “legalism,” the Apostle Paul would have to be declared a “legalist!”
I do not mean to excuse many who preach their personal preference as if it were heavenly edict. That is not legalism, it is simply extra-biblical preaching. I believe in the considered application of the principles of God’s Word to the way in which every aspect of our lives is conducted. I believe that this is God’s plan and expectation for every believer (1 Corinthians 6:17-18; 15:33; Philippians 2:12-15). Of course, that statement makes me a legalist to many people.
When I pastored in Texas, the church trustees accused me of being a legalist. They warned me that many of the folks attending our church would leave if I didn’t change my “legalistic” preaching. What was the legalism I was guilty of practising? I MADE MENTION of the sins of alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and adultery! How legalistic! This was not a weekly feature of my preaching, but I found out later that many members of the church had been and were at that time involved in each of these sinful activities! Of course, they were upset! The pastor was exposing sin in their lives and they were not comfortable with that. I must add that with the exception of the adultery, I never talked to anyone personally about these sins and their personal involvement in these sins. I was just happily proclaiming the truth of God. Many men of God can testify to similar circumstances in their own ministry. Anyone who wishes to clearly preach and teach what God’s says in His Word will be accused of being a legalist.
Today, we are seeing the rise of a new type of legalist. This is the believer who wants to follow the letter of the law and avoids the application of the principle taught by the letter. This is the believer who says, “The Bible never says that smoking is wrong” or “It never says we can’t have tattoos,” and so on. The clear implication is that these believers will only do what is expressly mentioned in Scripture, especially the New Testament. As I said before, there have always been people like this, but these last days seem to be filled with churches and believers who are wholly committed to this form of legalism.
These new legalists remind me of my children, who will clean their room to a certain point, but tell me that I never told them to pick up their dirty socks out of the floor. I would have thought that a little common sense would have told them to pick up their dirty socks out of the floor if they are supposed to be cleaning their room. But, because I never specifically said to pick up their dirty socks, they will let them stay until the socks are able to walk on their own!
Sadly, these new legalists are guilty of overlooking the teaching that Christ gave to His disciples in His Sermon on the Mount. In part, Jesus teaches us that the Spirit requires MORE than the letter did (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-34, 38-39). Our flesh is always looking for a way to do less for God and hold onto a corner of sin for ourselves. This new legalism makes that possible because we can ignore any scriptural principle which might invade upon our pet sin!
These new legalists are killing their own spiritual life and that of those who are influenced by them. 2 Corinthians 3:6 says, “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” We must ever look beyond the letter of the Word of God to the Spirit that stands by to teach us the application of the letter to our life (John 16:13). In so doing, we will be able to live and grow spiritually.
The truth is, not all standards by which believers should live are clearly spelt out for us in Scripture. I appreciate our wonderful God for giving us His Word in such a glorious way. God knew the depths of depravity that would come in these last days, as well as the besetting sins of each succeeding generation. To write a book that would cover every possible thing which the Lord would call upon His people to avoid would cause an overflow of the largest library in the world. So, to avoid such confusion, the Lord gave us some very direct statements and some general principles by which to avoid the pitfalls of sin in any generation, culture, or period of time. The application of these principles will bring us to the conclusion that certain attitudes, actions, or activities must be avoided in order to live pleasing to God, unspotted by the world.
The overriding principles by which the believer should conduct his life are these: 1) “I love the Lord so much, that I am willing to lay aside my desire, not for His commandment, but for His pleasure and desire (Mark 12:30; 2 Timothy 2:4),” and 2) “I don’t want to be guilty of involving myself in anything by which my testimony for the Lord is diluted or cheapened (Matthew 5:14-16; 1 Corinthians 15:33).” If these are the guiding principles by which we study God’s Word, we no longer seek for the letter of the law, but for the Spirit of life, even if that means doing MORE than we at first thought was required.
This new legalism that permeates our land is dangerous because it eventually leads the legalist to believe that he can live just as he did before salvation without being called backslidden and without the fear of punishment (Hebrews 12:6). The legalist’s manner of life leads the unconverted to believe that there really isn’t anything to salvation, and allows them to feel comfortable in their sin. This new legalistic philosophy poisons the influence a church should have upon its community, making it another of the “also-rans” of churches, as was the church of Laodicea.
Brother, let us not look to the letter, but to the Spirit. Let our love for the Lord compel us to go two miles when those around us will only go one (Matthew 5:41). God, help us to be the kind of Christian You intend for us to be in this wicked and adulterous generation!