What exactly is legalism?

Eph 1:4 “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” NIV 

We are called to be holy, as God is holy.  However the means to become holly are sometimes far from what God intended us to do.  There are two extremes out there: legalism and libertarianism.  Today we will explore the woes of legalism.

What is legalism?

Matt 12:9-10 “Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" NIV

We receive here a taste of legalism.  Legalists tend to accuse others easily and condemn them for the actions they do or may do.  I would like to submit the following definition for the word legalism:

Legalism is trying to earn your salvation through your own efforts and works.

Have you noticed that it is never mentioned in the Bible that even one of Jesus’ accusers accepted Him their Savior and Master? Why not?  Because they were too busy earning their heaven through their own efforts and accusing others at the same time for wrongdoing. There is no way they would bow down to the notion of salvation through God’s grace.  “What Jesus died for my sins and I can not do anything to earn my salvation?”  Look what Jesus said about these legalists:

Luke 11:42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs (works!), but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” NIV

Luke 11:46 “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry (works!), and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” NIV

Jesus’ conclusion about them:

Luke 11:52 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” NIV

These legalists were not saved  (“You yourselves have not entered”) and were hindering others from entering into salvation.  No wonder Jesus woed them!  And it isn’t better today!

It’s sad but true, that many Christians fall in this same pit in some degree or another.  Some may accept Jesus’ sacrifice, but they feel that they won’t earn heaven if they don’t do some works at least.  Others have a whole set of rules and regulations, some based on the Bible, others assumed to be in the Bible and others not even mentioned in the Bible.  All those abiding to those rules are saved (which are few to none).  All those who don’t are not. These people do not know Jesus, as Jesus NEVER promoted anything like that! In fact the Scriptures are clear on that:

Acts 4:12 “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”  NIV

How dare we add anything to the gospel message?  Jesus is our Saviour.  Adding anything to what Jesus did for us and making it a requirement to earn our salvation, is a discredit to Jesus!  He is our Saviour!  Not ourselves!

Again the Scriptures say: Eph 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.”  NIV

Anyone adding their own requirements to the gospel message is boasting about their own works!  Woe to them when they will face God for judgment!  Their works will not measure up.  God’s answer will be: Matt 25:12 “I tell you the truth, I don't know you.”  NIV

I used to belong to a legalistic denomination.  While faithfully going to church there, I believed I knew my Bible. However, I felt hollow.  Something was missing.  But wasn’t I trying to keep faithfully all the requirements that the church I was attending?  But the harder I tried, the emptier I felt inside. Until they day I met Jesus and His Holy Spirit descended on me. I would like to share a few personal observations about attending legalistic churches. 

1. People in a legalistic church are never sure if they are saved or not.

“Are you saved?” 

“ I hope so!”

I have heard this over and over in legalistic churches.  In fact, I preached once to a congregation of 130 people and asked them blankly “Who believes they are saved?”  Only 3 people had their hand up.  All others weren’t sure.  Why not?  Because salvation based of works leaves you empty inside.  You cannot measure up to God’s holiness.  You will always be far from being perfect.  You will always be a dirty sinner.

However the Scriptures are quite clear about the certainty of our salvation:

Rom 8:1-2 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”  NIV

In fact the certainty of our salvation is manifested through God’s Holy Spirit living in us:

2 Cor 1:21-22 “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ.  He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” NIV

2 Cor 5:5 “Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”  NIV

Eph 1:13-14 “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.  Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession-to the praise of his glory.”  NIV

Don’t let anyone make you doubt your salvation!  Religion based on works will have that affect on you.  Get out of there!  Believe in God’s promises and not on the empty threats of that church!

2. People in a legalistic church tend to feel empty inside.

Why the emptiness?  Very simple, you cannot replace Jesus with a bunch of rules and regulations.  People in a legalistic church tend to know about God, but do not know Him personally (This is the major reason why they are not sure they are saved!)  It’s a bit as if you spend more time on house rules than spending time with your spouse. 

“Honey, can I have some time with you?” 

“Not now, I have to finish the dished and take the garbage out.  Then I have to….” 

Very soon the two of you will be estranged!  Emptiness will creep in and you will have a major unhappy marriage.

3. Legalistic churches stress more the importance of rules (Biblical and non Biblical) than the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

You know what the apostle Paul says about this?

Rom 7:1-5 “Do you not know, brothers-for I am speaking to men who know the law-that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?  For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage.  So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress.  But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.

So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.” NIV

He illustrates this with a marriage comparison.  Before you knew Christ you were married to a woman called “law”.  She was the one telling you what a sinner you were as you never were able to measure up to her demands.  However, when you died with Jesus on the cross, you were released from that marriage, so that you might belong to Jesus Christ and have a personal relationship with Him.  Only then can you bear fruit to God! You marriage to the law could never bear fruit to God.  Only your marriage with Christ can!

Jesus Himself said: John 15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” NIV

How can one boast in keeping the law?  Apart from Jesus “you can do nothing”.  Your own works will lead to death, Rom 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death.” NIV  Only in Jesus you will be able to “bear much fruit”!

4. Legalistic churches do not emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit.

As the stress is more on the law than on a personal relationship with Christ, legalistic churches don’t seem to grab the importance of God’s Holy Spirit in one’s life.  However Jesus Himself taught about the importance of God’s Spirit in one’s life:

John 16:13 “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.  He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.”  NIV

May I encourage you to read the New Testament and start noticing the importance God’s Spirit played in the early apostolic church?  You will notice that He was the driving force behind and in the believers.

Those who resisted the promptings of God’s Spirit and emphasized the law instead received strong warnings:

Acts 7:51-53 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears!  You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!  Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?  They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.  And now you have betrayed and murdered him- you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."  NIV

Those who do not have the Spirit of Christ do not belong to Christ! While those who have God’s Spirit in them are guaranteed eternal life!

Rom 8:9-11 “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.  And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.  But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.  And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.  NIV

5. Legalistic churches tend to emphasize the authority of certain non Biblical sources such as a certain prophet(s), a founder or a group of leaders in the church.

Col 2:20-23 "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle!  Do not taste!  Do not touch!"?  These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  NIV

You should never accept authority from anyone or anything outside God’s Word!  If you do, you are treading on dangerous grounds.  Remember that Satan’s lies are always mixed with truth.  If they were outright lies, nobody would believe them.  (Read Genesis 3). The same is true with those false prophets and apostles.  If it’s not in the Bible, don’t believe it!

2 Tim 3:16-17 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  NIV

John 17:17-18” Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth (nothing else!).”

John 20:31 “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  NIV

6. People in a legalistic church tend to believe that they are in the only true church.

It is sad when one believes that one has monopoly to God’s truth. The early Christian church tended to share the gospel message only with other Jews (yes the early church was mostly Jewish).  However when God was sending Peter to preach to the gentiles, his fellow Jewish believers were astonished that God wanted even people outside of the Jewish community to be saved.

Acts 10:44-46 “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.  For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” NIV

The message is clear here: nobody has a monopoly on God’s truth, except God Himself! 

Are you tired my friend to lead a life of do’s and do nots?  Are you tired to hear about God and not knowing Jesus personally? Are you tired of feeling empty inside?  It is time you set that legalism aside and come to Jesus to know Him personally as your Lord and Savior.  Only then will you experience true freedom and only then will you bear fruit to God. Stop putting your church on a pedestal.  Instead come to Jesus and put Him first in your life.  Come to Him and accept His call at http://www.answers2prayer.org/saviours_call.html.

2 Cor 2:14 “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.”  NIV

Rob Chaffart


Legalism is a political philosophy that does not address higher questions pertaining to the nature and purpose of existence. It is concerned with the most effective way of governing society. The legalist tradition derives from the principle that the best way to control human behaviour is through written law rather than through ritual, custom or ethics. The ruler in a legalist society is to conduct himself with great shrewdness, keeping his ministers and family at a distance and not revealing his intentions in any way.

Legality is one of the favorite weapons of the enemy. He loves to get Christians to be legalistic, for then he has destroyed their enjoyment of the Spirit and he can use them to spread havoc among a group of believers, and ruin a vital, active, and growing Christian group. That is what happened in Galatia, and is what drew forth the letter to the Galatians from the Apostle Paul. Here was a group of young Christians who had a fantastic beginning. Their response to the preaching of the apostle was heartwarming. They had given themselves totally to Christ. Paul was greatly enthusiastic about this group of growing young Christians. But, after a while, word came to him that legality had set in, legalism was taking its toll. What had been a marvelous testimony of the grace and glory of God was being turned into a dull, apathetic group of religionists -- cold, barren, and empty, almost devoid of spiritual life.

That is what legality will do. Legalism destroys! It did then, and it does now. I don't think there is any affliction in Christendom which is more widespread, and more devastating in its destructiveness, than legalism.

Legalism can also be described as 'false Christianity' because that is truly what it is. It uses Christian language and biblical terms. It sounds evangelical. It sounds Christian, and looks Christian, but it is emphatically not true Christianity.

How can one recognize legalism?  We must first understand that since legality is actually false Christianity, then you can never recognize the 'false' unless you understand the 'true.' And true 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.

There always must be law. This is a law-governed universe because the law reflects the character of God. The 'law' is simply the Ten Commandments that our Father gave us to follow. The Ten Commandments simply describe the nature of God's character. So true Christianity isn't freedom from the existence of law. There is always a standard, always a code of conduct to be observed. But we must be careful what the standard is! You can go wrong selecting the law. You can be legalistic in the standard you have set.


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