I remember the first time I was called a legalist. It was not a compliment. In fact, it was the response given after I had shown what the Bible commands on a particular subject. The exact words were, “I think it’s sad that you’re such a legalist.” Since then, there have been many times the term “legalist” has been thrown my way, usually in discussions on topics such as social drinking (Prov. 23:29-35; 1 Thess. 5:6-8), baptism being necessary for salvation (Mark 16:15-16), instrumental music in New Testament worship (Eph. 5:19; Prov. 30:6), divorce (Matt. 19:9), withdrawing of fellowship (1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:14-15), and denominationalism (1 Cor. 1:10-13; John 17:20-23; Phil. 2:1-2). Perhaps you know what I’m talking about, because the same has happened to you. Is this something that we should be concerned about? Is being known as a “legalist” something to be avoided, or is it something to strive for?
Interestingly, one of the dictionary’s definitions of “legalism” is “strict adherance to the law.” Strict adherance to the law. In other words, obeying the law. Guess we now know legalism gets its legal root word from, don’t we?
Obeying the law. Strict adherance to the law. Is that a terrible thing? In religious circles, it seems to be…but is it really? Let’s think about this concept outside of religion for a second.
Do you make a point to stop your car at every red light? You do? Why? “Because the law says so,” you say.
Guess what? You’re a legalist.
Do you make it a point every April to pay your taxes? You do? Why? “Because if I don’t I’m breaking the law.”
I hate to break this to you, but you’re a legalist.
When you’re at work, do you strive to do your job? Let me clarify. When you’re on the clock, do you do your best to do what your employer tells you to do? You do?
Hmph. You legalist.
Teachers, you assign your students papers to write in class, right? Do you share with them the writing guidelines you expect them to adhere to while writing that paper in the syllabus? Sure you do. If they decide to turn in a five-page paper that has two-inch margins instead of the twelve-page paper with one-inch margins that you asked for, do you dock them points? You do?
Why are you being so legalistic?
Here’s the thing. Outside of religion, I have never in my life heard or seen anyone have a problem with being a legalist when it comes to the law of the land…
…Scratch that. Yes I have. In fact, I see them on the news every night. They’re called criminals.
Plus, now that I think about it, I guess I could add people who are continually being fired from their jobs because they don’t want to do what their boss tells them to that list.
Let’s add the students who are flunking out of school because they want to do their own thing instead of doing what their instructors tell them to do in their classes.
Do you get the point? In the secular world, legalism is a good thing. Legalism is what keeps us free men, as a matter of fact. Legalism keeps us out of jail. Legalism keeps our records clean. Legalism plays a big role in keeping us employed with food on our tables. Without a legalistic mindset, that goal of wanting to strictly follow the rules, none of us would have ever received an A in our lives at school.
So why is legalism such a dirty word in religious circles? Should not strict adherence to God’s laws be a noble goal for every Christian?
Ask any professed Christian if they want to follow God, and they’ll say, “Sure!” Ask them if they want to obey God, and they’ll reply, “You bet!” without hesitation.
Now, ask them if they think they’re legalists. Most if not all will recoil in disgust. Why?
Perhaps harkening back to the great insight and wisdom of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride gives us the answer…
We’ve allowed the religious culture of our day to take a term which literally means obedience and turn it into a dirty word that we practically consider an insult right up there with any vulgarity that is thrown at us. Why?
Is it because we don’t have the right idea about the role of obedience in the plan of salvation? Yes, we’re saved by God’s grace (Eph. 2:8a)…but did you know that God’s grace “instructs” us to do certain things (Tit. 2:11-12)?
What happens if we purposefully disobey what God’s grace instructs us to do? The Bible says we “insult the spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:26-31).
No wonder Paul rhetorically asked, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Rom. 6:1-2)
Yes, we’re saved through faith as well, and Paul did clarify by adding, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8b-9). Jesus did say, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10…but the Bible also says that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-26). In other words, true faith is OBEDIENT trust and loyal compliance with the requirements of God’s will.
In other words, living faithfully requires one to be a legalist when it comes to God’s Word.
If one defines “religious legalism” the same way one defines “secular legalism,” then religious legalism simply means “strict adherence to God’s law.” Now, read your Bible with that in mind and you’ll be amazed at how many legalists you find within its pages. Here are a few examples…
God told Isaac that he would bless him by keeping his promise to Abraham “because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Gen. 26:5).
Sounds like Abraham was a legalist.
One of the last things Moses said to Israel was, “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you…So you shall observe to do just as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right or to the left…Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it” (Deut. 4:2; 5:32; 12:32).
Sounds like Moses was a legalist.
The apostle Paul asked, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16) He also told the Corinthians to “learn not to exceed what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6).
Sounds like Paul was a legalist.
Were they wrong? Can any professed Christian honestly say they were?
I doubt that any of us can honestly commend disobedience to God’s commandments. After all, the apostle John wrote, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
Wow, it sounds like even John was a legalist.
Christian, do you love God? Of course you’re going to say you do…but does God think you do?
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments…”
What about what came out of the mouth of Christ directly? Consider the following statements Jesus himself made…
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
“”Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me…” (John 14:21)
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10)
Wow, looks like even Jesus was a legalist…
Let’s raise the stakes a bit. Christian, is Jesus your Lord and Master? Of course!
With that in mind, let him ask of you this question…
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)
Obviously, God wants us to obey His commands. We should strive to do so to the absolute best of our ability in order to avoid the eternal punishment which awaits those who do not obey him (2 Thess. 1:7-9). When we do that, we are saved…and it’s not because of what we did (Eph. 2:9). That’s one way religious legalism is defined, you know. Salvation by meritorious works. There are two problems with that.
First, no matter how much we obey God we could never “earn” salvation through obedience because we’ve all still sinned (Rom. 3:23) and the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). That’s why we need God’s grace (which, incidentally, requires obedience, as seen above.)
Second, again, the word legalism by itself simply means “strict adherence to the law.” Thus, Christian legalism is “strict aderence to GOD’S law.” When you look at it that way, then anyone who lovingly uses the word of God to help us obey his commandments is blessing us with one of the greatest acts of love and friendship that any human being could bestow upon another.
And yet, why do some in the church ridicule the one who speaks the truth in love in order to help others grow closer to Christ in all aspects (Eph. 4:15) as being a shallow thinker, narrow-minded, and a legalist? Why is legalism associated with the Pharisees? That last one is really puzzling to me, considering that Christ never actually condemned the Pharisees for keeping the laws of God in the Old Testament. In fact, he recommended to his Jewish listeners that they do what the Pharisees tell them to do since they “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matt. 23:2-3a), i.e., teach the commandments found in the Old Testament. Rather, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for hypocrisy (“For they preach, but do not practice” – Matt. 23:3b) and ADDING to God’s Word (Matt. 15:1-9), something which the Old Testament specifically forbade (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6). In other words, he commended them for TEACHING legalism (“strict adherence to God’s laws”) while condemning them for not actually being legalistic (“strictly adhering to God’s laws”) themselves. So the people who call you “a legalistic Pharisee” for simply promoting doing waht the Bible says to do have it all backwards, don’t they?
In truth, this kind of name-calling more often than not serves as an attempt to justify departures from sound doctrine and recent introductions into the church which have no scriptural authority. Men and women who stand up for what God’s word says have always been persecuted in various ways, and unkind and unwarranted accusations such as legalist are just a few of Satan’s many arrows that he throws in attempts to wound and bring down God’s faithful.
My friends, God does not want us to be lukewarm in our service to him (Rev. 3:15-16). He wants our obedience to ALL of his commands. The church today is in great need of more legalists like Abraham, Moses, John, Paul, and Jesus. We need more people who will strive to strictly adhere to ALL of his commands, and not just some of them. We especially need men and women who are “obedient from the heart” (Rom. 6:17).
That last one is most important. Jesus condemned a Pharisee who, while being a proper legalist in the sense that he kept all of God’s commands, lacked a heart of humble, penitent sorrow (Luke 18:9-14). None of us have nor ever will attain perfection (1 John 1:8). There will always be a need for us to plea for the mercy of God, no matter how strictly we strive to obey him…because in some ways we will always need to improve. What will help us to always improve, and thus continue to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness (1 John 1:7-9), is a strong desire from our heart to obey him.
Jesus said to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:37), and defined that love as obedience (John 14:15). When we obey from the heart, we will hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.”