What is "Legalism" Anyways

The word ‘legalism’ is thrown around so much both in Christian and even non-Christian circles, it has become muddy to say the least! And in many cases a misunderstanding of this concept has damaged believers’ personal relationships with God and relationships with others as well.

John Piper gives us two helpful definitions to get started:

~Legalism is a conviction that law keeping is the ground of our acceptance with God (which, I might add, often leads to adding man-made rules to maintain this “righteousness”)

~Legalism is the spirit and life that flows from the failure to be humbled, broken, amazed, and satisfied by the grace of God in Christ

These definitions point out that legalism is both a wrong belief (directly contrary to the gospel!) and also an attitude that flows out of the wrong belief that causes destruction in countless ways. Let us look at some of the ways that legalism reared its ugly head and manifested itself through the attitudes of the Pharisees in Jesus’ ministry.

~They twisted God’s law to permit sin, particularly to allow divorce for any reason (Matthew 19:3)

~They were hypocrites, not only refusing to enter God’s kingdom (through grace!) but also leading others to hell by their insistence of keeping the law to be acceptable to God (Matthew 23)

~They criticize Jesus’ disciples on the basis of their customs on fasting, keeping the Sabbath, and washing of hands as though these were indications of righteousness and thereby reject Christ who is the only way of salvation (Mark 7)

~They made up extra-biblical traditions that completely missed the spirit of God’s commandments. They tithed to the smallest degree, such as their herbs, but they were failures in justice and mercy and faithfulness. They insisted that absolutely no physical effort should be exerted in any way on the Sabbath and condemned doing good to a brother in need if it was on the Sabbath (Jesus healing disease!). They gave away their inheritance money to the synagogue and refused to take care of their parents in their old age. Jesus describes it as straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel! (Luke 11, Matthew 23)

~Because of their preoccupation with following their set of “righteous” rules, leading to a lack of repentance and any understanding of themselves as real sinners, they were not justified or forgiven for their sin (Luke 18)

~They insisted on the practice of circumcision during the early church as though it was necessary for salvation and by so doing they made the gospel useless (Acts 15:5, Galatians 5:2–6)

How ugly! And yet these attitudes and manifestations creep into our own hearts when we view ourselves as somehow righteous because of the things that we do rather than the sacrifice made on our behalf! That being said, here are a few ways to avoid legalism:

  1. Give God the glory for your obedience. Our ability to do what is right in His sight comes by His grace, not our strength.

  2. Don’t demand that everyone share your lifestyle. The Bible does not say how often we should clean the house or how much Scripture we should read. Different lifestyles are acceptable to God as long as they are done in worship and do not violate His commandments.

  3. Do not add to Scripture. God has made it clear that He wants the church to be holy. Do not take Scripture out of context to justify sin. The Bible speaks clearly on actions like abortion, homosexuality, and marriage.  

Discernment can be tricky sometimes. It is important to be in a healthy church with older godly saints helping you to live for Christ. Strive to please Him in all things and avoid a life like the Pharisee...a life of legalism.


Michelle T.