Ask Steve: What is Legalism



Currently Reading:

Culture Shift: The Battle for the Moral Heart of America

by R. Albert Mohler

Category: Christian Living / Contemporary Issues

2008, Multnomah Books




Question: Steve, I have heard about churches that were so-called “legalistic,” but I am not sure if I am in one. Can you define legalism for me?

Answer: Legalism is simply the improper, misguided, or excessive use of the law in the life of the Christian and the church. Whereas licentiousness is the abuse of God’s Law, especially in liberty issues, to live a selfish and worldly life, legalism is the abuse of God’s law, even in liberty issues, to force or manipulate “holiness” into the life of a believer. Legalism happens in all kinds of churches, although its form ranges from church to church and situation to situation.

Before outlining what legalism is, it is important to begin by describing what legalism is not. Legalism is not diligently obeying the word of God as an act of worship. Scripture commands us to obey the Lord and to strive to be holy in keeping with our identity as children of God (John 17:17; 1 Peter 1:15). A Christian who loves to read the Bible everyday, live righteously, guard his conscience, attend church every Sunday, and do lots of evangelism is not legalistic. It is gospel-centered obedience. Some have criticized devoted Christian living as a means to justify their disobedient or rebellious lifestyle.

Legalism is also not a social or preferential way of life. It is not looking at a Christian and disagreeing with his conservative clothing and that he likes traditional hymns, worshipping in a traditional church building, or is “old-fashioned.” In like manner, legalism is not looking at a Christian and disagreeing with his trendy clothes, and that he likes contemporary songs, worshipping in a school auditorium, and is hip. When the Christian forces or disciplines another for his social or preferential way of life, that is legalism. But to simply have your own likes and inclinations – no matter how conservative or culturally different it is – is not legalism.

With that said, true legalism is manifested in three ways.

The first way is that legalism is a means to gain salvation. What I mean by this is that a believer is taught to keep the Law of God in order to build up the righteousness necessary for eternal life. This is clearly a heretical teaching and the kind of legalism that Jesus constantly rebuked when challenging the Jewish authorities. In Matthew 23:15, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” Moreover, Paul teaches in Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 also affirms the validity of salvation by faith apart from works of the law. The gospel teaches that man is saved by faith in Christ, a salvation which cannot be added or taken away by works. Those who teach otherwise teach a works-based salvation. Examples of cults which fall into this category of legalism are Roman Catholicism, The Watch Tower, and Latter-Day Saints.

The second way that legalism is manifested is that it becomes a means to maintain salvation. Believers are taught to keep the Law of God diligently in order to maintain his right standing with God for eternal life. This is also another heretical teaching that contradicts the gospel message. Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” No person can work to maintain his salvation by the law, because if that were the case, men would already lose their salvation. Romans 3:10 teaches us about the depravity of men, which shows us people’s inability to keep the law to gain or maintain salvation. James 2:10 also teaches us concerning the perfection of the law, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” Christians live out the law of God as an act of worship to God, not as a means to maintain salvation. When done with the wrong motives, works become meaningless. That is the point behind the judgment of the false converts in Matthew 7:21-23, when Jesus condemns the so-called “Christians” who boasted in their works. It is not because works are bad in the life of a Christian, but that they were falsely trusted in rather than in the gospel of Christ.

The third way that legalism is manifested is that it becomes a means to peer pressure, condemn, or exclude others from fellowship. This means that Christians who don’t follow extra-biblical rules and expectations – whether it be from church tradition or cultural norms – are judged as disobedient, unholy, and sometimes unfit for church membership. This is not heretical in the same sense as the previous two are in that this type of legalism does not teach salvation by works. However, this category of legalism is still displeasing to the Lord, as it is can be unnecessarily destructive and overbearing, and should be avoided. This is the kind of legalism that you will see in some evangelical churches, most specifically in hyper-fundamentalist churches or churches that are culturally and traditionally influenced.

The principle is most clearly expressed in Romans 14:1-12. It states, “ Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgments on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God, and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God…” The Apostle Paul teaches that the church will be full of people of all backgrounds, and with it different convictions on “silent issues,” Christian liberty, and gray areas. No Christian is to judge or exclude others – whether they be the weaker or stronger brethren – because he or she has differing beliefs or understandings of non-moral and/or unclear issues in Scripture.

In other words, these silent issues must be left to the individual conscience. If the Christian is wrong or if he uses his choices in a way that causes others to stumble, then he will give an account to God at the Bema Seat Judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10). We can certainly encourage, pray for, or give a reason for why we believe differently, but to say “Thus sayeth the Lord” on those issues and play judge by peer pressuring, excluding, or church disciplining another believer is something that Scripture forbids. This is especially true if the Christian’s activities do not cause others to stumble and if he has no malicious intentions. These liberty or silent issues include movies, music, dancing, alcohol, social media, dating and courtship, boy/girl interactions within the church, leader and layperson interactions within the church, holiday celebrations, food, clothing, etc.

The sad thing is that there are evangelical Christian churches that faithfully preach God’s word, disciple the saints, live holy, and are passionate about evangelism, yet fall into this category of legalism, which can be observed in how they treat the stronger and weaker brethren in regards to membership, leadership qualification, and social acceptance. The result is that the church becomes legalistic, judgmental, and often times lacking in grace and patience. The serious end is that they become like the Ephesus church in Revelation 2:1-7 or like the Diotrophes case in 3 John.

Legalism can occur on the leadership level in how they govern and create the social structure of the church, or on the layperson level in how one believer treats another. In any case, Christians are called to find their final authority in the word of God and not in their own preferences or those of another. In every arena of Christian conduct, there are commandments, wisdom issues, and preferences. Commandments are those statutes that are clearly given to us in Scripture which we are called to follow, and if we do not, it constitutes sin and can be the basis for church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20). However, wisdom issues and preferences do not necessarily constitute sin, and God is ultimately the judge in those issues of personal conscience and convictions. When the church elevates those wisdom issues and preference to the level of commandment in that they judge by get angry at, condemn, or cast out people in the church who do not sin, then the church becomes legalistic, and is guilty of lording it over the flock (1 Peter 5:3). The church leaders must be heavily prayed for in regards to repentance, or in more severe cases, confronted according to the mandates of Matthew 18:15-20.