“Legalism” is one of those emotionally-charged words that is often hurled at our church and other Bible churches and institutions by Christians who should know better.
If you have read very much of this web site, you already know that we preach salvation through faith in God’s gracious gift of His Son on Calvary‘s cross. We do not believe nor preach that anything we do as Christians adds to our salvation or makes us worthy of God’s grace.
Grace is foundational to our salvation.
Ephesians 2:8-9 states “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” God demands His perfection if we would enter Heaven. Jesus summarized and concluded His Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7 with this command. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” Matthew 7:48 The only perfection we have is God’s righteousness which is imputed to us (put to our account) when we trust Christ for salvation. That righteousness is given to us through God’s act of justification. The truth of justification is taught in Romans 3-5.
In II Corinthians 5:21 the doctrine of justification is clearly summarized. Follow along in your Bible as I paraphrase and amplify it. ” For God the Father gave His perfect sinless Son, Jesus, to shed His blood and die on the cross to bear all of our sins, paying the full penalty for them. He rose again the third day so that through faith in Him we could be declared and made perfectly righteous, even as righteous as God Himself, and thus fit to live with Him in Heaven forever.”
Paul was a legalist until He met Christ on the Road to Damascus and was radically changed. Read Paul’s testimony of his legalism in Philippians 3:4-6 Then read of the change that Jesus made in his life in the following verses 7-15. As a Christian, he poured contempt on all his past efforts to attain righteousness and described it all as manure. When Paul received Christ, he ceased being a legalist. So should every Christian.
Grace teaches us how to live the Christian life.
When we receive Christ as Saviour, that is only the beginning of our Christian life. From that point on the grace of God takes on a new role. It teaches us how to live a godly, holy life. Follow along in your Bible as we read Titus 2:11-15 “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldy lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world; looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto Himself a peculiar people (a people for His own possession) , zealous of good works. These things speak and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee.”
From those verses we learn that a preacher’s work is not only to preach the Gospel of the grace of God, but also teach Christian how to live according to the Bible, which is God’s Word. II Timothy 3:16-17 shows us that all Scripture (from Genesis through The Revelation) is given by inspiration of God and all of it is profitable to teach doctrine, to expose our sins, to correct us and instruct is in living the Christian life.
So when we expose sin and teach Christians how to live victoriously and how to be faithful servants of God, we are not teaching legalism. Those who would charge us with legalism actually want freedom to live their own lives as they see fit. They do not want any preacher confronting them with their sins. They think that God’s grace gives them freedom to live as they choose and reject the Lordship of Christ. So they seek a church where the pastor will “tickle their ears”, that is, give them what they want to hear.
II Timothy 4:1-4
A Christian is legalistic if he requires man-made rules to be a good Christian.
Although we do not preach or practice legalism in our church, there is a place for legalism in our lives. As American citizens, though free, we are bound by the laws of our land. We must drive no faster than the legal speed limit or we rightfully risk getting fined. We must pay our taxes or risk going to jail. As citizens we are surrounded by laws to protect us and make life more pleasant for us as those laws restrict evil doers from taking advantage of us.
As loving parents we surround our children with rules about what they can do. Little ones are told what to do and what not to do and they are punished when they disobey. At the same time we Christian parents should be leading our children to Christ and to the freedom that comes by living under the control of the Holy Spirit. By the time our children have reached their teens, they should be so strong in the faith that their lives are directed more by God’s Word and by the convicting and leading of the Holy Spirit, than by parental rules.
In our Christian school our students are surrounded by rules and regulations to enable them to be free to learn. It is our desire that by the time our students have reached high school, their lives should be ruled by God’s Word and by the leading of the Holy Spirit to where they should not have to check the student hand book to see if what they are doing is right or wrong.
A pastor is legalistic if he preaches man-made rules as the way to become a Christian or as the way to live the Christian life. It’s a preacher’s business to avoid legalism and to declare what the Bible says about sin, to show God’s way of victory over sin, to teach Biblical principles for living the Christian life and to warn of Satan and his strategies for defeating us. If you want some Biblical information concerning the responsibility of a preacher, I encourage you to read I and II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy and Titus. These epistles as well as all of Paul’s epistles will help you understand the role and the message of a Biblical pastor.
If your life thus far has been a struggle of trying to please God through your works, I urge you to turn from your self-righteousness and turn to Christ who alone can make you fit for Heaven. He alone can change your life and enable you to gain victory over sin.
May God bless you as you seek to live your life under the principles and standards of God’s Word. May you allow the Holy Spirit to convict you of sin and enable you to make the necessary changes in your life so that you can live for Christ and serve Him, bringing glory to Him. May His Word teach you how to walk in freedom and may He protect you from being burdened down with legalism.
Jesus is speaking to His disciples about stewardship in the first 13 verses of Luke 16. You’ll find those messages under that category on this web site. In verse 14 we learn that covetous Pharisees who heard Him speak derided Him because they wanted to justify themselves. Jesus responded to them in verse 15. “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.”
In this message I want to confront a common misconception that claims Israel, under the Old Covenant, was saved by keeping God’s Law; whereas we today in the church age are saved by the grace of God alone. The truth is that mankind from the very beginning has always been saved only one way and that is be the grace of God alone.
Noah was saved by God’s grace through faith alone. See Genesis 6:8 and Hebrews 11:7. Noah showed his faith by building an ark to protect himself from a worldwide flood he had never seen before, but it was God’s grace that saved him.
Abraham was justified by God’s grace through faith in God by obeying Him and leaving his home in Ur of the Chaldees and moving to a new land that God would give to him and his posterity, the land of Palestine. See Romans 4:1-4, Hebrews 11:8-19.
Keep in mind that Noah and Abraham were not saved by keeping God’s Law nor observing ceremonies, such as circumcision. In the first place, God’s law came 1000 years after Noah and 430 years after Abraham.
If you’ll take time to read Genesis 12:1-4 you’ll see that Abraham moved in obedience to God when he was 75 years old. In Genesis 17 you’ll learn that he was circumcised twenty-four years later at the age of 99. Paul in Romans 4:1-16 and in Galatians 3:6-18 goes to great pains to make it clear that Abraham was saved by grace alone, and not by keeping the law or being circumcised.
True, Abraham and his blood descendants have followed God’s law in being circumcised, as a mark of their national identity. The Bible teaches that God is far more concerned about the circumcision of our hearts, whether we be male or female, then He is concerned about circumcision of foreskins in males. Deuteronomy 30:1-6 Romans 2:23-29, Colossians 2:8-13 all show God’s concern for circumcision of hearts.
David who lived under the Law of Moses understood that his feeble, failed attempts to keep God’s Law could never justify him before God. He understood, even back in Old Testament times, that he was justified by God’s grace through faith in Him as he writes about it in Psalm 32. Paul refers to David’s justification before God in Romans 4:6-8. Of course, Old Testament saints looked forward to the promised Lamb, the Lord Jesus, who would take away the sins of the world. In anticipation of that Lamb, they offered the animal sacrifices as taught in the Law of Moses.
Don’t be misled to think that David or any of the godly saints in the Old Testament were legalists. They were not saved by law keeping. They were saved by grace alone, just as we are in the church age. Because of their relationship with God, they loved God’s Law and they obeyed from the heart, just as we today who know Christ, love His Law and are able to live the righteousness of the Law by the power of the Holy Spirit, as shown in Romans 8:1-4.
Read the Psalms as David repeatedly delights in the Law of God. Those Psalms are just as precious to us in the church age. We delight in God’s Law just as much as David did; but we, as David, understand that we are justified by God’s grace.
Some have well described God’s Law as a railroad track upon which God meant the trains, Israel in Old Testament times and the Church in our present age to travel down, led by the engine of God’s grace and coupled to that engine by faith.
The legalists: the false teachers of Old Testament times, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the Judaizers of Paul’s day, and the religionists of our present day, are all guilty of the folly and the futility of attempting to lift up one end of those railroad tracks and lean them against the gate of Heaven and attempt to climb those tracks as a ladder and gain entrance into Heaven by their own efforts to keep the Law of God.
That’s the basic difference between true Christianity and false religion, regardless of its name. The true Christian is one who has seen himself as a guilty, lost sinner and who by the grace of God has placed his faith in God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to pay the full penalty for our sins. As a Christian, he accepts the Bible as God’s holy inspired, infallible Word and delights in reading it, hearing it preached and obeying it. He is traveling down the railroad track of God’s Word, bound for Heaven by the grace of God.
The religionist sees the Law of God as a ladder to Heaven. He rejects the fact that he is a sinner and in need of a Saviour. Full of pride and self-righteousness, he attempts to climb that ladder and attain Heaven by his own hopelessly inadequate efforts trusting that through his works and through what his church can do for him, he will somehow attain Heaven. He is bound for Hell. As the Pharisees in Luke 16:15 he rejects and despises Christ and attempts to justify himself. He is an abomination in the sight of God.
God’s moral Laws, summed up in the Ten Commandments and given to Old Testament Israel, not only taught them God’s holy character and standards for living; but they also teach us, His Church, what God expects of us. Though we are not saved by attempting to obey His Laws, we as Christians delight to please Him by obeying Him, just as a child delights in pleasing his parents and having their smile of approval.
Not only are His Ten Commandments applicable to us, but II Timothy 3:16 teaches us that all Scripture from Genesis through Revelation is profitable for our learning and application to bring us to spiritual maturity and to prepare us to serve Him.
When we as Christians desire to do what is right in the sight of God, that is not legalism; but love and appreciation for all God means to us.
Consider two wrong uses of God’s Law.
1. Some simply ignore it, falsely thinking that it applies only to Israel and that we Christians who are saved by grace and not by our works, are free to live anyway we choose. They are quick to brand as legalists, Christians who, in love for Christ, desire to live by God’s moral standards.
They are like the people in Jeremiah’s day who despised God’s Law. Take time now to read Jeremiah 6:10-20 As you read this passage, note that Israel rejected God’s Law and had no delight in it. Even the priests and prophets in their covetous desire to please the people, gave them false messages of peace with God, when there was no peace because they had not dealt with their sins.
Note in verse 15 that the people were not ashamed to flaunt God’s laws. They did not even blush. That’s exactly the situation today when people who call themselves Christians flaunt God’s Laws, as unmarried couples do; living together in adulterous relationships and thinking nothing of it. They don’t even blush.
In verse 19 God promises to bring evil upon them because they have rejected His Word. It wasn’t long before Judah found themselves enslaved in the Babylonian Captivity.
Verse 20 speaks about their so-called worship services that they attempted to offer to God, even while they ignored His Word and lived in sin. Today we have a generation of Christians who love their feel-good worship services, but who in defiance to God, ignore and avoid any preacher who honestly shows them what the Bible has to say about their sins. Such worship is an abomination to God.
2. Another wrong use of the Law is to attempt to use it as the Pharisees did, by making it a ladder to Heaven. Those who attempt to please God and achieve Heaven by trying to earn their salvation through law keeping are the true legalists.
God, who has saved sinners by His grace, never meant for sinful man to try to earn his way to Heaven by his feeble, flawed attempts to keep His Law. That’s why in Jeremiah 31:31-33 God promised a New Covenant. Whereas the Old Covenant dealt with externals, such as circumcision of the foreskins of males, the New Covenant deals with internals.
Circumcision of heart
In the New Covenant God wrote His Law in the heart. The fleshly circumcision was replaced by circumcision of hearts of both males and females. Read about that in Deuteronomy 30:6 and Colossians 2:9-11.
That circumcision of hearts takes place as Christians expose themselves to the faithful preaching of God’s Word. As sin is dealt with, the Holy Spirit convicts us and as we quit making excuses and confess sin as sin; God forgives and cuts away sin and fleshly desires from our hearts.
What then is God’s purpose of His Law?
Jesus warned in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:20 that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees or we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
The proud, self-righteous Pharisees, vainly attempted to keep God’s law to the letter, including a host of man-made minutia which they had added to make it even more difficult. Their’s was not a heart obedience from hearts who loved God, but their’s, according to Matthew 23:23, was an external attempt to make themselves look good and overlook the things that really matter.
The purpose of God’s Law, according to Galatians 3:24, is to help us come to the end of ourselves, and cast ourselves on God’s mercy and grace, realizing that Christ has fulfilled God’s righteous standards perfectly. He died for us, paying the full penalty for our sins. When we trust Him as our Saviour, we are complete in Him according to Colossians 2:9-10.
Let those of us who have trusted Christ for salvation, read God’s Word and place ourselves under the faithful preaching of it, rejoicing in God’s righteous standards. Let us discover the freedom of living the righteousness of the Law under the power of the Holy Spirit, as Romans 8:1-4 teaches us, and let us not be ashamed to be mis-labeled “legalists” by those who ignore and have no desire to live godly lives.
To learn more about legalism and how to escape it, go to the category FREEDOM for a study of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.