Legalism According to the Bible with Key Scriptures & Commentary


Lord’s Library contributor Jared Helms offers this short study on legalism according to the Bible, with key Scriptures and commentary. Check out Jared’s YouTube channel and two blogs: A Light in the Darkness and Blind Faith Examples.

Ministry Leaders Series BadgeLegalism has been around longer than the Church and was directly confronted by our Lord during His earthly ministry as He dealt with the Pharisees. Like the Pharisees of yore, the modern legalists are very fair to see carrying out a strict religious discipline. They are typically excellent Biblical scholars, for in order to keep the law one must know the law.

Yet Jesus repeatedly accused the Pharisees of missing the entire point of the Scriptures, and of failing to honor the true intent of the law they worked so hard to keep. Jesus goes so far as to say the legalistic Pharisees were inwardly dead. See Matthew 23:27: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

The books of Romans and Galatians show that modern Legalists are just as spiritually bankrupt. Like the Pharisees, they refuse to confess the filth of their own sinful hearts, the total inadequacy of their own righteousness. See Isaiah 64:6: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

The Gospel

Legalism According to the Bible

They will not be humble in admitting that grace alone is sufficient for their salvation, they must contribute to that grace by living out their own ideas of what God has commanded. Matthew 5 shows the impossibility of hitting the true standard of holiness apart from God’s grace. That grace is received solely by faith, not by any work. See Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”

Works are the natural result of saving grace in the life of a true follower of Christ.

Legalism can be the result of a reactive rightward move and is a very real danger in any conservative congregation. However, those who hold a liberal theology can also drift into a legalistic practice focused on the law of acceptance and toleration. Yes, legalism can consume any aspect of variety or aspect of theology save for the doctrine of grace.

Legalists tend to multiply commandments. They can use a general precept to dictate all sorts of very specific regulations regarding anything and everything. They find new commandments in their own traditions. They can get commandments from observing what their theological rivals do and making rules to condemn such actions. They may even make commandments of their own preferences: very arrogantly assuming they have infallible preferences unbiased by their own experiences. In some cases, these poor souls do not even know the origins of their laws, but they cling to them as their only hope of salvation and identity.

Legalists tend to appear to have a strong conscience, but according to Romans 14:2-3 the overly restricted conscience is weak: “For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.”

Because it is weak it is often defensive, and in its defensiveness, it is prone to be harsh and judgmental. This is why in verse 3 of Romans 14, Paul (inspired by the Holy Spirit) commands that the weak not judge the strong for their liberties.

Now, it is very important to note that in Paul’s discussion, he deals with a matter that is not prohibited by a clear command of Scripture: regarding those who break the Scriptures; clear commands we shall see more about in the next section.

We view in the gospels a number of occasions when the legalistic mindset is more concerned with keeping the laws than with helping people. See Mark 3, Matthew 12, and Luke 13.

This is flawed and is baked into the very essence of legalism. Even when a legalist engages in benevolence ministry it is a self-oriented work with a goal of discharging a necessary duty.

Let us be clear: the legalistic message is a self-reliant lie that can only work a soul towards Hell. It is precisely the same lie that every other man-made religion speaks, but is more terrible than the rest as it wears the clothing of the true Gospel.

The cure to legalism is humility. Legalists earnestly believe they must earn their own way to Heaven, by confessing that they cannot, the bonds of legalism are broken. When the law becomes something we do as a result of grace, it takes its proper place, held firmly but gently by souls who openly confess their own struggles and failures and look to Christ alone for their ultimate salvation.

We would emphasize one particularly common form of legalism which upholds traditions as an inviolable law within churches. “We haven’t ever done it that way” is a cry too often heard in business meetings, pointing the congregation to rely upon history rather than God’s leading. Let our tradition be subject to examination by Scripture the same as everything else.

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Timothy Andrew
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Timothy Andrew

Timothy Andrew

Tim is the Founder of Lord's Library. He believes the Bible commands us to minister "as of the ability which God giveth" (1 Peter 4:11). Tim aspires to be as The Lord's mouth by "taking forth the precious from the vile" (Jeremiah 15:19) and witnessing The Gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15: 1-4) to the whole world.

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