The sin of legalism
It’s futile to try and earn God’s favor
Life is like a journey. The Bible says that Christians are people who follow the road that leads to eternal life, which is much narrower than the broad road that leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13-14). As a road has boundaries for safe travel, Christians do not thrive outside God’s boundaries for living. Two ways of going off the road or out of bounds are to either add to or take away from what God has revealed to us in the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19). Legalism involves adding to the Bible and liberalism taking away from it. These are mindsets that come from the sinful nature; not from the Bible or the divine nature.
Law And Liberty
The law given to the Jews in Old Testament times, found in Exodus 20-31, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is summarised in the ten commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). It showed people their sinfulness, since to break one command meant being guilty of breaking all of it (Rom. 3:20; 7:7; Jas. 2:10). As everyone has broken the law, they are under the curse of death (Ro. 6:23; Gal. 3:10). Jesus came to pay this penalty for humanity and in this way He fulfilled the requirements of the law (Mt. 5:17). As their penalty has been paid, Christians are no longer under the law; they have been released from the law (Rom. 6:14 7:6; Gal. 3:13, 24-25). As this is a free gift from God, His acceptance doesn’t depend on our character or conduct.
Believers are to live by faith, not the law (Gal. 3:11-12). This new way of the Spirit brings liberty and freedom and is motivated by love, not fear (Rom. 7:7; 2 Cor. 3:17). Our speech and conduct are to be judged by the “law that gives freedom” (Jas 2:12TNIV), which has taken the place of the ancient law. In regard to things not expressly commanded or forbidden, Christian liberty must be granted, allowing for the exercise of individual judgement and Christian conscience before God (1 Cor. 10:29-31). This must be limited by considerations of love and care not to stumble those with a sensitive conscience (1 Cor. 8:9).
Legalism is an attitude regarding our approach to God. It imposes law on the believer’s conscience so that it comes between them and God. It also includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism is just as dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not.
Legalism exalts “law” above “grace” and replaces “faith” with “works”. The word does not occur in New Testament Greek, but “righteousness in the law” is translated as “righteousness based on the law” (Phil. 3:6). It began when Eve added “you must not touch it” to God’s instruction (Gen. 2:17; 3:3).
The Pharisees were religious leaders amongst the Jews. They wore distinguished clothes to be easily recognised. Their objective was to live in strict accordance with the Old Testament law and the tradition of interpretation they had established and to train other Jews to live this way.
They pledged to obey all the facets of the traditions to the minutest detail, were proud of their traditions and law and felt superior to other nations and people such as the Samaritans (Jn. 4:9). They were usually recognised as examples to follow and were honoured. But God had a much higher standard: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). Their religious ceremonies, without inner faith, were not acceptable to God.
Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites because they put traditions above the word of God (Mt. 15:3, 6-7). Their teachings were human rules that were not from God (Mt. 5:9). Instead Christ taught that purity came from the mind, not from external behaviour (Mt. 15:17-20).
The Pharisees actually relaxed the divine standards. For example, the Corban regulation enabled people to ignore the fifth commandment (Mk. 15:4-6). In one sense their extra laws made it easier to obey the Old Testament law; they took into account the weakness of human nature. The rich young man believed that he had kept all the commandments (Mt. 19:20). As the Pharisees believed they could keep the law, they defined them to enable this!
By following their traditions they were in danger of concluding that they pleased God. For example, Paul was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers and faultless in following the law (Gal 1:14; Phil. 3:5-6). This could give a false sense of spiritual security. The need to depend on God’s mercy was diminished: they “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Lk. 18:9).
The Pharisees were obsessed with following man-made rules and Jesus criticised them strongly for their religious practices (Mt. 23). Jesus said they were hypocrites who oppressed the people and were concerned about appearances and recognition but lacked sincerity and were greedy and self-indulgent. They were meticulous with minor matters but neglected the major matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.
When they felt their position and customs were threatened, the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders persecuted Christ and the early church. They bitterly opposed Jesus and His teachings. Because the early church was largely comprised of Jews, legalism arose within their congregations. We will now look at some instances of legalism in the early church.
Before Peter visited Cornelius when the gospel went to the Gentiles, his attitudes had to be retrained. God caused him to see a vision of a large sheet that came down from heaven containing animals and birds, many of which were impure and unclean under the Jewish food regulations. When he was told to kill and eat them, Peter refused because he always followed these regulations. Then he was told “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). This happened three times to teach him that the Jewish laws no longer applied and that Gentiles were going to receive the Holy Spirit without needing to become Israelites.
When Peter broke the Jewish law of not associating with Gentiles he said “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28) and “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). He knew that the Jewish law no longer applied and all nationalities were to be accepted in the church because God had accepted them (Rom. 15:7).
When Peter was criticized for socialising with Gentiles he described what happened and they were satisfied (Acts 11:1-18). However, some Jewish believers insisted male circumcision was essential for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5). This was a common example of legalism in the early church; being salvation by good works. Paul opposed such legalism and said, “we did not give in to them for a moment” (Gal. 2:5). After Paul and Barnabas spoke up against this and Peter and James agreed with them, the church decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1-31).
Paul taught that Christians should not be required to follow Jewish regulations, which had been fulfilled by Christ (Col. 2:16-17). To enforce such regulations on others involves deception (Col. 2:8). Christians shouldn’t submit to the rules of human tradition like “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” as “These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:8, 20-23). Strict religious rules and regulations do not have power over the sinful nature. Although they may appear good externally, such rules do not address sinful attitudes. In fact they lead to pride.
The Circumcision Group
Jews who insisted that male circumcision was essential for salvation and that the Old Testament law had to be followed to please God were referred to as “the circumcision group” (Gal. 2:12; Ti. 1:10). In Crete they were “rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception”. Paul said that they “must be silenced” because of their false teaching. Furthermore, the congregation should be rebuked sharply to “pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth” (Ti. 1:11, 13). Paul opposed legalism because it was destroying the message of justification by faith. Salvation was by God’s grace alone, through the death of Christ and not involving any human works.
“Quarrels about the law” in Paul’s day such as disputes over clean and unclean foods, Sabbath regulations and observance of holy days, were “unprofitable and useless” (Rom. 14; Ti. 3:9). They diverted believers from a balanced life.
As the churches in Galatia were turning to the “different gospel” of legalism, Paul said that the false teachers of this message would be under God’s curse (Gal. 1:6-9). Even the apostle Peter and Barnabas were influenced by the circumcision group to stop socialising with Gentiles. Paul confronted Peter publicly for this hypocritical behavior: “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Gal. 2:14). He emphasised that believers are justified by faith in Christ alone and not by observing the law.
They were observing special days and months and seasons and years (Gal. 4:10). Paul said that they were enslaved to Jewish regulations (Gal. 4:1-3). Such legalism was wrong because believers were now children of God and not slaves under the law, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Gal. 5:18).
Paul described the perils of legalism in Galatians 5:1-12. It is like going backwards to living in Old Testament times and under slavery that is intolerable to bear (Acts 15:10). Instead of Christ being the only means of salvation, it involved a system of salvation by good works. However, if a person attempts to please God by being circumcised, then they should keep the whole law. Those who were trying to be saved by keeping the law were rejecting that Christ was the only Savior. The believer receives righteousness through the Spirit, whereas the legalist hopes in vain to earn righteousness. Circumcision doesn’t make a believer any better and uncircumcision doesn’t make them any worse, it is irrelevant as far as God is concerned. Legalism is disobeying the truth of Scripture. The belief that circumcision and law-keeping should be added to faith in Christ does not come from God but from Satan. Legalism spreads through a congregation like yeast spreads through dough (Mt. 16:6). False legalistic teachers will be judged by God. The message of Christ’s finished work on the cross is offensive to legalists because it implies that people are incapable of doing anything to merit salvation. Paul wished that the legalists would be cut off from the congregations in Galatia.
Paul called legalists: dogs, evildoers and mutilators of the flesh (Phil. 3:2). Dogs were unclean animals and the term was used by Jews to describe Gentiles. Here Paul was using it for legalistic false teachers. It may also imply their aggression and destructive impact and the fact that legalism leads to criticism and quarrelling (Gal. 5:15).
Legalism is a mindset regarding our approach to God that comes from the sinful nature and adds to the Bible. It places rules and regulations between us and God and puts law above grace and works above faith and includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism involves salvation by good works and not Christ alone. It is selfish and imposes rigid control on others. Legalism is dangerous because it involves sinful thinking and sinful behaviour.
The risk of legalism is greatest for believers with a weak or strict conscience who tend to impose it on others. Any congregation that has existed for some time tends to become legalistic as its customs and traditions get set and confused with scriptural truths. For example, there is usually resistance to changes of a method or practice as some confuse this with liberalism.
Christians can avoid legalism by recognizing the freedoms inherent in God’s word. Both Christ and Paul identified legalism as a serious sin that can destroy a congregation. This was true for the early church and is also true today. In the next article in this series we will look at how to recognise and respond to legalism.
Written, December 2007