The blogpost that has generated the most comments on my blog is “I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?” This post was written in 2011. No one has clicked the “Like” button, but at least 18 people have left comments. So it has generated lots of discussion. Most of the commentators disagree with the opinion expressed in the post.
After his commentary on the book of Galatians, MacDonald (1989) states that “On completing a study of Galatians, one might conclude that Paul defeated the teachers of legalism so effectively that the issue would never trouble the church again. History and experience prove otherwise! Legalism has become so important a part of Christendom that most people believe that it actually belongs. Yes, legalists are still with us.”
The major example MacDonald gives of contemporary legalism is insistence on Sabbath-keeping. He refers to those who warn Christians that they must keep the Sabbath if they are to be saved at last. Then he gives the following warning of this false teaching and how to answer it.
The (false) teachers of the Sabbath usually begin by preaching the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ. They use well-known evangelical hymns to lure the unwary, and appear to place much emphasis on the Scriptures. But before long, they put their followers under the law of Moses, especially the commandment concerning the Sabbath. (The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, or Saturday).
Moral law and ceremonial law
How do they do this in the light of Paul’s clear teaching that the Christian is dead to the law? How do they get around the plain statements of Galatians? The answer is that they make a sharp distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law. The moral law is the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial law covers the other regulations given by God, such as rules concerning unclean foods, leprosy, offerings to God, and so forth.
The moral law they say has never been revoked. It is an expression of God’s eternal truth. To commit idolatry, murder, or adultery will always be contrary to God’s law. The ceremonial law, however, has been done away in Christ. Therefore, they conclude, when Paul teaches that the Christian is dead to the law, he is speaking about the ceremonial law and not the Ten Commandments.
Since the moral law is still in effect, Christians are bound to keep it, they insist. This means that they must keep the Sabbath, that they must do no work on that day. They assert that one of the popes of the Roman Catholic Church (or the Emperor Constantine) ordered the change from Sabbath-observance to observance of Sunday, in utter violation of the Scriptures.
This reasoning sounds logical and appealing. However, its great condemning feature is that it is entirely contrary to God’s word! Note the following seven points.
- In 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, the Ten Commandments are definitely stated to be “brought to an end” for the believer in Christ. In verse 7, the law is described as “the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone”. This could only mean the moral law, not the ceremonial law. Only the Ten Commandments were engraved in stones by the finger of God (Ex.31:18). In verse 11, we read that the ministry that brought death, though glorious, was “being brought to an end” (ESV), “fading away” (HCSB), “made ineffective” (NET), or “transitory” (NIV). Nothing could be more decisive than this. The Sabbath has no claim on the Christian.
- No Gentile was ever commanded to keep the Sabbath. The law was given to the Jewish nation only (Ex. 31:13). Although God Himself rested on the seventh day, He did not command anyone else to do so until He gave the law to the children of Israel.
- Christians did not switch from the Sabbath to the first day of the week because of the decree of any pope (or Roman Emperor). We set aside the Lord’s Day (Sunday) in a special way for worship and for service because the Lord Jesus rose from the dead on that day, a proof that the work of redemption was completed (Jn. 20:1). Also, on that day the early disciples met to break bread (celebrate the Lord’s Supper), showing forth the Lord’s death (Acts 20:7), and it was the day appointed by God for Christians to set apart their offerings as the Lord had prospered them (1 Cor. 16:1-2). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit was sent down from heaven on the first day of the week.
Christians do not “observe” the Lord’s day as a means of achieving holiness, or from fear of punishment; they set it apart because of loving devotion to the One who gave Himself for them.
- Paul does not distinguish between the moral law and the ceremonial law. Rather, he insists that the law is a complete unit, and that a curse rests on those who seek to attain righteousness by it, yet fail to keep it all.
- Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament as moral instruction for the children of God. They deal with things that are inherently right or wrong. The one commandment which is omitted is the law of the Sabbath. The keeping of a day is not inherently right or wrong. There is no instruction to Christians to keep the Sabbath. Rather the Scripture distinctly states that the Christian cannot be condemned for failing to keep it (Col. 2:16)!
- The penalty for breaking the Sabbath in the Old Testament was death (Ex. 35:2). But those who insist on believers keeping the Sabbath today do not carry out the penalty on offenders. They thus dishonour the law and destroy its authority by failing to insist that its demands be met. They are saying, in effect, “This is God’s law and you just keep it, but nothing will happen if you break it”.
- Christ, and not the law, is the believer’s rule for life. We should live as He lived. This is an even higher standard than was set by the law (Mt. 5:17-48). We are empowered to live holy lives by the Holy Spirit. We want to live holy lives because of love for Christ. The righteousness demanded by the law is fulfilled by those who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4)
Thus, the teaching that believers must keep the Sabbath is directly contrary to Scripture (Col. 2:16), and is simply a “different gospel” upon which God’s word pronounces a curse (Gal. 1:7,9).
May each one be given wisdom from God to discern the evil doctrine of legalism in whatever form it may appear! May we never seek justification or sanctification through ceremonies or human effort, but depend completely and only on the Lord Jesus Christ for every need. May we always remember that legalism is an insult to God because it substitutes the shadow for the Reality—ceremonialism for Christ.
MacDonald William (1989) “Believer’s Bible commentary”, 2nd edition, Thomas Nelson, p. 1928-1930.
Written, April 2017
Also see: What about keeping the Sabbath day?
I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?
What does the New Testament say about the Sabbath?
I’ve been told that Christians should keep the ten commandments as they were God’s law and not the law of Moses. Is this true?
The Sabbath day difference between Jesus and Paul
Why the new covenant is better
The sin of legalism
Destroying a barrier to Christian unity
Legalism involves salvation by good works and not Christ alone and insisting on certain behavior in order to please God. Both Christ and Paul identified legalism as a serious sin that can destroy a congregation. In this article we look at how to recognize and respond to legalism. Several signs may be associated with legalism. If many of these are recognizable in the behavior of a person or a congregation, then it is likely that the sin of legalism is present.
Overemphasis on Customs and Traditions
As believers endeavor to act godly, our behavior as individuals or congregations should involve expressing Scriptural principles in the circumstances we face. Legalists develop systems of rules and regulations based on human commands and teachings; they emphasize the human circumstances and neglect the Scriptural principles. They demand strict adherence to traditions and view these as being important, while neglecting major aspects of the Christian faith. This is adding to the Bible as traditional customs and practices are viewed as being equivalent to scriptural principles. Legalism places standards of conduct upon Christians that do not exist in Scripture.
For example, the apostle Peter and the missionary Barnabas were influenced by legalists to follow the Jewish custom of not eating with Gentiles (Gal. 2: 11-14). Also, some teach that baptism, confirmation, church membership or good deeds are necessary for salvation or that Christians need to keep certain Old Testament laws, such as the Sabbath, in order to please God. Furthermore, some think that Sunday is a “holy day” or a replacement of the Jewish Sabbath, but this has no Scriptural support. According to Paul, legalists are enslaved by their customs and traditions (Gal. 4:9; 5:1).
Many legalistic believers make the error of demanding unqualified adherence to their Biblical interpretations and traditions. For example, there are those who feel that to be spiritual one must avoid tobacco, alcoholic beverages, dancing and movies, etc. The truth is that avoiding these things is no guarantee of spirituality.
Overemphasis on external things
Legalism is an external religion. It emphases externals more than internals and people learn that appearance is more important than what they are on the inside and one’s life becomes a performance for those who may be watching. Legalists want to impress others, whereas we should be serving God (Gal. 6:12). The Pharisees thought they were honoring God by following the Old Testament law, but Jesus said they were hypocrites as the inner motives and desires of the mind were more important than external behavior (Mt. 15:1-20).
Criticize and Judge Others
The Pharisees looked down on others that didn’t satisfy their expectations. They added extra rules about the Sabbath to those in the Old Testament (Mt. 12:1-2; Lk. 13:14; Jn. 7:21-24). They even criticized Jesus Christ, the only one without any sin in their life! They made false accusations and were aggressive (Mt. 27:59-68; Mk. 3:22). This led to them judging Him to be a criminal and having Him executed because He claimed to be the Son of God (Mk. 8:31; Jn. 19:7).
Legalists criticize believers that are not like them. This criticism often concerns a disagreement about matters that are not mentioned in the Bible or that are mentioned very little in Scripture. It makes people feel guilty when they shouldn’t feel that way. This leads to the situation where emotions are to be controlled and personal opinions must always be carefully evaluated before being expressed for fear of being criticized or punished.
Although they may appear to be strong, according to Paul legalists are weak (Rom. 14:1; 15:1). They have a weak conscience with respect to debatable matters.
A legalist teaches or implies that their rules and regulations are “biblical” and others must adhere to them in order to be “godly”. They take a leadership role and expect others to comply with their viewpoint. Self imposed rules are fine, but putting them on others is legalism.
Legalism is about control; it destroys our freedom in Christ. It demands obedience and involves force: Paul said that Peter was forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs (Gal. 2:14). Legalists make life difficult by putting onerous oppressive requirements on others and forcing them to follow their customs slavishly. Conformity is demanded with the reason given that it is essential in order to please God. They use Christianity as a tool to control people, forgetting that Scripture teaches unity, not uniformity.
This leads to fear amongst those coming under the influence of legalism. For example, Peter “was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” (Gal. 2:12). This pattern is like that experienced in domestic abuse where the perpetrator controls the victim and the latter is fearful. In this case the legalist is the perpetrator and those being influenced are victims.
Favoritism and Isolation
The Jews thought that God was only the God of the Jews (Rom 3:29) and they brought this attitude into the early church. Likewise, legalists often separate from others based on nationality or customs, instead of recognizing that the Bible teaches equality amongst believers in the kingdom of God (Gal. 3:28). Instead of accepting one another (Rom. 15:7) there is prejudice, bias and bigotry.
Legalism encourages isolationism. The Pharisees wouldn’t eat with tax collectors and those they considered to be sinners (Mk. 2:16). Legalists separate and withdraw from those who do not conform to their views. They don’t want their followers to know that other Christians love God as much as they do and generally respect the bible as much as they do. For example, Diotrephes refused to welcome other believers and excommunicated those who disagreed with him (3 Jn. 9-10).
Although having little interest in true evangelism, legalists work zealously to convert others to their point of view. They tend to split over non essential matters and only fellowship with those who agree on doctrinal details, rather than those who show their Christian faith in love for other believers.
Be aware of unwritten creeds and of thinking that we merit God’s favor because we are in a particular denomination or Christian group.
Although we are all susceptible to pride, legalists have an attitude of superiority over other Christians. The Pharisees wanted to be considered important and sought honor and recognition. They had a self-righteous attitude and looked down on others (Lk. 18:11-12). Diotrephes was probably a legalist as he loved to be first (3 Jn. 1:9). A legalist thinks they are accepted by God because they keep certain rules and regulations, whereas they think that those who don’t live like them can’t please God.
Although we are all susceptible to hypocrisy, legalists tend to impose strict standards on others but fail to practice these themselves. The Pharisees appeared to be righteous, but were full of wickedness. Jesus called them hypocrites because they prayed in order to be seen by others and they were always trying to trap Him (Mt. 6:5; Mk. 12:15).
A Lack Of Joy
Because of the critical attitude of legalists and the ensuring conflict that accompanies them, legalism is associated with a lack of joy. This is heightened when things don’t turn out as they expect. For example, the elder brother was angry and refused to attend the party when his father celebrated the return of the lost son (Lk. 15:28-30).
Sins such as legalism are faced in every generation. The risk of legalism comes from within the church: it is a major reason for differences and conflict between Christians. Legalism is a barrier to Christian unity.
We should recognize that we are all legalistic at times. For example, we may judge someone’s spirituality by the version of Bible they read, the clothes they wear, the way they wear their hair or anything that doesn’t fit within our boundaries of acceptability. Some proactive and reactive responses to legalism are given below.
Proactive Responses To Legalism
Because legalism was dangerous, Jesus warned the disciples to be on their guard against it and Paul warned believers to watch out for it (Mt. 16:6; Phil. 3:2). This means that we need to teach each other about the dangers of legalism and know how to recognize it.
As believers we should remind ourselves of scriptural truths that can protect us from legalism. Our salvation is by faith in Christ and not by any works on our behalf. God’s love and mercy to us is unconditional. Under the new covenant we have access to God through Christ because of His redeeming work. Because of this we are liberated from the law and legalism.
The old covenant was a legal document with many commandments and regulations, whereas the New Testament is comprised of incidents in the life of the early church. Teach that the laws of the old covenant have been replaced by God’s new covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-11). This means that laws such as the Sabbath were transitory and looked ahead to the coming of Christ and so do not apply to believers today who look back to Christ (Col. 2:17). Emphasize that a Christian should not be condemned “by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16). Rules and regulations about these are legalism. Note that nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament to train believers, but there is no requirement to keep the Sabbath or any other day. Instead, believers are to follow the teachings and example of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21).
We should be careful to speak where the bible speaks and be silent where the bible is silent. In particular, don’t equate customs and traditions with biblical truth. Customs and traditions are necessary, but they can change. Remember most Christian activity is practicing a scriptural principle. How we do it depends on our customs and traditions. If we treat the methods and customs as though they are Scriptural principles we “go beyond what is written” in the Bible (1 Cor. 4:6).
Don’t force your personal views on others and don’t criticize others on “disputable matters”, which are things that are not excluded by the bible or inconsistent with it (Rom. 14&15; 1 Cor 8; 1 Cor 10:23-33.). God is the judge of these things, not us. He knows our motives. We are not to look down on other believers because they have a different opinion on these topics, but accept each other as Christ has (Rom. 15:7). The things that legalists are concerned about are unimportant (Gal 5:6). Don’t waste time on minor and debatable aspects of Christian life such as practices and methods of implementing scriptural principles, or majoring on one truth at the expense of others. This applies to those who teach that baptism, confirmation or church membership are necessary for salvation or that Christians need to keep certain Old testament laws, such as the Sabbath, or promote certain ways to praise and please God. Of course, while we need to be gracious to one another and tolerant of disagreement over disputable matters, we cannot accept heresy.
It’s also good to check our motives for doing things so as to detect instances of pride and hypocrisy. Don’t allow others to set your personal convictions and stop trying to please others; instead seek to please the Lord.
Reactive Responses To Legalism
Paul urged believers to avoid legalism, which means not being involved in the kind of behavior listed above (Tit. 3:9-11). Don’t discuss with legalists matters that are not fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as this can lead to quarrels (Rom. 14:1). Instead, accept one another as true believers and respect one another (Rom. 14:3).
Beware of supercritical people so as not to be influenced by their critical attitudes. Don’t get hooked trying to win them over because this can almost never be done. Don’t allow them to provoke you to anger or to influence your view of yourself. Avoid trying to gain their approval as you will feel controlled.
However, when legalism is affecting other believers, Paul said that it should be opposed (Gal. 2:11; Tit. 1:10, 11). This may involve gently showing someone that they are acting in an ungodly manner (Gal. 6:1-2). In more serious cases it may require confronting and warning the person that this behavior cannot be tolerated within the congregation. Unfortunately, legalists usually don’t realize that their behavior is sinful: Jesus said that the Pharisees were blind (Mt. 23: 16-26). If they do realize the sinful behavior, then there is a possibility of confession and repentance. But if there is no improvement in the situation, this could lead to excommunication from the congregation, which is like an operation to remove a cancerous growth.
Let’s continue to promote the gospel of God’s grace to humanity, not the false gospel of works (Gal. 1:6-9). Let’s also live as those who have been liberated from the law and legalism.
Written, December 2007
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