Merriam-Webster defines legalism as “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” In the religious world, especially among those who advocate a “seeker friendly” approach, the term legalist is hurled at anyone who expresses concern for biblical authority in religious matters. Sadly, this is sometimes done by some of our own. In this article, we’ll strive to see what the Scriptures say regarding this matter.
Example of actual legalism. In Acts 15 we’re introduced to Jewish converts who were seeking to bind circumcision on their Gentile brethren as a condition of salvation (15:1, 5). The apostles understood this wasn’t proper and thus only instructed them to maintain moral lives (vs. 19-20, 29). Paul further expounded on this (Gal. 5:2-3, 6). We must be careful to “not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). When we impose personal convictions as doctrine, it does nothing but create a stumbling block (Rom. 14:13).
Misrepresenting Jesus. In discussions where the charge of “legalism” is hurled, it’s common to appeal to our Lord’s public exposé of the scribes and Pharisees in an effort to loosen what they had bound (Matt. 23). He had good reason for the words He spoke to them. They were hypocritical (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; 15:7; Lk. 13:15) and self-righteous (Lk. 18:9), among other things. Yet He never condemned them for adhering to Mosaic law and even told the people to do what they said (Matt. 23:2-3). Instead, He condemned them for not doing what they told others to do.
Not under law. Proponents of the “seeker friendly” approach will take Paul’s words in Romans 6:14-15 to argue that emphasis on doctrine doesn’t matter. Paul wrote, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (emp. added). In the context of this section, Paul was arguing that God’s grace isn’t a license to sin; rather grace, when properly understood, grants access to forgiveness. He most certainly didn’t say doctrine doesn’t matter because he would have been contradicting himself (Rom. 16:17; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; Tit. 2:1).
Unchanging standard. From the dimensions of the ark to the dimensions of the tabernacle, God has always specified what He wants. To emphasize and practice what God desires of us isn’t legalistic but rather shows respect to Him by adhering to His instructions (Heb. 8:5). Furthermore, our Savior told His disciples that He has “all authority” (Matt. 28:18). He doesn’t change (Heb. 13:8). Those under the guise of standing against “legalism” who undermine our Lord’s authority are like the false teachers described by Peter and Jude. Peter wrote, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bring upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1, emp. added). Jude likewise wrote, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4, emp. added).
False accusations. When scriptural authority is emphasized and charges of “legalism” are made, we’ll be called “divisive.” Elijah was met with this by the mouth of Ahab (1 Kings 18:17). Amos likewise was charged falsely by the corrupt Amaziah (Amos 7:10). One who is sincerely concerned for God’s Word is neither divisive nor legalistic. They seek to do God’s will.
Strive for balance. As Joshua was preparing to lead Israel across the Jordan after Moses’ death, he was instructed, “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to that which Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go” (Josh. 1:7, emp. added). Some have gone too far in some things, yet the actions of others give no license to loosen what God has settled (Ps. 119:89). Extremes should be avoided.
A word of caution. It is certainly true that we must adhere to what has been commanded. Yet we must not deceive ourselves into thinking that we are acceptable to God merely because we obey the actions He prescribed. The Ephesian church was what we would consider to be sound. After all, they took a firm stance against false teachers (Rev. 2:2). Yet, they had left their “first love” and were told to repent (vs. 4-5). We can emphasize doctrine and proper worship (and we must)……but we can’t reasonably expect God to be pleased if we abandon Christ and lose our love (1 Cor. 13).
I hope these thoughts will be of benefit to you and that you’ll find it both encouraging and challenging as you seek to grow in His grace and knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18).
Adam preaches for the Midwest congregation in Ferguson, MO.