The Exploitation of Legalism
Given the above title, you could be forgiven for thinking I’m on the side of legalism. Not so! I am of the opinion however, that the word ‘legalism’ has been exploited as an umbrella term to cover words such as ‘works’ and ‘law.’ Works and law are conveniently hidden under the guise of legalism.
With the emergence of teaching on so called ‘Free grace,’ many have developed a phobia over the word ‘works’ and all that is associated with it. There is a misconception that the polar opposite of grace is ‘law.’ However, contrary to popular belief, the opposite of law is not grace: It’s lawlessness! Paul states that “the law is good, if a man use it lawfully” (1 Tim 1:8).
Legalism is an unlawful use of ‘the law.’ So what exactly is legalism? Webster provides a helpful definition. Legalism is a “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” I would add that in the Christian context, the motivation for such legalism is to obtain righteousness before a holy God.
But is this what the Christian life is all about? Does it merely amount to keeping a set of rules?
Before addressing this issue, it’s important firstly that a couple of myths are dealt with. Some equate the term legalism with the law of Moses. At times they will get defensive and exclaim: “We are not under law but grace!” As stated, legalism is conforming to a law in order to obtain righteousness before God. A careful reading of Scripture shows that this was not the purpose of the Mosaic law. When God redeemed Israel out of cruel slavery and bondage, it was solely an act of God’s grace and mercy and not because of Israel’s obedience.
“Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deut. 9:4-5).
Furthermore, God tells us as to why He chose Israel:
“But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut. 7:8).
God solely called and delivered Israel, solely as a result of His love, grace and mercy. He brought them out of Egyptian bondage, and then, through Moses, gave them His law. The Law (including the Ten Commandments) was given after God’s salvation and deliverance of Israel and not as a prerequisite. The Law was God’s standard of holiness. It contained blessings and curses which were dependent on the obedience of the people, and it also revealed God’s love.
We see a pattern emerging here. Israel’s redemption came because of God’s mercy and grace, which was then followed by obedience to God’s law. Such obedience on the part of Israel to the law was not legalistic as their redemption already was secured. Their obedience rather, was to be their grateful response to God for what He had done for them. Likewise as believers under the New Covenant, we are to respond to God’s salvation in Christ with a heart of gratitude, which expresses itself in wanting to obey God and do His will. This leads into another misconception which causes some to ask: “Were Old Testament saints saved by works?”
From the outset, people under the Old Covenant were saved by faith. When Paul speaks of justification by faith, he appeals to the Old Testament for support. Notably he cites Abraham whose “faith was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).
King David, despite committing murder and adultery was also justified by faith in God.
“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works” (Rom. 4:5-6).
The prophet Habakkuk warns Judah of God’s impending judgment for violating His law. His judgment would be meted out by the Babylonians, but those who would put their trust in Him would live.
“The just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4).
Paul and the writer to the Hebrews appeal to Habakkuk to reinforce their teaching on righteousness by faith (Rom. 1:17; Heb. 10:38). It is therefore clear, that the Old Testament people of God were saved by faith and not works.
On eight occasions in his letters, Paul uses a phrase not previously referred to in the bible, which we need to understand in this matter of legalism. The phrase I refer to is ‘the works of the law.’ Some will argue that ‘works of the law’ refer to a legalistic effort to obtain righteousness before God. Is this however how Paul would have understood ‘works of the law?’
Consider Romans 3:20:
“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
A careful reading of the above would suggest that ‘the works of the law’ refer to the entire embodiment of the Law and the actions required by it. Unlike many bible teachers who like to divide the Law under headings such as moral, ceremonial, civil etc, Paul does not make such a distinction. To Paul, ‘the Law’ was all 613 commands – a complete unit. So ‘the works of the law’ meant obeying and observing every one of its statutes and precepts. However we shall see in the context of ‘the works of the law,’ that legalism though a separate issue, was often not very far away. We see hints of legalism in the following as suggested by the word ‘boasting.’
“Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27)
When one solely trusts in God by faith and not on works, all boasting in human merit is excluded. This is a foundational truth when one comes to faith in Christ, and it should continually help guard against the subtleties of legalism.
“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” (Eph 2:8-9).
God’s law is perfect, but fallen man is not, and so cannot possibly obey it to obtain justification in God’s sight. The good news is that Jesus fulfilled and obeyed God’s law perfectly. He obeyed its precepts and bore its penalties thus fulfilling God’s perfect standard of righteousness. God’s righteousness is now imputed as a gift to one who repents and believes on Christ in faith.
In Galatia, there were some Jews who believed that they could be righteous before God or receive the Holy Spirit because they observed the works of the law. As noted earlier, ‘the works of the law’ was the entire embodiment of the law and the actions required by it. These Galatian Jews though were exhibiting a legalistic attitude, because their belief was wrongly based on imperfect human obedience instead of faith in God. Galatians is often held up as an example of legalism infiltrating the church, but some clarity is in order. Firstly, one needs to ask the question as to why Paul wrote this letter. Before addressing his reason, it’s worthwhile pointing out, that when Paul wrote letters, he began by thanking God for the people he was writing to. Not so the Galatians! He clearly was angry at their situation and almost immediately deals with it head on.
“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6-7).
There were some within the Galatian church who were clearly causing agitation and trouble. It’s important to understand that the issue in Galatians is not how are people saved? Rather it addresses the issue of how the believer having begun this new life, completes it. God who has begun a good work within us will be faithful to complete it. As laborers with Him, how do we respond do His saving work in our hearts? The issue at hand in Galatians can be summarized as follows:
“Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3)
‘Flesh’ here is a play on words and is a reference to circumcision. These agitators within the church were saying that having begun the Christian life and having received the Holy Spirit, there needs to be completion by observing law – in particular: circumcision. At stake is not how one enters the New Covenant, but how one maintains covenant membership. In other words, Gentile believers must become Abraham’s children by means of circumcision. It’s quite possible that their reason for this stemmed from their interpretation of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-27) where we read of the Holy Spirit being poured out which culminated in people obeying the law. Two further important comments about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Firstly, it is not circumcision and observing the Torah which identifies God’s people under the New Covenant; rather it is the Holy Spirit. Consider Galatians 4:6:
“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.”
This is the same intimate language which Jesus cried out to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane. It is the Holy Spirit within us who seals us and sets us apart as sons and daughters of God.
“But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” (Gal 5:18).
When the people of God are led by the Spirit and enjoying the presence of God in an expression of the local church, they shouldn’t need the external Law written on tablets of stone to tell them how to behave.
Jesus did however speak of a righteousness that exceeded that of the Pharisees – an internal righteousness of the heart. This is what Jeremiah and Ezekiel foresaw when they spoke of God putting His Spirit within us and writing His laws on our hearts. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave examples of this greater righteousness by singling out commandments concerning adultery and murder, and expanding them to include the heart attitude as well as the physical act. The righteousness which we are to exhibit is God writing His laws in our hearts by His Holy Spirit.
To conclude, terms like ‘works’ and ‘law’ should not be hidden by a cloak of legalism. When such are misunderstood and hidden, it can wrongly lead many to believe that there is no need to pursue holiness and righteous living. Any attempt to forgo certain activities in the desire to spend more time with God is frowned upon and labeled ‘legalistic.’ When the church is challenged for flirting with the world in the name of being relevant, it provokes cries of ‘religious bigot’ and ‘fundamentalist!’ There is a greater standard of holiness to maintain and exhibit, but thankfully we don’t have to strive to attain it in our strength, but simply live it through the power of the Spirit working in us and through us, so Christ may be revealed and glorified.
 Phil. 1:6.
 Mark 14:36.