What is Legalism

Justin Johnson

Legalism is a plague on the body of Christ.

It would be easier to remove if there was not so much confusion about what it is. Most only have a vague idea.

Anymore, if someone is telling you to do good works, they are labeled a legalist.
If someone is disciplined, wakes up to an alarm clock, dresses modestly, or has a practice of abstaining from anything (especially sin), they are called a legalist and told to loosen up.
If your mom tells you to clean your room and wash behind your ears, then mom becomes a legalist and a tyrant.
Whoever says, “thou shalt not” and “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” is a legalist.

Something is awry with how people diagnose legalism. Misidentifying what legalism is allows legalism to fester if there are looser laws; at other times teachers of truth are wrongly mistaken for legalists and rejected.

How can this be? The unbending nature of truth can be confused with the law’s binding of the flesh, and if you are not discerning, truth is thrown out with the legalistic bathwater.

Legalism is not narrow mindedness, correction, rebuke, or strict adherence to the truth of God. Running from these things will lead you to a worse place than legalism.

Legalism is when the motivation and means of Christian living is from the law.

Legalism speaks to how people live for the Lord. Legalists use the law as their means. How do you live? According to the law, righteousness comes through doing the law (Deu 6:25; Matt 5:17-19).

Legalism teaches that sinful behavior or wrong belief can be made right by imposing laws.

The law fails at producing what it desires, because it can only force people to obey with fear from an outside force acting upon them: the law.

The wrong way to oppose legalism would be to merely reduce the number of laws. Some of the most dangerous legalists will say only two laws are required (Mark 12:29-31). This is still legalism.

Whether it is hundreds of laws or just two, the person is still under the dominion of the law and not operating under grace.

Grace teaches us that we are not under the law (Rom 6:14).

Those who live by grace understand that “now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested” (Rom 3:21).

The solution to legalism is not merely reducing the number of laws, it is righteousness without the law: an altogether different means by grace through faith. This is not a diminishing of law, but a removal of law.

A lack of laws was never the problem. This means the law can never be the means for us to live for the Lord. The problem is internal.

Sin is the problem. God’s grace pays for sin. Grace kills sin.

Legalism binds the flesh with the law, but grace nails the flesh to the cross with the Lord (Rom 6:3-4; Gal 6:14).

Grace succeeds where the law fails, because it operates through faith from the inner man. The truth of God’s grace must start from the inside out.

The common fear among legalists is that removing the law will produce more sin, but the opposite is true.

Grace does not allow sin, give permission to sin, or make us free to sin. Grace teaches us to live godly, to walk in newness of life, and to live righteously (Titus 2:13). Adding the law causes sin to abound, and many times it gives sin places to hide behind where the law is silent (Rom 5:20).

Grace and the law both try to produce the same thing: good behavior and good works (Eph 2:10; Titus 2:14). The difference is not always a difference in the action or the outcome; the difference exists in the means and motivation for doing the good.

Forcing someone to do something against his or her will as does the law, does not change their inner man.

Grace produces what the law could not (Rom 8:3-4). The law requires the flesh to perform. The grace of God gives the soul something to believe.

Grace ordains men unto good works before they’ve done one (Eph 2:10). Through faith their hearts can purpose to do good works willingly as God’s word works effectually in every believer.

Grace changes the motivation of the inner man from fear and force to faith, hope, and charity (Rom 8:15). Faith, hope, and charity are reaped by sowing grace truth to the inner man.

This is why grace requires a narrow mind (a sound mind) and strict adherence to truth to maintain. Truth works in your mind and your inner man.

Truth must be affirmed and upheld (1 Tim 3:15). The truth of God’s grace cannot be mixed with the weakness of the law. We are told to hold fast, and we do so by a strength of faith not the legalistic chain of the law.

Conviction, correction, narrow mindedness toward the truth, and avoiding error is not legalism if it is motivated by grace. It can be the product of willing hearts by faith doing the will of God, letting God be true, and “teaching no other doctrine” (1 Tim 1:3).

Legalism does not require a strict adherence to what you believe, only to how you behave. Legalism cannot control your mind, but always controls your flesh.

Legalism uses the law and starts to work on the outer man. Grace uses the cross of Christ and begins the work on the inner man.

Don’t throw out the truth while trying to remove legalism in the church. One is a blessing; the other is a curse.

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Published: November 18, 2017
Last Modified: October 15, 2019
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