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"Unpacking the Complexities of Legalism in Spiritual Practice: Navigating Confusion and Finding Clarity"

This is a problematic topic in our day. Many religious people are grappling with this word and its meaning. Some build a following based on their understanding (or misunderstanding) of this word.

The idea of "legalism" is a limiting issue in the survivability of Independent Baptist Churches. Therefore, it must be dealt with.

The first thing we must do is define terms. We will never understand this subject unless we define terms accurately. This is IMPORTANT!

I did a short survey on what different people thought the term legalism meant. These were some of the responses I received.

1. Nurse Practitioner at a Family Practice Clinic (who was a Seventh-Day Adventist

"...actually, anything required for salvation, other than the blood of Jesus."

2. J.C. (Missionary)

"OK, off the top of my head — Religious legalism is the requirement to adhere to a set of laws or standards in order to obtain any aspect of salvation, past, present, or future (justification, sanctification or glorification). It is the false belief that observance of laws or standards leads to any aspect of salvation (rather than proceeding from our salvation). This definition does not imply a rejection of standards but rather a proper understanding of them. They are not something to be employed to make us spiritual but something that results from us walking in the Spirit."

3. G.C. (50+ year ministry/pastor)

"A Strict conformity to the Law...Conformity to the law without common sense. Imposing absolute standards with no common sense. "

4. J. H. (Former Missionary, Pastor, Missions Director)

"Adding to or taking away from Eph 2:8-9 grace is legalism!"

5. T.B. (Church Member)

"I’ve always heard that the official definition was adding works to salvation. Most people seem to believe that it means having Biblical standards though."

Having considered some of the common understandings of this term, let us look at and consider some of the literary theological descriptions of this term.

1. "Legalism - Religious legalism focuses on *obedience to laws or moral codes based on the assumption that such obedience is a means of gaining divine favor." (1)

2. "Legalism - The term “legalism” commonly denotes preoccupation with form at the expense of substance. While it is now used metaphorically in all areas of human life, it appears to have had a theological origin in the seventeenth century, when Edward Fisher used it to designate “one who bringeth the Law into the case of Justification” (The Marrow of Modern Divinity, 1645). No equivalent term existed in the biblical languages. However, the idea is found in both Testaments." (2)

3. "Maybe you equate holiness with an ever-expanding and legalistic list of dos and don’ts. Or perhaps you may think of someone for whom the unpleasant label “holier than thou” might apply. I certainly do not long for those forms of holiness. Yet as people of God we do want to be like Jesus; that is, we want to be holy like Jesus is holy. But getting there is another story. We are not the first generation with that desire and dilemma. The Holiness Movement began in the 1840s and 1850s by those who embraced John Wesley’s teaching on sanctification (Wesley D. Tracey, “Spiritual Direction in the Wesleyan-Holiness Movement,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 30, no. 4 (2002): 323–35).

Unfortunately, stereotypes of holiness contain a kernel of truth. As one branch in the Holiness Movement sought to follow God with their mind, heart, soul and strength, outward manifestations of holiness became the yardstick for inward spiritual maturity. Today we would call that legalism. Following the rules became the measure of whether one’s heart was following Christ. Rather than breathing life into one’s soul, these behavioral stipulations often choked the life out of it. Fear of condemnation replaced holy love as a motivation for spiritual growth, and to paraphrase 1 John 4:18, “Perfect fear casts out love.” (3)

4. Often legalism creates a gap between knowing who God is and experiencing a relationship with God. Legalism is a superficial and mechanical (going through the motions) way of displaying one’s faith. Usually it entails rules, guidelines, and ideas of how one should look and act as a Christian. (4)

5. legalism — A disposition toward law and rule-keeping that emphasizes strict observance to the law and prizes obedience to the law above all else. (5)

6. Religious legalism focuses on obedience to laws or moral codes based on the (misguided) assumption that such obedience is a means of gaining divine favor (6).

7. The daily experience of Christ’s love is linked to our obedience to Him. It is not that His love is conditioned on our obedience. That would be legalism. But our experience of His love is dependent upon our obedience. (7)

There is one other reference to "legalism" that I think is good and I will include it here.

The Old Testament. 

The narrative setting of the law is essentially an account of God’s choosing of Israel to be his people (Gen. 12:1–3; Deut. 1:1–4:49), while the law itself is both a prescriptive statement of the life God expects his people to lead as well as a picture of the kind of life that leads to joy and fulfillment.It is made clear (in the OT) that the law could be abused and subverted. Such subversion (which differs from blank rejection) consists in the observance of its literal dictates while overlooking or evading its underlying intent. The prophets in particular denounce preoccupation with the niceties of sacrificial ritual while inward obedience expressed in justice, compassion, and humility is lacking (1 Sam. 15:22–23; Isa. 1:10–20; Amos 2:6–8; 4:4–5; 5:21–24; Mic. 6:6–8). In the postexilic era this danger becomes, if anything, greater. For with the disappearance of the kingdom, the law became the focal point of national life, and conformity to it the mark of belonging to the people of God. The grounding of the law in the covenant grace of God was never wholly forgotten (Ezra 9:5–7), any more than was the sense of authentic piety (Ps. 119, passim) or the awareness that mere performance apart from genuine piety was worthless (Prov. 15:8–9; 21:3). However, it was easy for the law to assume independent significance and its observance to be viewed as the condition of God’s grace rather than the response to it. Jeremiah had seen earlier that the corruption of the human heart apart from inward renewal made compliance with the law impossible in any case (Jer. 31:31–34). The increased focus on the law during the postexilic era intensified the danger confronted by the earlier prophets: concentration on the latter at the expense of the spirit. This persisted in the Judasim of the first Christian century even though it was recognized that mere conformity to the law was not enough (M.Ber. 2.1), and that repentance was a continual necessity.

The New Testament. No more than Hebrew does the Greek language have a word denoting legalism. Yet it seems clear that criticism of attitudes to the law describable as legalistic constitutes a significant element in New Testament teaching. Three representative areas may be examined.

Legalism and the Teaching of Jesus. The center of Jesus’ message was that, in an important measure, the kingdom of God and its power had come in himself (Matt. 12:28; Mark 1:14–15). This posed a challenge to the most distinctive features of Jewish religion: the identity of the chosen people, the temple, and the life of piety, all of which found their focus in the law. Jesus both affirmed and critiqued the law. While attending the synagogue regularly (Luke 4:16) he did not hesitate to break the purity laws (Mark 3:13–17) or rigid interpretations of Sabbath law (Mark 3:1–6). Refusal to do so he denounced as nullification of God’s will in the interests of external conformity (Mark 7:1–23). His interpretation of the law exhibited an incisiveness that pierced to the law’s intent beyond its surface meaning (Matt. 5:21–48). Still more, he implied that this intent was both revealed and fulfilled in himself, so that legalistic conformity stood exposed and condemned.

Legalism and the Earliest Church. The problem of legalism arose in sharp form when the gospel crossed the boundaries of Judaism and penetrated the Gentile world. The forms were much the same as in Jesus’ day: association with sinners, observance of the ceremonial law, and, above all, acceptance of the ritual mark of the people of God—circumcision. However, the issue was more acute: Was salvation possible for Gentiles apart from law observance (Acts 11:3; 15:1)? The Jerusalem Council affirmed that it was (Acts 15:11, 13–14) and sought to resolve the practical difficulties arising from this decision (Acts 15:28–29), though with what success is not clear.

Legalism and the Teaching of Paul. While Paul can speak positively of the law (Rom. 7:7, 12, 14), including circumcision (Rom. 3:1–2; 4:10–12), he also speaks of it negatively. It is powerless to deliver from sin (Rom. 8:3; Gal. 3:21b–22) and was a temporary measure until the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:19). Moreover, continued attachment to it is not only fruitless, but dangerous since the law demands total obedience of which none is capable (Gal. 3:10–12). Law observance is thus both futile and fatal. As a substitute for or supplement to faith in Christ it ministers to legalism. Acceptance by God is possible only through faith in Christ crucified (Rom. 8:3; Gal. 2:16; 3:13–14). This picture of the law as occasioning legalism has been hotly contested. However, there is evidence of a vein of Judaism in which “the works of the law” were seen as a pathway to righteousness (e.g., the Qumran text 4QMMT). There is likewise evidence in the literature of the Second Temple period that sin was defined in terms of the law, and divine intervention in the eschaton was seen as the only cure. While Paul’s use of the term “works” exhibits a wide range of meaning from good to bad (see the double use in Eph. 2:8–10), the significant phrase “the works of the law” often stands in explicit contrast with faith in Christ as the means of salvation (Rom. 3:20–22, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). It is noteworthy that in several of these contexts the idea of boasting is also present (Rom. 3:27; Gal. 2:20a; cf. 6:13). These examples seem best taken to mean legal works, that is, works done to commend the doer to God. As holding out the hope of salvation on the basis of human effort, such works are the antithesis of God’s saving grace set forth in Christ crucified. Confidence in him alone, who, by his death fulfilled the law, is the sole means of deliverance from the law’s demands, and so of avoiding legalism. (8)

Having looked at this idea from the various perspectives of others (above), let us consider another aspect. Although there is certainly an anti-legalistic aspect to American Christianity today, we must also be careful not to swing too far and wind up in the opposite ditch (licentiousness/antinomianism). This problem is bigger than what many people understand. Consider this.

Did you know there has been an anti-law movement in our country for years? Many people think it started in the 60’s. It blossomed in the ’60s, but it was around before the '60s - An article written in 1912 discusses the problem of lawlessness

“A theme much discussed in a superficial way, in newspapers, after-dinner speeches, sermons, is the lack of respect for law which is supposed to be an American characteristic. Even men in public life, who would rather flatter their fellow citizens than arraign them, make sweeping statements regarding American lawlessness.” (9)

More recently, in America, we have seen organizations that are dedicated to the idea of breaking down law…defying law. Movements like Black Lives Matter, and Antifa, have flaunted the law, and have been allowed to.

There was a group several years ago called “Less Lawlessness through Less Law”

In the Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations Paul Lee Tan writes the following:

"3035 Less Law For Less Lawlessness

Washington (UPI)—More and more, law enforcement officials are coming around to the conclusion that the only way to reduce the crime rate in America is to make everything legal.

Moves in various parts of the country to decriminalize marijuana are illustrative of this approach. If adopted nationwide, proponents claim, decriminalization would produce a dramatic decline in the number of arrests for illegal pot possession.

There is also talk of employing the legalization technique to stamp out violations of laws against pornography, prostitution, gambling and assorted other vices.

One of the leading advocates of decriminalization is an organization called Less Lawlessness Through Less Law (LLLL).

“Hiring more policemen, imposing curfews, building new prisons, enlarging the judiciary—these measures only treat the symptoms of the crime wave,” Bargood Fie, a LLLL spokesman, told me. “If we’re ever going to have a genuine improvement in the situation we’ve got to attack the root cause of crime—the laws.” (10)

This anti-law problem (whether in secular or religious society) is at its core, a spiritual problem. It is a symptom of the human condition. It goes all the back to Adam and Eve. They did not want a law....

One old preacher, years ago, when speaking of legalism said, that he would rather be legal than illegal. I understand his reasoning, but I would think a better way to say it would be…rather than legal or illegal, I want to be biblical.

Legalism has an associated problem called judgmentalism. One does not exist without the other.

This is a common refrain (the essence of) among contemporary Christians - "I don’t want to be a legalist." That usually means, “I want to listen to any music I want. I want to dress any way I want. I want to entertain myself in any way I want. I want to watch anything I want. I want to drink anything I want. I want to do anything I want. No one is going to tell me what I can or can’t do…or should and shouldn’t do....especially not some narrow-minded, bigoted, Bible-thumping, legalistic preacher!”

The underlying idea is that "If it is not in the Bible, I don't have to do it (or not do it). This is certainly a commendable statement, however, in our day we find that people will find every "loophole" to try to get out of a clear biblical mandate or principle laid down in the Bible..all so they can do what they want to do.

We see this idea being most aggressively promulagated in the contemporary and emergent church movement of our day. The contemporary and emergent church movement is more than throwing off old and unnecessary restraints. It is also a response to something deeper...a profound problem among religious peoples. That problem is...

**Living an outward show without an inward reality.**

It is the issue of pharisaism. Perfectionists can more easily fall into this trap

Many people have left the Independent Baptist church and have gravitated toward contemporary and emergent Christianity because they saw emptiness and hypocrisy in the lives of others and felt it in their instead of rising to the challenge to be the right kind of Bible-believing, God-honoring Christian that they should be, and an example of the believer, they have lowered the righteous/holy/biblical standard and gave in to casual/cultural Christianity so prevalent today.

One of their favorite slogans:

“No perfect people allowed. Creating a come as you are culture in the church.”

"Absolutes - Absolutely Not."

Ultimately, what this whole issue boils down to is this.

What is your view of God?

God is a God of law, order, and justice; but He is also a God of grace, compassion, and mercy.

He is a God that says, "Come as you are;" but will also say, "You must not leave as you came."

God is a God of love FOR the World, but not OF the World.

So then, legalism is trying to achieve righteousness by what I do and don’t do (and this is outside of the righteousness that Grace has introduced me to…the righteousness that Christ gives.)

Do you understand is always wrong to seek righteousness and acceptance with God outside of Christ...

Christ is my righteousness.

Christ is my sanctification.

1 Corinthians 1:30

30 But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:

It is always wrong to try to seek acceptance with God outside of Christ.

But I remind you

Titus 2:11–12

For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, 12 Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;

What is ungodliness

  • UN = not

  • godliness = The manifestation of godlikeness. What is God like?

16 And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

What is godliness? Godliness in God-likeness. What is God like? This verse teaches us that God is like Jesus! In fact, Jesus is God!

Here is the question you need to ask yourself? Is THIS consistent with God’s nature? (This song, This outfit, This habit, This show, This attitude, This lifestyle.....Do you see? Is this getting through?

What are worldly lusts?

Worldly - This is not hard.

The Greek word used is kosmikós. This word means “cosmic,” i.e., “pertaining to the world/universe.” (11) This doesn’t necessarily mean bad, or wicked, or wrong; but it certainly stands in opposition to that which is best...heavenly.

  • In Heb. 9:1, 11 the OT sanctuary is “earthly” in contrast to that which is perfect (there is something better, more permanent, heavenly); the suggestion here is that what belongs to the cosmos (world) is transitory.

Hebrews 9:1, 11

Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.

But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;

  • In Tit. 2:12 God’s grace trains us to renounce “worldly‘” passions (cravings, lusts/desires), i.e., those that belong to this world and are thus hostile to God and in antipathy to Heaven (cf. 1 Jn. 2:16).

Titus 2:11–12

For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;

The Bible doesn't have anything good to say about the "world," in this sense.

1 John 2:16

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

The Apostle is basically encouraging us to set our affections on things above. To keep our eyes and hearts on God

Colossians 3:2

2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.

We are not to see how worldly we can be....WE truly are to see how heavenly we can be!

Look at Titus 2:11, 12 again. We are to live:

  • Soberly - In a wise manner keeping control over passions and desires...

  • Righteously - What? righteously? Do you know it means? It means live in a way that is right, fit, and proper. To live according to strict justice. The standard? Not you. Not me. God and His Word!

  • godly - Basically to live as Jesus would live. To live in light of the fact that He lives within!

Chrisitans are to be an other-worldly people - That doesn’t mean that we don’t see the beauty in this world. It doesn’t mean that we don’t seek justice. It doesn’t mean that we neglect our duty. It doesn’t mean that we don’t love others. It doesn't mean that we have to be "weird" in our manner of life. It does mean that our heart is set on heaven, and Jesus, and the Bible..

Those of us who want to live soberly righteously and godly are not trying to achieve salvation outside of Christ. We are not trying to achieve a righteousness outside of Christ. We are merely wanting to live soberly, righteously, and godly to please the Christ who died for us and is our example!

We love you, God loves you.

***How to overcome legalism

  • Remember that your personal standards are yours. Don’t force them on others

  • Remember that preferences are just that…preferences and not Biblical mandates for everyone.

  • Follow/Study:

  1. Flowchart for evaluating the biblical authority for a doctrine or activity

2. Flowchart for applying a Bible passage

If you need help understanding these flowcharts, let me know.

  • Do not make your personal or family standards and preferences convictions (Convictions are something that you would die for).

  • Convictions should be reserved for clearly stated Bible Doctrines.

  • Memorize Romans 14

  • Remember that Christ is our salvation, and he is our sanctification. Find your soul’s fulfillment in Him!

  • Focus on truth and grace (Love and mercy). These came by Jesus Christ. The law was given by Moses (John 1:17).

  • In a contemporary/compromising/carnal generation, never give up the doctrine of holiness and personal progressive sanctification. God still says, "Be ye holy for I am holy." (I Peter 1:16; II Peter 3:11)


(1) Stanley J. Grenz and Jay T. Smith, Pocket Dictionary of Ethics, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 69.

(2) A. R. G. Deasley, “Legalism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed., Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 478.

(3) Virginia Todd Holeman, Theology for Better Counseling: Trinitarian Reflections for Healing and Formation (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 81–82.

(4) Tim Clinton and Diane Langberg, The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Women (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 242.

(5) Douglas Mangum, The Lexham Glossary of Theology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

(6) Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 72.

(7) Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1978), 154.

(8) A. R. G. Deasley, “Legalism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed., Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 478–479.

See also James, Theology of; Justification; Works of the Law.


D. J. Moo, WTJ 45 (1983): 73–100; T. R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; F. Thielman, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Romans and Galatians; idem, Paul and the Law, A Contextual Approach; J. A. Fitzmyer, According to Paul

A. R. G. Deasley Deasley, A. R. G. Ph.D., University of Manchester. Professor of New Testament, Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Missouri.

WTJ Westminster Theological Journal

(9) ."American Lawlessness": An Inquiry - American Journal of Sociology , Jul., 1912

(10) Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 725.

(11) William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1194. 

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