There can be great confusion on the topic of "legalism". As a straight forward definition, legalism is simply "following the rules". The argument around "legalism" centers mainly on the teaching of the Lord and the apostles for the Jews that they could not hold to parts of the Law of Moses in order to realize salvation. They must, according to the books of Romans, Galatians, and James, follow in the faith according to Christ. What's being done now, and even since the days of the apostles, is that some proclaiming to be followers of Christ are, distorting the truth and teaching that strict obedience to the laws of Christ is legalism. Let's be perfectly clear on this. What the Lord and the apostles were teaching was a practice of obedience to the word of God as opposed to the things that were added (still keeping parts of the old law) to the word of God.

The teaching against so-called "legalist", or those that would obey God, effectively follows these five points.

 

  1. Reliance and devotion to the written word of God is legalism. 

Here is what the scriptures say concerning fidelity and loyalty to the word:

But He answered and said, "It is written, 'MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'" Matthew 4:4

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Matthew 5:17-18

For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. John 5:46

All these scriptures demonstrate the Lord's emphasis on fidelity and loyalty to all the word of God. Note that He shows an example of referring to the word of God specifically Matthew 4 and John 5:46 to demonstrate the truth.

 

  1. Full commitment to the need to obey the scriptures is legalism.

Note these scriptures:

If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. John 14:15

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. .....  Mathew 7:13-14

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell--and great was its fall. Matthew 7:24-27

The first scripture is self-explanatory for the honest of heart. You cannot read the law of Christ and determine any part of it is insignificant. The Pharisees were never criticized or condemned for keeping any part of the law, but they were condemned for neglecting parts of the law in favour of other parts (Matthew 23:23). We don't turn away from the obedience of the word of God so that we make an effort to emphasize a "spiritual-filled walk" without truth (John 4:23). If we love God we will keep His commandments even when others are following in large numbers after a feel-good, numbers-oriented, inspiring-without-truth adherence to false doctrines.

 

  1. Associating, and otherwise joining, salvation with obeying the word is legalism.

Here is the truth concerning salvation and obedience:

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine;

And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. John 8:31-32

Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death. John 8:51

He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day. John 12:48

Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. 2 John 9

If you do not obey all the word of God as demonstrated in the commands, examples, and necessary inferences of the prophets, Lord, and apostles you will not go to heaven. Note that Christ, in his parable of the wise builder, states that everyone must hear and act on His words. As he stated in the preceding verses to the parable, few there will be that hear and obey.

 

  1. Making arguments based on details in the scriptures is legalism.

But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God:

I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. Matthew 22:31-32

For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? Romans 11:34

The scripture in Matthew shows the example of Christ giving attention to the details of the scriptures to demonstrate how this leads to faith. Remember what Paul says is method of attaining faith: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." (Romans 10:17). If someone is saying that strictly following the details of the scriptures where they matter is a problem, then I would like to know which details they will judge to be worthy of noting. As Paul says, will these same false teachers presume to tell the Lord what the Lord is or should be thinking? Will they, on the day of judgment, kneel before their Creator and tell Him which details were important enough to obey?

 

  1. Believing that every word of scripture is important is legalism.

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-19

But He answered and said, "It is written, 'MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'" Matthew 4:4

I go back to the scriptures I started with. I believe Matthew 4:4 basically says it all with regard to legalism. It is unfortunate that there will be false teachers that will distort the word of God for their own gain and glorification by declaring that obeying God's words is sin. This is truly a form of blasphemy against the Spirit of God (Luke 12:10). They that say obedience is problem are saying right is wrong and changing the word is acceptable.

If because we keep the word loyally, stress the need of obedience, join salvation to obeying, attend to all the details of scripture, and believe every word of scripture we are called legalist, then what else would you want to be? It seems to me that Christian (Acts 11:26) and legalist (according to the listed arguments herein) are one in the same. Note that each of the five arguments has scriptures associated with them proving their value based on the example and teaching of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I would say that those of our day that are trying so hard not to be legalist would also have to accuse Christ of being a legalist. If Christ did it, then I will do it, and if that makes me a "legalist", then I am guilty as charged (1 Peter 1:3-9; 1 Peter 4:12-13).

 

Patrick Hutto November 17, 2013