Legalism: A Quick Heart Check
Legalism. Most Christians are familiar with this term, or at least picked up a perfunctory understanding of it in Sunday school as children. We vaguely remember that the Pharisees in the Bible were legalists, and we know that it’s definitely bad. In fact, many of us are eager to prove that, yes, we’re Christians but we’re not those kinds of Christians. But do we know what legalism truly is? If not, how can we know we aren’t just like the Pharisees?
What legalism is NOT:
To get an accurate understanding of what legalism is, we first need to understand what legalism is not. From my own observations and conversations, people (Christians and non-Christians alike) often think of “legalism” as a strict adherence to rules. Sometimes those who strive to follow God’s commandments (or hold other Christians accountable to do the same) are slapped with the “legalist” label. Despite this popular misinterpretation of the word, legalism does not simply refer to strict obedience. In fact, according to scripture, obedience to authority and particularly obedience to God’s authority and his law is a virtue. Despite this popular misinterpretation of the word, legalism does not simply refer to strict obedience. In fact, according to scripture, obedience to authority and particularly obedience to God’s authority and his law is a virtue. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17, Jesus states, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In other words, Jesus didn’t tell us that the law isn’t really that important. On the contrary, he fulfilled the law perfectly by living a life of perfect obedience, and he urges his followers to obey the law as well. The Psalmist reminds us “You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently,” (Psalm119:4) and that he will “delight” in God’s statutes (Psalm 119:16). As Christians, we are not only to diligently obey God’s commands, but delight in them.
What legalism IS:
So, if it wasn’t their obedience to the law, what did the Pharisees get so wrong? What characteristics expose them (and many modern-day “Christians”) as true legalists?
- Adding to scripture: As soon as we start to come up with our own standards and rules for righteousness … Houston, we have a problem. The Pharisees added all kinds of extra traditions to the Mosaic law, in a sense, acting as gods themselves with authority to legislate moral commands. Holding oneself and others to extra-Biblical laws and rules is often a hallmark of legalism.
- Relying on one’s works for salvation: Even if we do not add any extra-Biblical commandments or requirements to our faith, we may still be in danger of legalism if we rely on our own righteousness or perfect adherence to the law for salvation. Salvation is obtained through faith alone in Christ alone. If we instead rely on our own good works for salvation, we delude ourselves into thinking that it is even possible for us to be perfect, and if that were the case, we wouldn’t need a savior at all, rendering Christ’s sacrifice on the cross useless. The truth is, we could ever be holy enough in our own strength to earn God’s favor and salvation. According to Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:11-13, 23). In this respect, legalism is ultimately a pride problem. When we can’t humble ourselves enough to accept that we aren’t perfect and that we need the sacrifice of Jesus to cover our sins, we allow pride to turn us into legalists who trust in ourselves rather than Jesus for salvation, just like the Pharisees.
The Free Gift of Grace:
Grace exposes the folly of legalism, not because it removes the law, but because it saves us when we inevitably fail to perfectly fulfill the law. Grace does not mean that we do not bother with the law – remember, we are to “delight” in it. As Paul puts it so eloquently in Romans, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). When we accept the free gift of grace, we walk away from sin, not toward it.
Christians are not legalistic for striving after obedience or encouraging others to do the same, as the world might think. It is when we add to or rely on the law for salvation that we slip into the trap of legalism. As Christians, we must obey and delight in the law, but ultimately rely on Jesus’ righteousness for our salvation.
About the Author
Jo Wilbur is a Marketing and Communications Specialist at TCS and proud JMU grad who loves writing, shopping, and making new friends. She and her husband live in Paeonian Springs and spend time together cooking plant-based meals, singing worship songs, and volunteering as Young Life leaders in their community.