Legalism: the current debate

Tim Bench

Abilene, TX


One of the increasingly common accusations (towards both church members as well as entire congregations, at times) is that people are behaving in a “legalistic” manner (as if attempting to follow the commands, doctrines, and laws of the New Testament is somehow optional, or even immoral). Such accusations are often accompanied by comparisons to the infamous Pharisees, often followed by dialogues of how “We live under GRACE now”…keeping the commands of Jesus Christ himself has somehow become archaic. In short, “We are not saved by works” and/or “we do not have to do ANYTHING”, since “the grace of Jesus Christ covers us”.

Since this “anti-legalistic” viewpoint seems to be more and more prevalent in today’s churches, it would behoove each of us to have a thorough understanding of what legalism actually IS and what it is NOT. Perhaps most importantly, is “legalism” (attempting to obey Biblical commands) somehow a sin by undermining “grace”? This is indeed the argument some make, and I cannot help but wonder what Church of Christ luminaries such as David Lipscomb, Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and others would think of a society where attempting to follow the commands of the New Testament and of Jesus Christ himself has become somehow “sinful”. More importantly, I cannot fathom what Jesus would think of those who claim to follow Him, but insist that actually OBEYING Him is mere “legalistic thinking”.

First, it is important to note that “legalism” is a word which does NOT appear in scripture. The definition of legalism, as per Webster’s, is “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code”. My former preacher opined that legalism would be “an attempt to garner or acquire salvation through a perfect and flawless keeping of the law”……in other words, gaining salvation via perfect keeping of Biblical “laws”.

From Daniel Denham of the Truth Bible Institute….”The term "legalism" is often misused as a broadbrush against even strict obedience to commands…Liberalism, which advocates liberating people from the necessity of obedience virtually to any standard or rule of conduct (the basic definition of law), uses the term…as an ad hominem against those who teach the necessity of obedience. Because of the wide misuse of the term (as well as the misapplied references to the Pharisees regarding the same) it has come to be accepted that obedience = being legalistic, which is simply false.”

I wish to make one point abundantly clear as we commence this discussion….None of us will EVER be perfect, and none of us will ever “earn” our salvation”, and none of us will ever be “good enough” to merit heaven based solely upon our own good actions, inactions, deeds, etc. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” is a verse all serious-minded Christians are familiar with, and it proves the inherent sinful nature of man. Thus, by definition, if I am a sinful and flawed being, any application of Biblical study should enable me to learn quickly that my salvation is NOT predicated on my own deeds. “Grace”, or mercy from God Almighty, thus is an absolute and complete requirement for my salvation. I know of no one (even those who areor have been accused of “legalism”) who would argue this point…..thus, the absurdity of the argument that legalists try to “earn” their way into heaven is revealed.

Let’s look at several relevant facts and statements directly from the Bible….

Jesus Christ laid out numerous “commands”, both explicit and inferred, throughout the New Testament (we are to “observe all things Jesus commanded” as per Matthew 28:18-20). Am I thus being “legalistic” in trying to do precisely what this scripture says for me to do? Am I being “legalistic” in trying to follow the commands of Jesus Christ himself?

Jesus himself might well be accused of “legalism” by some nowadays…..after all, Jesus repeatedly emphasized and taught the importance of absolute trust in what God has said (see Matthew 4:4; 5:17-18; John 5:46). Jesus also stressed our need to OBEY the Holy Scriptures (see John 14:15; Matthew 7:13-14; 24-27). If adherence and obedience to the words of Jesus were NOT to be followed, or followed closely, why do such verses suggest otherwise? Was Jesus simply speaking in hyperbole, as some would nowadays suggest? How can Jesus issue commands for us to follow if following said commands is pointless and negates grace?

Jesus was obviously fully aware of God’s infinite, all-encompassing, awe-inspiring mercy…..but yet, Jesus Christ, YOUR Lord and YOUR Savior DIRECTLY LINKED salvation with OBEYING THE WORD OF GOD…John 8:31-32, 'If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free'; John 8:51 '..if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death'; 12:48). If Jesus Christ stressed that obeying the Gospels was an indispensable facet of my salvation, how could I possibly argue or suggest otherwise?

The NT does not condemn the strict keeping of the commandments of God…observing and obeying NT commands is, in fact, commended. Even the infamous Pharisees, inthe example upon whom accusations of “legalism” are usually based, were not condemned for keeping God's commandments too well…They were condemned for keeping SOME requirements while leaving off OTHER ones, probably obeying the less strenuous or difficult ones, as many people seem to do today, as well.

Jesus told them that they should have kept both. "These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matthew 23:23). The Pharisees certainly had their flaws and shortcomings, but their specific “sin” in this specific context and example was NOT what the “anti-legalists” argue today.

If “legalism” means strict adherence to God’s law, then Jesus and his apostles were also legalists. Jesus’ apostles commanded obedience; Peter stated “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)…”He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be condemned (Mark 16:16). Note that we are to “obey” God, directly inferring action and the necessity of baptism (certainly worthy of a study on its own) would, by definition, require physical action on the part of the person wanting to become a “Christian”. The act of baptism is again emphasized when the men in Acts 2:38 asked Peter and the other apostles “What shall we do?”…Peter replied with not one but TWO commands, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins”. In short, we ought to take note of “…in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ”, from 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8….simply stated, there are commands that we as Christians are required to obey. Period.

Anti-legalists often say ‘”We do not live under the old law” or “There is no law now but grace instead”. Should Paul have thus never threatened the vengeance of God for those who disobey the gospel of Christ? (see Romans 12:19). Should he have rather preached simply God’s grace and love and ignored the “unpleasant” parts? Was Paul in error? In today’s PC, touchy-feely, “offend no one” type world, there are those who would say Paul WAS in error, for a host of reasons, “legalism” certainly being one.

The NT doctrine of Christ taught Christians to engage in a plethora of actions/activities….Examples might include meeting every first day of the week (Acts 20:7, Hebrews 10:25), remembering the Lord’s death (1 Corinthians 11:24-26), to reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine (2 Timothy 4:2-6), to sing to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19, Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26, etc.), and to remain faithful unto death to the commandments of the Lord (Revelation 2:10). The examples are lengthy. 2 John 9 reads “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son.” All of the above are “actions” that NT Christians are commanded and expected to participate in and follow. If the anti-legalists are correct, then Christians no longer have to follow the above “laws” and could thus live precisely as the rest of the world lives, and depend on “grace” and grace alone to save him.

According to some, the apostles were legalists, and not to be followed (see 1 Corinthians 11:1). Were Christ and his apostles thus mistaken for forbidding anyone to commit adultery, fornication or homosexuality (see Matthew 19:9, 1 Corinthians 6:10, Galatians 5:19-21). After all, physical actions, either positive or negative, are “works”, the argument goes, so by definition become “legalistic” efforts. “We cannot be saved, or lost, by what we do or do NOT do”, so much of the New Testament was, by definition, idle words and worthless letters.


If Christ was a legalist, should we not strive to be?? Christ is our perfect example to emulate, right? Consider the following…

“Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends, and you are my friends if you do whatsoever I command you.” John 15:13,14.

“If you love me, keep my commandments” John 14:15.

“This is love, that we walk according to His commandments.” 2 John 6.

If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” John 15:10

“Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.” 1 John 2:3

“He that keeps not his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” 1 John 2:4

If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:31-32…..words of Jesus himself.

Jesus said, “I?am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me.” John 14:6….words of Jesus himself.

“You know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 4:2).

"For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).

"Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says,"I know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him…Whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.”(1 John 2:3-5).

Readers should note the frequency with which the word “command” or “commandment” appears regarding the words of Jesus. The Greek word for “commandment” in the NT is ?ντολη, or 'entole' (from Strong’s Concordance, 1785), and is defined as “an order, command, charge, precept, injunction” (

Living your life while attempting to obey the laws and commands of the New Testament is NOT sin, despite what a growing number of opponents would say. James 2:17 tells us that “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”….works, and actions, and obedience to the commands of both the apostles as well as Jesus Christ himself are NOT optional, or old-fashioned, or archaic, or to be ignored. Espousing charges of “legalism” vs. those striving with all their might to live as Jesus instructed is, in essence, a denial of Jesus as our Messiah and Savior, and is in direct conflict with numerous passages from the New Testament.

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Author: jfm

14 thoughts on “Legalism: the current debate

  1. Brethren, is it considered legalism to argue about things such as 'eating in the building, or fellowhip hall, etc….?  Is using the term 'do we have authority to do…this, or that…'  also legalistic….?
         just wondering… thanks….

  2. Does legalism mean strict adherence to God's law? If this is the meaning of the term, it represents a scriptural principle. Jesus told His disciples: "What things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven . . ." (Matt. 16:19 and 18:18). To this end the "Spirit of truth" came to guide them unto all the truth (John 16:13). In this sense Jesus and His ambassadors were legalists. But where does this place the anti-legalists? It puts them in direct opposition to the authority of Christ. Furthermore, this meaning of legalism renders the anti-legalist a double-minded man. He refuses to accept the idea that anything is bound in religion-with one major exception, Anti-legalism! He reminds us of the skeptic who says that the only possible truth is the truth that there can be no possible truth! (?) So if the doctrine of legalism is defined as "strict adherence to God's law," it is scripturally sound. Let modern thinkers (?) say what they will, it is still Gods will that, "This is the end of the matter: all hath been heard: fear God and keel) his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man" (Eccl. 12:13; ).

  3. Ron, let me give you two more examples that might help.

    (2) If legalism is the disposition to make laws where God has made none, it is unscriptural. Consistent with the statement of Jesus cited above (Matt. 16:19 and 18:18), it is unscriptural to bind law when such has not been bound in heaven (and thus recorded in the New Testament). In this case, all who believe in and submit to the supreme authority of God's word are anti-legalists! That is to say, we are opposed to making and binding laws not bound in heaven. This type of legalism is a form of unbelief in that it assumes that God's laws do not go far enough.

    (3) If legalism is depending on works of merit in order to be saved, legalism is unscriptural. This meaning of legalism is closely connected to the second, but not entirely the same. One might depend on added law for salvation (as with circumcision in Acts 15 and the Galatian letter), or one might regard the New Testament as a book of rules which one must keep perfectly in order to earn salvation. In both cases this type of legalism is firmly denied in the New Testament. "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). See also Acts 15; Gal. 2:16 and 3:21; and Rom. 8:3.

  4. Legalism is an un-scriptural term, connoting extremism or rigid orthodoxy. It is typically used by those in the church who are antinomian. To suggest that Christians do not need to strictly adhere to the Word of God is the complete rejection of Christ. Christ did exactly what the Father commanded (John 14:31), and we are to do so as well (2 John 2:6). The only condemnation for strict adherence to any law is that of folks in the first century who were strictly holding to the law of Moses, while it had been removed and replaced by the law of Christ. They should been strictly adhereing to the law of Christ instead.     

  5. I would say, to the original question by Ron, that it isn’t legalism to discuss the Biblical authority for fellowship halls, eating in the building (or any further matters of that ilk) – having authority for what we do as Christians is not only fundamental but essential (Col. 3:17). Legalism is making those considerations mandatory for salvation without some form of substantial authority derived from either command, example, or necessary inference.

    1. What bothers me is when a brother calls me a sinner for eating in a building, etc. That’s sad! Where I’m scriptures does it say: do not eat in the building… not support orphanages, etc….? But some of the same factions would purposely go out of their way to call a brother a sinner, where the bible does NOT speak on the matter… !? Anyway, I stand before God, not man or ‘brother’ to be judged! 🙁

      1. May I ask where we get authority for a building anyway? I don'tmean a place to meet. I mean a building owned by and paid by the congregation? A meering "place" is necessarily inferred….but is an owned building??

  6. Another note…. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, do we eat the bread and drink the fruit of the vine, in the building…. Or do we rub it on our body and absorb it? You can say it is not a meal…but it is eating…isn’t it?! So…if it is legalistically wrong… We had better start setting up a Lord’s buffet, out in the driveway… Oh, but that us still on church building property, isn’t it? Hmmm… I guess I’ll be darned if we do or not, huh?!
    (I can’t wait for the deriding from this.
    Speaking the truth in love…. Ron…. 🙂
    I Dont want to argue or be judged guilty of divisiveness…so, if we can’t agree, I’ll go my way, with sorrow. Love to all, in Christ, still your brother…I hope. :'(

  7. When Paul tells us that we should preach no other gospel, that he left Titus in Crete to set things in order and when we are told by John not to bid godspeed to those who do not bring ‘this doctrine’ I guess we could conclude that they were being legalistic. I do not buy that argument one inch.

  8. Nothing wrong with obedience. As Christians, we are to be obedient. But….. Legalism is: Any attempt to add my own righteousness to what Jesus accomplished on the cross in order to be justified to God.

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