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” (www.biblegateway.com).
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.