Do you think that strict adherence to God’s Word is legalism? To me “strict adherence” sounds like a committed Christian. Do you think that strict adherence is what God expects? If we accept that we should faithfully adhere to all of God’s will, we still have to admit that not everyone that does so is acceptable to God. But the problem is something else, not the “strict adherence”.
Defining the term.
Webster’s online dictionary – “1. Strict conformity to the letter of the law rather than its spirit.” Under specialty definitions, Webster’s says “Legalism (theology) is a pejorative term in Christian theology referring to the imposition of excessive conformity to religious rules of behavior.”
Merriam Webster online dictionary – “1 : strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code “
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary – if the word was used, Webster gave it no attention.
Bible – the word is not found in the Scriptures.
Conclusion: the word, part of the modern age, is presented as describing something in the Bible.
Legalism being so connected to the Pharisees is often identified as Pharisaism.
Webster’s online dictionary – “1. Rigid observance of external forms of religion, without genuine piety; hypocrisy in religion; a censorious, self-righteous spirit in matters of morals or manners”
Merriam Webster online dictionary – “1 capitalized : the doctrines or practices of the Pharisees
2often capitalized : pharisaical character, spirit, or attitude : hypocrisy”
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary – “1. Rigid observance of external forms of religion without genuine piety; hypocrisy in religion.”
Bible – not found in the Scriptures.
What can we conclude about the definition of “Legalism”? Almost 200 years ago when Daniel Webster compiled his famous dictionary, “Legalism” wasn’t even addressed. Pharisaism was and Webster defined it exactly as it is found in Scripture. The “Legalism” term seems to be a post-modern idea that is too broadly defined so that it could apply to almost anyone, even the person who believes that the Bible is truly the Word of God.
The problem of using terms not found in Scripture to describe things in Scripture is the high probability of getting it wrong and misrepresenting the Scriptures. In the Bible we see the problem of people taking a “legal” approach to life, to God, and to being saved. The Pharisees tithed but ignored the weightier things in the Law (Mt. 23). When He called them hypocrites, Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees or Lawyers for “excessive conformity” to God’s Law. He called them hypocrites because they expected more of others than of themselves. We see in the Bible how people tried to bind Old Testament law on New Testament Christians. The Galatians were hindered from obeying the truth by those who insisted that men be circumcised (Gal. 4). That might be defined as “excessive conformity” to things that God nullified, but not to the Word in general. We also see the Lawyers, maybe the best example of what a “Legalist” is, would bind heavy loads on others, while hypocritically not lifting a finger to do the same (Lk. 11:46). So the Lawyers’ problem was not “excessive conformity” to the Law. And for sure we see how the Pharisees replaced the commands of God with their own traditions. Mt. 15 shows that they relieved people of their duty to honor/support their parents if they would give to the temple. It’s apparent from this example that if there was “excessive conformity”, it was not to the Law of God. And we know that the Pharisees made up rules, like ceremonial hand-washing, and bound them on others. Their rules or religious requirements were not supported in the Old Testament or Jesus would have followed them by washing His hands as they prescribed. In most examples of Pharisaism, the problem was not “excessive conformity” to God’s moral code, but it was instead the failure to conform to God’s Word – in spirit and/or practice. The last person you want to be subject to is a highly religious person who does not conform himself, in spirit or practice, to the Word of God. I am sure there are other Bible examples that could be used to describe Pharisaism or “Legalism”, but for now these should suffice.
Where is the true “Legalism” today? Sometimes it is found among Christians when they begin dictating the personal affairs of others. Maybe in their private life, they live like the devil, but they demand piety from others. Some churches have sought to “help” Christians to be better Christians by demanding obedience to a set of rules that cannot be found in Scripture. Modern “Legalism” might say, “You aren’t praying often or long enough”; “Your clothes aren’t respectful enough to God because they aren’t your best”; “You must be giving 10%”; “You should ‘witness’ to the Lost at least once a day”; “The lecture style Bible class is unscriptural”; “Reading 1 Corinthians 11 with the Lord’s Supper shows a weakness or lack of preparation”; “Women may wear only dresses”; and “Men must wear ties to serve the Lord’s Supper”. Pharisaism arises when how much to pray, give, serve, witness is dictated to the church. The International churches of Christ were masters of this. Such groups sought to measure a person’s degree of commitment and the rules were intended to ratchet it up closer to their ideal. What about your clothing? What are you wearing? Ladies should only wear dresses, right? And don’t you know, that only certain dress honors God. Why are you wearing slacks that don’t honor God? It’s not enough that you are decent, discreet, or covered, which book, chapter, and verse would demand, but you must also wear a certain level of style to honor God. Men must wear a tie to worship God and assemble with Christians because that is the only way to show proper honor to God, right? See, these specific rules are not from God. Man-made rules venture into the area of making opinion into law. I could agree that that Pharisaic like approach is “Legalism”.
“Legalism”, if we correctly deduce it from Scripture, is not easy to find in the Church. I agree that it sometimes happens, but it is unusual because it is a sin. Christians are well-schooled in the Bible and are very cautious not to do as the Pharisees. Instead, where is “Legalism” mostly found? It is found in those who do not bother to conform themselves so closely to the Scriptures. They hypocritically demand that their beliefs and opinions are right and that yours are wrong for disagreeing with them. The accuser practices the very “Legalism” he claims to be against. His venom is often against “salt of the earth” people who, while wholeheartedly acknowledge the insufficiency of their works, do sincerely want to follow the whole Word of God. But God says in so many places to obey His Word and do not “exceed the things that are written” (1 Cor. 4:6). For taking their stand on the Word of God, they are labeled “Legalists”. Because they insist on book, chapter, and verse for everything that is brought into the church worship, they are hit over the head with the pejorative term even if they are nothing like the Pharisees.
“Legalism”, as used today, is rarely used to describe the very real error of the Pharisees and Lawyers, but it is instead used to attack what the Scriptures never did. If you believe the Bible miracles and insist that they be preached as such, then you might be a “Legalist”. If you insist that we practice the worship that is commanded or exemplified in Scripture and that anything else is adding to or subtracting from the Word, then you might be a “Legalist”. If you insist that the unbaptized are lost and that only at adult baptism is one saved, you might be a “Legalist”. Even if there is no hypocrisy, and even though they are not trusting in their own merits to earn eternal life, they might be “Legalistic”. Even though they offer book, chapter, and verse for the things they place on themselves and teach in the church, they are called “Legalist”. Even though they are fully aware of the danger of binding rules where God has not, because they insist that certain things are black and white they are called “Legalist”. Even though what they are teaching and practicing is Biblical, and their approach bears no resemblance to the “Pharisaism”, they are called “Legalist”.
Worship and singing: Christians are not “Legalists” because they approve of singing alone, without accompaniment, as the only acceptable music in the church. Why? Because God defines what is true and acceptable worship (Jn. 4:23,24). Because God says that teaching as doctrine the precepts of men makes worship vain (Mt. 15:7-9). Because God says we are not to exceed the things that are written (1 Cor. 4:6). Because God said to sing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Because of the restrictions and guidelines given by God, only the singing of spiritual songs is undoubtedly pleasing to God. Beyond that, it’s just a guess and only a “Legalist” would approve something more.
Baptism: To command for adult believers to be immersed into Christ for the remission of sins is not legalistic. But if a religious group opts to sprinkle water over the head of infants, binding it on their followers, and then vehemently defend their position to the discredit of the Biblical example, that would be “Legalism”. It would also be legalistic to demand any kind of Baptism or other religious practice without giving due attention as well to the true heart or of the spirit of the practitioner. This kind of practice just becomes rote, external, “showy”, religion that could not be pleasing to God.
Here’s the problem with attacking Christians for being “excessively conformed” to the New Testament: God never attacks Christians for being excessive about obedience to His Word. “Legalism” could never be obedience, excessive or otherwise, to the Word of God in the Old or New Testament. Even in the Old Testament, including the time covering the earthly ministry of Christ, there is no such thing as “excessive conformity” to the Word of God. It is not possible to excessively conform yourself to the Word of God. It’s like saying there is something wrong with being “excessively committed” to Jesus Christ. When God asks for your whole heart, soul, and mind, and when God asks for you to die to yourself, you can’t get more excessive than that. And Jesus said, “man shall live on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” A person cannot be “excessively” obedient or “conformed” to the Word of God.
One more thing. Another definition for “Legalism” seems to be the certain attitude of being right. The argument is something like this. “Nobody’s right 100% of the time and if someone thinks he is right, then he must be a “Legalist”. You may think you are right, because only only Jesus is right? Unless you are Jesus, you are wrong some of the time and therefore you can’t say you are right. The attitude of being right is wrong and “Legalistic”. If you think otherwise, you need to repent and acknowledge that you could be just as wrong as the next guy. Anyway, that’s the way the argument goes. The Pharisees believed that only their way was the right way. Everyone knows that they were “Legalistic”. Thus thinking you are right and being “Legalistic” are equated. Modern day Pharisees think they are the only ones who are right. They think that only their church is right. Since they can’t be 100% right, they must be Pharisees. What they should do is acknowledge their error along with the possibility that other religious groups could be right.” That’s the argument. What do you say about this idea that if you think you are right, it’s “Legalism”? I would respond first by saying that nobody but God knows everything. And God knows a lot that He’s not telling. But because God has revealed Himself to man and has preserved His thoughts in the Bible, the reader of the Bible can know a great deal. And the reader can know that he is right in what He believes. He is right when he says that God sent His Son to die that he might taste death for all men. He is right when he says that the road is narrow and straight that leads to heaven and most people aren’t on it. Being “right” doesn’t make a person a Pharisee. Jesus Christ was “right” and He wasn’t a Pharisee. And His disciples spoke the truth and they were a 100% right in what they taught in the Scriptures, but that didn’t make them “Legalistic”. And people like Stephen, Philip, Timothy, and Titus were right in what they taught the church, but that didn’t make them “Legalists”. How are these godly teachers of the truth different from the Pharisees who believed they were “right”? It’s obvious, they were “Legalistic” because they demanded that people be “excessively conformed” to their human traditions that had no basis in Scripture.
What are my conclusions? “Legalism” is not mere obedience to the Word of God. Often this is called “excessive conformity” to the Bible, or “Legalism”. It shows how the term is misused. The best I can tell, the “Legalism” of the Bible is an “excessive conformity” to something outside of the spirit and truth of the Bible. The definition for “Legalism” is useful to describe the Pharisees and Lawyers of the first century. For them it was all a hypocritical outward show. It’s hard to believe that these people really believed, in their heart of hearts, that they had anything to do with God. But there must be “Legalist” who wrongly think in terms of law and order only and that entrance into God’s kingdom is based solely on merit. The term is also useful to describe some today who hypocritically bind their opinions and traditions on others. If you don’t accept their opinions, accepting and adopting them into the church, then you must be a “Legalist”. The opposite is true that the “Legalist” is the one who, like the Pharisees, approves what God has not approved and they demand that you do too.
From my experience, having been called a “Legalist” more than once, the term is mostly used out of context, which is the Pharisaical approach to God, to indict sincere Christians and solid Bible churches. God is well-pleased with those who are devoted to His Word and who keep it with a sincere spirit.
Repentance is Real change beyond believing only