What is Legalism?

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, “Leading People Away from Legalism“, based on an article by Lou Priolo. I found it very relevant to Calvary Baptist Church and the study we are in the midst of in Galatians. Yesterday we looked at a “legalism quiz” and, from it, determined our likelihood of being legalistic. But what exactly is “legalism”? Priolo tackles the question as he continued the article. He began by discussing what legalism is not:

  • Legalism is not emphasizing obedience to God’s Word.
    • I am not legalistic to encourage others to obey God’s Word. Jesus spoke repeatedly of obeying his commands and the rewards of doing so in such passages as: John 14:15; 2:3-6; 15:10-11
  • Legalism is not the establishment of man-made rules.
    • Since the Bible does not have specific “rules” for every part of everyday life, mankind has created rules in order to allow us to function effectively. (I do believe that the Bible does give us principles and guidelines, as well as direct commands, for all of life) In obedience to authority, which God ordained, we do obey these rules: i.e.: speed limits, taxes, dress code for employment, etc. My obedience to these rules does not grant me greater approval with God

What is Legalism?

John MacArthur gives this description of Legalism:

Legalism believes that every act, every habit, every type of behavior is either black or white. Legalists live by rules rather than by the Spirit. They classify everything as good or bad, whether the Bible mentions it or not. They develop exhaustive lists of do’s and don’ts. Doing the things on the good list or avoiding the things on the bad list is their idea of spirituality, no matter what the inner person is like. Their lives are law controlled, not Spirit controlled. But refraining from doing things is not spiritually walking in the Spirit.

Legalism is believing that salvation can be earned by obedience, Priolo says. He is saying that legalism is a motive that wants to establish (or improve) our standing before God by our own achievements. It is the religion of human achievement. It undermines the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it adds human effort to the work of Christ. This is why it is so dangerous to be caught up in legalism, and why Paul wrote the letter to the Galatian church.

Examples of past & present legalistic tendencies:

  • Faith in Christ + obedience to the law of Moses
  • Faith in Christ + circumcision
  • Faith in Christ + water baptism
  • Faith in Christ + church membership
  • Faith in Christ + the proper diet
  • Faith in Christ + appropriate Christian attire
  • Faith in Christ + a particular translation of Scripture
  • Faith in Christ + the proper approach to Christian parenting

The Gospel is clear: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone!

Priolo comments:

Legalism can also be defined as believing that one can obey the Bible through his own will and power for the purpose of gaining a greater measure of God’s approval and favor. Legalism is attempting to live the Christian life in one’s own strength instead of relying on the supernatural grace God gives us through the Holy Spirit.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what Legalism is and is not, we can probe the issue further. In our next post we examine a couple of manifestations of legalism as well as four principles to consider before passing judgment on someone else.


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