Our Misunderstanding of Legalism

In my 16 years of following Jesus, I have never once heard someone self-identify as a legalist. Not once. Yet I have countless times heard someone identify another Christian as a legalist. The fact that the word “legalist” is used exclusively to label someone else, and never used to label oneself, tells me two things. First, it tells me it is possible to be a legalist without knowing you are one. Second, it tells me it is possible to think someone else is a legalist when, in fact, they are not. Both possibilities reveal one central problem: as much as we love to use the word “legalist” we don’t really know what it means, nor to whom it applies.

It is possible to be a legalist without knowing you are one & possible to label someone a… Click To Tweet

So what does it mean?

And to whom does it apply?

While the word does not appear in the Bible, it is a word Christians have adopted in order to describe something that indeed does appear in the Bible. Namely, it is used to describe the theology and attitude of the Pharisees with whom Jesus interacted and the Judaizers whose teaching Paul regularly confronted. Thus, the best way for us to have a right understanding of what legalism means and to whom it applies is to examine the theologies and attitudes of the Pharisees and the Judaizers.

One of the most useful passages in understanding legalism is Matthew 23, in which Jesus openly rebukes the Pharisees for tying up “heavy, cumbersome loads and put[ting] them on other people’s shoulders…” (read: legalism). A common theme that runs through this extended criticism of the Pharisees is that they have added their own laws alongside of God’s Law and — to make matters worse — they treat those laws as supreme. In other words, legalists major on the minor issues and minor on the major issues.

An equally helpful section of Scripture is the book of Galatians. In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul confronts the legalism of the Judaizers in very strong language. The specific lie the Galatian Christians were being fed is that their position with God depended on their obedience to God’s Law. This was in contrast to the message they believed when they first became Christians: that their position with God was dependent on their faith in Jesus’ obedience to God’s Law. The idea that we are accepted by God based on our own obedience to the Law is legalism, and if we believe it, “Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Galatians 5:2).

Combining what we learn from the Pharisees and the Judaizers we can conclude that legalists are those who place their own laws alongside or above God’s Law and/or trust in their obedience to said laws to make them right with God.

Thus, there are many who are obviously legalists because they openly major on the minors and minor on the majors, like the Pharisees. We all know someone who is vehemently opposed to people watching the portrayal of sexual immorality in movies but who is much less concerned about the very real sexual immorality in their own lives, or someone who declares all drinking is sin while having no issue with their own gluttony as it relates to food and entertainment.

There are also many who do not think they are legalists who, in fact, are. They don’t think they are legalists because they know they’re not obligated to obey silly rules about how long their skirt has to be or what radio station they can listen to. Yet if they believe that their position with God is in any way dependent on their obedience to even one of God’s laws, they are legalists.

At the same time there are those who are labeled by others as legalists who, in fact, are not. Someone who rebukes another Christian for watching pirated television shows and movies is not a legalist, they are simply faithfully trying to honor God’s command to not steal. One who refuses to say a curse word is often not a legalist, but simply someone trying to submit to God’s command to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building up others” (Ephesians 4:29).  Such people are only legalists if they think their obedience to these commands in some way achieves or maintains their salvation. If they are trusting in Christ’s obedience to save them, their emphasis on obeying God’s laws is not legalism. It is love (John 14:15).

If they are trusting in Christ's obedience, their emphasis on obeying God's laws is not legalism.… Click To Tweet

We would be wise to heed the warning of the Prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). When we fail to properly define legalism, we are guilty of doing just that. We may do it as the Pharisees did, by applauding ourselves for our strict obedience to things that are not of utmost importance to God. Or we may do it as “anti-legalists” who fail to see the legalism that might live in us, calling our Christian faith “good” even as we unconsciously trust in some measure of our own obedience to keep us right with God. We also may do it by labeling the faithful obedience of another Christian as legalism, when it is actually us who are in sin for failing to pursue God’s will with comparable zeal.

In short, instead of using “legalism” as a slur we use to immediately dismiss the opinion or convictions of another, perhaps we should focus on its true meaning and use it to evaluate ourselves before we evaluate others:

Am I adding to God’s Law with my own laws — even if those laws are good and wise?

Am I in any way majoring on issues that God considers minor and minoring on issues that God considers major?

Am I relying on my own obedience to God’s Law (including my obedience to the command “do not be a legalist”) to get me right or keep me right with God?

Am I judging another Christian as a “legalist” without evaluating if perhaps I should be equally passionate about the command they are striving to obey?

If we do this, I imagine we will find the word applies to us more often than we ever thought and applies to others far less than we expected.