“Legalism” Is Not a Four-Letter Word
by Kevin Kay
“Legalism” – it’s one of those words, we don’t like to hear or say. It makes us cringe inside. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth when it crosses our lips. Yet I wonder if those who accuse others of “legalism” know what the word really means. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “legalism” as “strict, literal adherence to law.” The Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says that it means “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” Now, what’s so terrible about that? Is “strict, literal adherence to law” something that we should abhor? Is it antithetical to the teachings of Christ in the new covenant?
As often as many people condemn “legalism,” one might think that the terms “legalism,” “legalist,” and “legalistic” are scattered all through the Bible; but in fact they are not used a single time. Of course, the NT does say quite a lot about “law.” For example, it teaches that: the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus (Jn. 1:17); no one will be justified in God’s sight by the deeds (or works) of law (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16); we are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14); if righteousness comes through law, then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:21); etc. Many people read passages like these and conclude that the NT condemns “legalism” (as that term is defined in the dictionary); but is that really true?
Before we explore that question, let me remind you that any Bible passage must be interpreted in such a way that it harmonizes with the rest of Scripture. If the Bible is really the word of God (and it is), then it does not contradict itself. Therefore if we interpret one passage in such a way that it contradicts another passage, we must conclude that we have either misinterpreted the first passage, or the second, or both. This means that whatever the Bible teaches about “ law” and/or “legalism”: (1) One passage is not going to contradict other passages; and (2) All the passages will harmonize together if they are properly understood.
With this hermeneutical principle to guide us, we must conclude that when Paul says “for you are not under law but under grace: (Rom. 6:14), there are several things he simply cannot mean, because otherwise he would contradict many other clear Bible passages.
Paul Cannot Mean:
The Christian is not under any kind of law at all. When Isaiah prophesied the establishment of the Messianic kingdom, he said, “for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isa. 2:2-3). When Jeremiah prophesied that God would make a new covenant with Israel and Judah, he indicated that this new covenant would have a law from God (Jer. 31:31-34). The NT clearly states that Christians are under law to Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). It specifically talks about: “the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27); “the law of God” (Rom. 8:2); “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2); “the law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25; 2:12); and “the royal law” (Jas. 2:8). Furthermore, the very existence of sin implies the existence of law, because sin, by definition, is the transgression of law (1 Jn. 3:4). Where there is no law, there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15). You can’t break the speed limit if there is no speed limit law. Since Christians sin from time to time (1 Jn. 1:8-10), they must be under law.
Law is antithetical to love. Some people seem to have the idea that “law” and “love” are like oil and water – they just don’t mix – they don’t go together. However, Jesus taught that one of the ways we express our love is by obeying His law (Jn. 14:21, 23-24), and John echoes Jesus’ teaching in his epistles (1 Jn. 2:3-6; 5:3; 2 Jn. 6) To profess love for Jesus and then neglect to obey His commandments is patently absurd (Lk. 6:46).
Christians can continue in sin. Paul clearly teaches that Christians who are “not under law but under grace” may not continue to practice sin (Rom. 6:1-4, 11-19).
“Strict, literal adherence to law” is unnecessary. God repeatedly taught the Israelites under the old covenant that they were to strictly obey His law. Before his death and before Israel crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses repeatedly emphasized the importance of strict obedience to God’s word. He told them to be careful to obey all the commandments (Dt. 5:31-33; 6:24-24; 7:11; 8:1; 11:22-23; 12:32; 15:4b-5; 28:1, 13, 15; 32:46), with all your heart (Dt. 10:12-13; 11:13-15; 26:16), all your days (Dt. 4:9-10; 6:1-2; 12:1). Jesus repeatedly taught the importance of strict obedience. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that those who broke the least commandment would be least in the kingdom (Mt. 5:19), and that doesn’t mean they’ll have to sit in the cheap seats in the nose-bleed section. It means they won’t get in (cf. Mt. 18:1-5). He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Mt 7:21). Although He rebuked the Pharisees for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law,” Jesus did not condemn their punctilious tithing of their herbs; in fact, He commended it (Mt. 23:23). When Jesus gave the Great Commission to the apostles, He taught them to make disciples by baptizing people and “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:18-20). Please read that again. Strict obedience to Jesus’ teaching is a part of discipleship. The apostles taught early Christians the importance of strictly obeying God’s law (1Cor. 7:19; 2 Cor. 2:9; Col. 3:17; 2 Th. 2:15; 3:4; 2 Tim. 1:13; Jas. 2:10-11). Many people today seem to have the idea that obedience is not something we must do to be saved, but rather it’s something we do because we are saved. However, the NT teaches that obedience is both an indication of salvation (1 Jn. 2:3-6, 29; 3:24) and a condition for salvation (Mt. 7:21-23; Rom. 2:8-10; 6:16-18; 2 Th. 1:8-9; Heb. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Jn. 2:17).
If “legalism” is “strict, literal adherence to law,” that’s not something the Bible condemns, it’s something the Bible commands. If “legalism” is “strict, literal adherence to law,” then Moses and Jesus and the apostles were “legalist.” Friends, what some people call “legalism,” the Bible calls “righteousness.” “And they [Zacharias and Elizabeth] were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Lk. 1:6).
What Does Paul Mean?
When Paul says “for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14), what does he mean? He means that the Christian is not obligated to keep God’s law perfectly to be saved. Paul’s fundamental argument in Romans and Galatians can be stated in the form of a syllogism.
Major Premise: Law demands perfect obedience (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:10-12)
Minor Premise: Man does not deliver perfect obedience, because he’s a sinner (Rom. 3:9-12, 23; 7:14-24; 8:3)
Conclusion: Therefore man cannot be justified on the basis of law (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16)
Fortunately, for sinners like you and me, God has provided a plan whereby we can be saved by means of an obedient faith through the sacrifice of Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). When Paul says we are not justified by “works” (Rom. 3:20, 28), he’s not saying we don’t have to obey Christ (cf. Rom. 1:5; 16:26), and he’s not saying we don’t have to strictly obey Christ. He’s saying we don’t have to perfectly obey Christ. When it comes right down to it, the only man who can “earn” his salvation, the only man who can point his finger in God’s face and say “You owe me” is the sinless man. This becomes apparent when we carefully consider the contrasts that Paul draws in Romans 4:1-8.
The “Legalism” Jesus Condemns
I want to emphasize that there is a kind of “legalism” that the NT clearly condemns. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for: (1) setting aside God’s commands because of their own man-mad traditions (Mt. 15:1-7); and (2) teaching the doctrines of men as the commandments of God (Mt. 15:7-9). The apostle Paul also condemned those who would require men to do things that God has not required (cf. Gal. 2:3-5; Col. 2:16-23).
When we commit ourselves, as the Bible teaches we should, to a “strict, literal adherence to law” this does not mean that we earn or merit our salvation in any way. Jesus said: “So likewise you, when you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” (Lk. 17:10) The very first sin you ever committed forever placed you in debt to God for your salvation, because your first sin made it impossible for you to “earn” eternal life, and its forgiveness required a perfect sacrifice that you could never provide. Fortunately, out of His love and mercy and grace, God provided that sacrifice in His Son Jesus Christ who died for your sins; and you can have that salvation as a gift, if you will accept it with an obedient faith.
If other people call you a “legalist” because of your insistence on “strict, literal adherence to law” don’t let that bother you. Jesus said: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is you reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt. 5:11-12; cf. Lk. 6:22-23, 26)
Kay, Kevin. “’Legalism’ Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” Biblical Insights July 2012: pp. 9-10