There is a word that is commonly used in Christian circles and that is the word “legalism.” Because it’s not a specific Biblical word but a concept the Word describes people often understand it to mean different things and there’s much confusion about what is legalism. It is seldom defined but often talked about. Some define it to mean any excessive adherence to law or formula which can very broad in its application. Defining it like this can cause it to be used to bash any effort to be obedient, walking circumspectly, earnestly contending for the faith, or making an appeal for Biblical authority and truth over compromise.
In the Bible, legalism defines the concept of adding anything of man’s works to merit salvation or to be justified in God’s sight (Acts 15:1-10; Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16; 5:4). It is the deadly error of teaching salvation or justification by man’s works or keeping the Law. Salvation by grace through faith never mixes with salvation by works (Romans 11:6). It’s the false idea that divine blessing is given on the basis of human works.
Aside from what the Bible defines as legalism, to know what something is it is often helpful to see what it isn’t.
- Legalism is not THE MERE EXISTENCE OF THE LAW OF MOSES.
The fact that there are regulations in the Mosaic Law or under the Law of Christ is not legalism. If the Law is legalism God would be guilty of causing legalism because He gave the Law to Moses. Legalism is the attitude directed toward a law, code, rule, or principle of conduct. It deals with the “why” (or motive) behind the conduct.
- Legalism is not THE EXISTENCE OF A STANDARD OR REQUIREMENT.
Requirements, standards or having to do something is not legalism but the wrong attitude or motive toward it. If standards and requirements are legalism God would be guilty of causing legalism because He put standards and requirements in the O.T. and N.T. Any strict adherence to a standard for the purpose of exalting oneself and judging others would be a legalistic attitude. That is not the same as desiring to walk circumspectly in order to please God because you love Him.
- Legalism is not REGULARITY OR REGULAR SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES.
Regularity is not legalism (neither is spontaneity always spirituality). If regularity is legalism then anyone eating three meals a day every day would be a legalist. A wrong attitude toward regular or irregular things can be a legalism. Anything regular can become legalistic if the reason or motive for doing it is wrong. The improper motive would be doing it to gain merit and to exalt oneself rather than to respond to what God’s done and glorifying Him.
Some wrongly judge legalism by anything that is a law, a standard, a requirement, or regular. It is true that we are not to establish human laws, standards, and requirements as righteousness for the purpose of exalting ourselves if we keep them and to judge others by them. The balance to this is that the New Testament has laws, standards, and requirements even “under grace” that are not legalism and to reject these is to turn grace into lawlessness. This disdain for moral laws, theologically, is called antinomianism. It comes from two Greek words, “anti,” meaning against and “nomos,” meaning law. Antinomianism means anti-law or against law. It is a belief and thinking that there are no moral laws God requires or expects Christians to obey.