“Hello, thanks for starting this up. I got a question about “legalism”. I have a friend who told me that the Bible never talks about it. When I brought up the Pharisees, he told me that they were not legalistic at all and that idea is a modern misconception. Where in the Bible is legalism mentioned and what exactly is it? Also why do people think obeying the law is such a bad thing? Eager for your response. Thank you!”
That’s a really great question! I’ve personally found this subject to be extremely eye opening when reading the Bible. For example, one modern misconception is that the Old Testament Law was written and read in the same way we read a legal contract today. This is simply not true. The Law, especially in a high-context culture like ancient Israel, assumes the reader possesses a sense of justice, mercy, and common sense, and was able to judge matters on a case-by-case basis by using the Law as the standard; hence, the point of the Judges and the Cities of Refuge (Joshua 20:1-9). Otherwise, how else could a Judge show mercy? In a way, our modern approach to legal contracts is our “legalistic” attempt to codify morality, which we’ll get into in just a moment.
For all intents and purposes, the quick answer is that legalism puts the law above all things or as if it is all things, sort of like how humanism puts humanity above all things as the supreme good. And although the Law is crucial for defining sin (Romans 7:7-25), it is not the be all and end all. People who consistently operate in a legalistic way tend to misappropriate authority across the board. From what I can tell, it’s one of the most spiritually detrimental and underlying issues throughout the entire Bible and in the Church today. So, let’s make some distinctions.
Sometimes the word legalism is used in our culture today to critique people who are, perhaps, too technical, tedious, pious, black-and-white, overly strict, short-sighted, narrow-minded, or even a bit too logical for their own good. But this is not necessarily so. After all, a stark contrast between good and evil, or law and sin, ought to be transparent. It’s also colloquially referred to as “works doctrine”, which places labour, work ethic, and rituals over grace and faith as a way to merit salvation, as if deserved (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 11:6). But this only paints part of the picture. Furthermore, it also does not follow that obedience to God, even when a person does not ‘feel like it’ or understands why exactly, is legalistic. After all, there are times when we are not of right mind, whether bagged down by emotional troubles or not fully knowledgeable on a matter; so, irrespective of personal feelings or intelligibility, obedience can reveal your heart for God even when its weak. In short, obeying law is not legalistic.
Legalism is a very emotional, yet religiously charged word. But it’s a bigger problem than religion itself. Legalism is to believe that following the dos and don’ts of law, justifies itself – just because – irrespective of heartfelt understanding. ‘If I don’t murder, rape, or commit a heinous crime, then I am justified as good by my keeping of the law’. While law and order help maintain society, it doesn’t cut the mustard for God’s Kingdom (cf. Matthew 5:21-30). It misses the greater context, central purpose, and the reason why the law was put in place at all. A legalistic person, then, is typically regarded as one who follows the letter of the law but divorces or fails to understand and apply the spirit of the law, placing the rule of law itself as the highest authority, often blending ceremonial or civil law into moral law. Therefore, legalism also takes (or makes) laws, commands, rules, and rituals to be the ultimate end of truth, justification and goodness in itself, as if following the law for the sake of law is the target to aim for or the goal to work toward. This means that all people – religious and secular alike – are not free from being legalistic (cf. Romans 2:13-15).
Now Biblically speaking, this is a grave misunderstanding of Law. In both the Old and New Testament, God grieves over this “stiff-necked” and “hardened heart” approach to the Law because it wilfully neglects the more important matters of Law – justice, mercy, faith and love (Matthew 23:23, Matthew 12:1-8). God, quite literally, lambastes those who ‘honour’ Him with their lips or labour, but not with their heart (Isaiah 29:13). In the Law itself, God explicitly redirects the outward appearance of obeying the Law to an inward reality (Deuteronomy 10:16). In Isaiah 1:11-17, before the Pharisees existed, God reduces the ceremonial laws down to meaningless, worthless rubble of mere human rules and tradition. Without a faithful heart for God, who else are the rules for if not for human authority? The true irony of legalism is that God calls it lawlessness (Matthew 23:27-28).
This is the spiritual backdrop behind the iconic scene in Matthew 23 when Jesus Christ publicly chastises the Scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the Law for substituting the prophets for profit, humbleness for hypocrisy, and love for law, all of whom divorce the Heart of the Old Testament for the image of Judaism (John 5:36-40). Which reveals the real underlying issue: legalism displaces God’s authority for idolatry.
Other Biblical types of legalism include:
- The young ruler who was able to exercise the moral commandments and carry out the Law outwardly without real heartfelt inward belief and love for God (Matthew 19:16-22). Or those who isolate customs, rituals, traditions, and works of religious significance such as Sabbath, sacrifices, offerings, tithing, and so on, as holy in itself, as if it is meritorious or more essential than faith, love, goodness and relationship with God. A severe case is when the teachers of the Law break the command of God for sake of tradition (Matthew 15:1-10) or when the Pharisees call healing on the Sabbath unlawful (Matthew 12:1-14). A soft case is when Martha criticizes Mary for not being a traditional woman in the household (Luke 10:38-42). In Christianity today, it would be like prioritizing the sacraments (communion, baptism, etc.) over a personal relationship with God or as the way to get to God (John 14:6).
- The Pharisees and teachers of the Law who prioritize or conflate the material culture, spaces, icons, or objects of their religion such as the Temple, altar, circumcision, Scripture and so forth, as holiness and authentic belief in God (Matthew 23:16-28, John 5:39-42; John 12:3-8). In Christianity today, it would be like making the church building a necessary sacred space that’s more holy than the people of God (1 Corinthians 3:16); or worshipping a relic or icon above God or as a way to get to God.
- Those who make up and codify new additional rules of law as a way to either (a) follow the letter of the law easily and efficiently, or (b) to fill in potential loopholes instead of allowing the spirit of the law (faith, love, humility, humbleness, etc.) to ‘fill in the holes’ (i.e. Oral tradition of the elders, Talmud; Matthew 23:1-11; Matthew 15:1-10). Such as the case with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when they added a new rule on top of God’s command (Genesis 2:16-17, 3:2-3) –– to highlight a key OT example.
These three types above, in tandem or alone, are not means of salvation. Due to a severe lack of heartfelt understanding: rule is placed above personhood; law is divorced from justice, mercy, and faith; command has lost intention; context is found wanting a subtext; and love of neighbour is marginalized. It presents a cold-hearted, mechanistic view of God. This is completely counter-intuitive to the most basic command of the Gospel spoken by Jesus in Mark 12:29-33, which is thoroughly clarified in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Furthermore, in Mark 12, consider Jesus’ response to the teacher of the Law: “You are not far form the Kingdom of God.” (v.34) –– Take a moment to think about that –– the Pharisee knew the rule, but he was not in the door yet. This is critical. People might claim they follow the rules with their lips or labour because they love God, and yet focus so intensely on the rules, rituals, systems and traditions that they never stop to think if they actually love God as a Person. The line of logic is simple: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) It is not: “I follow the rules, therefore I love God”.
Carrying out instructions, codifying laws, following orders, or obeying rules does not mean, nor will it make you, love someone – though it may indicate love, it does not determine it – it does not show who you are carrying it out for and why. Law cannot be law absent of love; it’s fulfilled by love (Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 2:3-5; 1 John 5:1-3). Law is good because love is good, and love is good because God is love (1 John 4:8)! In turn, then, we cannot truly codify the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control –– against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23). That is, if we isolate law from love, it is lawlessness. Carrying out the law, in love, completes it.
Legalism places a tablet of stone (or a pile of paper) between God and man over a faithful, loving relationship with God on a personal level (2 Corinthians 3:1-6). By consequence, this way of thinking pedestals our self, society, culture, tradition, government and other human authorities as the new ultimate end of truth, goodness and justification, as if it is the target to aim for or the goal to work toward. Which is also the essence of what sin means: “to miss the mark”. Once more, it is a person who follows the letter of the law but divorces or fails to understand and apply the Spirit of the Law (2 Corinthians 3:6). Legalism was a problem in the Old Testament, in the New Testament and it’s still a problem today. It’s a human problem.
I hope it is Biblically clear that obeying laws and commands are not evil in itself, and that following the law for the sake of the law is not sufficient for being a truly good person. If the basis for what makes the law good to begin with was forgone – God – what makes the law good at all? (John 15:1-17) Therefore, calling someone legalistic in a Christian setting can actually be an extremely harsh accusation because the word is a melting pot of perversion. You are, more or less, accusing someone of not only being a loveless hypocrite but also a depraved idolater who upholds human authority as the supreme good. –– Ouch! –– Of course, no man is without fault, but it’s wise not to throw the accusation around like a loose ball. It seems to me a matter that we, as sinners, are all guilty of at some level. I think there is strong spiritual precedent for why God wrote the first five of the Ten Commandments to be a direct assault on misappropriating authority, and why the Gospels and Epistles are not written in a rigid formal legal structure like Leviticus, yet the “Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Thanks for asking such a great question, Peter! I apologize for the long-winded response. I hope I was of some help.
Matlock Bobechko | October 1, 2019 – 5:15 PM EST