“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, faithfulness, 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 every iota of morality, which cannot fully be done.
The word legalism is a precarious saying that has come to reflect different problems in the Church today, and it does not have to do with the Law necessarily. Legalism is a stiff, hollow way of thinking and looking at the world, God, and the Bible. Sometimes the term is used as a way to show misuse, like how the King James Only movement reduces God to the KJV text alone, or how some read the Bible like an instruction manual as if each verse isolated on its own is intended to be a “do or don’t”. But the more precise answer to your question is that legalism is a rigid compliance to rules and rituals as the highest authority, as if following law alone justifies you as a good person and warrants salvation. And because of this, God Himself reduces to a set of laws, not in knowledge necessarily, but in the lack of heartfelt understanding and application (cf. James 2:19). In other words, they know God is not a depersonalized system of law, but their heart and conduct speaks otherwise. In effect, then, God is no different than a mere idea or force.
Therefore, a legalistic person will often take or make laws to be the ultimate end of justification and goodness; they also may misappropriate or flatten authority across the board, arbitrarily making non-essential matters essential (and vice versa). From what I can tell, it could be 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 (usually fundamentalists) who are, perhaps, “too literal”, 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 so necessarily. After all, a stark contrast between good and evil, truth and falsehood, or law and sin, ought to be transparent.
It’s also colloquially referred to as “works doctrine”, which places labour, rituals, and work ethic over grace and faith to merit salvation, as if deserved or owed (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 11:6). But this rendering of legalism only paints part of the picture, albeit a large portion of it. 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.
Lastly, just because legalism is a poor approach to the Bible, does not mean law itself is evil, and it should be obvious as Christians that there is no issue with following law (Romans 7:6-7; 13:1, 5-7). Obviously “do no lie” (Exodus 20:16) is a very good law, especially since “it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). This is often called a moral law because it is universal, necessary and objective/eternal. Also, how else could Paul state that immoral acts of “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” if all laws were evil? (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11) So, it is not law itself that creates legalism. Take antinomianism for instance, which argues against law and all forms of norms/standards as though they are evil (moral, ceremonial, civil, or what have you) and claims that we are not bound to any of the laws in the Old Testament, some of whom even try to dissociate the entire OT from the NT. Ironically, in their attempt to liberate themselves from law, they make a new law: Do not follow the laws. (cf. Galatians 2:18) This is clearly self-refuting. They have made a new law unto themselves.
Scope of Legalism
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: justice, mercy, forgiveness, faithfulness, hope, love. ‘If I don’t murder, rape, or commit a heinous crime, then I am good because I keep the law’’. While law and order help maintain society, it doesn’t cut the mustard for God’s Kingdom (cf. Matthew 5:21-30). God’s Kingdom is as much inward as it is outward. Law is our outward expression or reflection of what the inward ought to be (Romans 7:21-25; Hebrews 10:1). Legalism misses the greater context, central purpose, and the heart or 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 prioritizing ceremonial, traditional or civil law above or equal to moral law (cf. Matthew 23:23). This was evident in pre-war Nazi Germany (1933-1939), too, which justified antisemitism and injustice in accordance with State law, arbitrarily passing anti-Jewish legislation through the judicial system. It systematically restricted the political, civil, legal, and then, inevitably, the moral rights of Jewish people, which ultimately led to a “legal” genocide. Therefore, legalism takes or makes laws, commands, rules, and rituals to be the ultimate end of justification and goodness, as if compliance to 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).
Legalism in the Bible
Now Biblically speaking, the law acting as the ultimate authority 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 or weightier matters of the Law – justice, mercy, faith and love – the heart of the Law (Matthew 23:23, Matthew 12:1-8; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8). 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). This is why Paul, a former Pharisee, frequently addresses our relationship to the Law in his writings. Although the Law is crucial for defining sin and to reveal that we deserve death (Romans 7:4-6, 7:7-12), it was to prove that righteousness cannot be gained through the Law alone (Galatians 2:19-21). ), that is through outward conduct, rituals, “flesh” or “works” of the Law void of Spirit because we cannot fully carry it out (Romans 7:18). As Paul says to his fellow Jews, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code [or letter].” (Romans 7:6) He continues, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit…. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:3-4, 7-8)
Moreover, 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 (1 Samuel 15:23).
Other Biblical types of legalism include:
- Justification by Conduct. The young ruler who was able to exercise the moral commandments and carry out the Law outwardly without real heartfelt inward faith and love for God (Matthew 19:16-22; cf. Mark 12:30 – the word “strength” includes material resources/wealth, Jesus was challenging him to fulfill the Law inwardly). 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 making the ritual/process of baptism (immersion vs. sprinkling) necessary for a person to be fully saved irrespective of a sincere/repentant heart (1 Peter 3:21; Luke 23:39-43; Matthew 12:41) and a personal sanctifying relationship with God (John 14:6); or praying in repetition, as if the number of times you repeat the same words is meritorious, more moral, or removes sins like a scrubbing brush (Matthew 6:7-8, 14-15).
- Justification by Material. 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 faith 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 making a relic, icon, or jewelry necessary to worship or have relationship with God (1 Timothy 2:5); or making physical circumcision necessary to be righteous (Galatians 5:2-6; Romans 2:25-29; Jeremiah 4:4) like it would be to make water necessary for salvation in place of or over repentance, as if God is powerless otherwise (cf. 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 10:44-48; Luke 23:39-43).
- Justification by Rule. 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, et cetera – 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 noteworthy OT example.
Looking at Legalism Theologically
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 compliance to 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 it is the “Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Matlock Bobechko is the Chief Operating/Creative Officer of Bible Discovery. He is an eclectic Christian thinker and writer, award-winning screenwriter and short filmmaker. He writes a weekly blog on theology, apologetics, and philosophy called Meet Me at the Oak. He is also an Elder at his local church.