by Martha Peace
What Legalism Does
There are many problems with legalism. Consider the following list:
- Legalism takes our attention off Jesus Christ by focusing on our own efforts rather than what He has done for us.
- Legalism takes away the believer’s freedom by substituting conformity for control by the Spirit.
- Legalism attempts to put God in the position of being a debtor. It thinks God owes us something when we do good.
- Legalism results in regression in the Christian life.
- Legalism is performance-oriented. It focuses more on what one does than on who one is.
- Legalism brings about harshness and conflict in one’s relationships. The reason for this is because legalism creates an elitist attitude in which conformity is demanded and failure is not tolerated.
- Legalism will rob a Christian of joy, for he will never know the “rest” that faith brings. A legalist is so intent on doing that he does not know how to enjoy God’s acceptance.
- Legalists are very zealous. This is why legalism brings results, but the results are counterfeits.
- Legalism is selective in the matters it chooses and promotes. It will take parts of God’s Law but ignore the rest. It is never consistent. An interesting aspect is not what legalism forbids but what it overlooks.
- Legalism will affect everything if unchecked. Given time it will control everything—individual churches, schools, and denominations.
- Legalism attacks grace. Legalists will accuse those who preach grace of being antinomian (lawless). But this cannot be true because what grace really does is strip away any pretense of spiritual achievement. Grace promotes obedience to God because of His blessings to us. Grace is a license to serve, not a license to sin.
- Legalism is inflexible and condemnatory. It refuses to see many, if any, gray areas in the Christian life. Legalists have rules for almost every area of life and have a negative judgmental attitude toward those who do not comply with their standards. This can result in a very tense environment.
- Legalism promotes pride and self-righteousness. Of course the legalist denies this, but it is true nevertheless.
- Legalism opts for a lower standard than God’s. The kind of legalism that emphasizes many man-made rules becomes satisfied with what is really an inferior standard. Consider the following vivid contrast between man-made rules and God’s high and holy law. Man-made rules: don’t wear jewelry or makeup or denim clothing, burn your secular music because it has demons in it, don’t practice any birth control, insist that men’s hair must be above their ears. God’s Law: love God and love others.
Why Is Scripture So against Legalism?
Legalists can appear to others (and certainly to themselves) to be so godly. Their emphasis is on minor, little things, but they miss the heart and real intention of God’s law such as hospitality, love, caring for widows and orphans, generosity, kindness, justice, and mercy. No wonder the Lord Jesus admonished them strongly, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness …” (Matt. 23:23).
Legalism also creates a proud person: “I’m keeping the rules so I must be spiritual.” The Lord Jesus shocked the people who thought there were none more righteous than the Pharisees, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). In other words, they had to have perfect righteousness, which, of course, only God could do for them.
Legalism creates self-righteousness. It looks down on those not as spiritual as we are. We see this example in the Scriptures when the Lord Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees questioned His disciples. When Jesus heard about what was being said, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13). The Pharisees should have been glad that the “sinners” could spend time with our Lord.
Legalism emphasizes outward show. Remember the Pharisee who stood on the street corner praying out loud thanking God that he was not like the sinner standing nearby? The Lord Jesus said that legalists were like tombstones that were whitewashed and gleaming on the outside but were full of dead men’s bones on the inside. He told them, “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:28). Just about anyone can manage to put on an outward show at least for a little while, but the true believer wants the attention called to God not himself.
Legalism can become very rigid and crowd out love. Legalistic homes will often lack love because they have a lot of rules and rigidity. One legalistic rule they might have, for example, is that a girl should not marry a man who has been a Christian for less time than she has. Parents can exasperate children because the parents see their rules as “thus saith the Lord,” instead of recognizing areas where their children have freedom in the Lord to differ with others.
Legalism can create a dependence on human leaders. It is common for Christians to follow a man (or a movement) because he provides a new set of regulations for given situations. People turn to this kind of leader rather than turn to the Word of God through personal study. People can be held in emotional bondage to such leaders because they will sometimes say, “It’s OK for you to do that but if you really want God’s best then… .” Well, who wouldn’t want God’s best? Even though it may appear to be the legalist who desires God’s best, it is not. What legalists really desire is making themselves look good.
Remember that you should not automatically label someone a legalist just because he or she has different rules or follows a more rigid lifestyle. Legalists have a wrong attitude toward their rules. They add rules to the gospel or to how we grow as Christians. They tend to be rigid, angry, harsh, and often self-righteous instead of loving, kind, and gentle. Churches and Christian schools must have rules. Rules help us live together and they protect us. So, do not automatically write off a church or school because they have rules. The question to consider is: What is their attitude toward their rules?
Scripture soundly condemns those who have external, lipservice religion but whose hearts are far away from God. The strong believer (the one who understands his liberty in Christ and knows how to exercise it responsibly) has an obligation to the weaker brother (the legalistic kind). He must love him and seek to help him understand his freedom in Christ and the relationship between law and grace. We are to exemplify true biblical Christianity, not just criticize legalists. Our lives should model God’s grace at work in our hearts.
A Model of God’s Grace
Read the following list and see if in your heart you are a model of God’s grace or a Pharisee: 
- Do you take seriously the total corruption of your human nature? This does not mean that every person will be as bad as they could possibly be, but it does mean that all of your nature has been affected by sin (your will, intellect, affections, and conscience). (Gen. 6:5)
- Do you believe that the Bible alone is the inspired Word of God and authoritative over your life? (2 Tim. 3:16–17)
- Do you have a right respect for the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, understanding that you cannot add anything to His work? Not even baptism, communion, ceremonial acts of worship, or perfect church attendance? (Eph. 2:1–10)
- Do you give God credit for any fruit in your life, knowing that it is the Holy Spirit who produces such fruit? (Gal. 5:13–23)
- Do you view life through the lens of loving God and loving others? (Matt. 22:35–40)
- Would you patiently teach younger Christians, or would you try to impose standards on them in areas where God has given us freedom?
- Are you discerning between “thus saith the Lord” and your own personal standards? For example: women are to be modest in dress versus women cannot wear eye shadow.
- Are you more likely to think, I’m glad I’m not like so-and so … or to think, It is only by God’s grace that I am not worse than so-and-so. I will pray for her.
- Do you have disdain for others, thinking, I would never do what she did, or do you have compassion and think, Because of my sin nature, I am capable of doing something worse. How can I help her?
- Would you be horrified if you saw your friend’s daughter at church and she had on a toe ring? Or would you think, Well, that’s not me, but it is not a sin to wear a toe ring. This is an area where we both have freedom, me not to wear one and she to wear one.
- Would your first reaction to a church’s music that you did not approve of be, “That music is awful. They must not be Christians!” or would it be, “Just because I do not like their music certainly does not mean they are not Christians.”
- Do you believe that if you wear makeup you are out of God’s will, or do you think that makeup is a matter of “freedom in the Lord,” and you can enjoy that freedom?
- Have you been discouraged, thinking, If I don’t read my Bible every day, I must not be a Christian, or if you miss a day reading the Bible, do you think, Certainly God wants me to read my Bible every day, but He accomplished the work of my salvation on the cross. I cannot add to or keep my salvation by reading the Bible.
- Have you found yourself suspicious of another woman’s spirituality or salvation if her hair is short? Or do you realize that hair styles are cultural and this is an area where she has freedom in the Lord?
- Have you ever thought or said, “My child would never do what her child just did”? or would you be quick to think, As far as I know, my child has never done what her child did, but that does not mean that he won’t do it or something worse in the future.
- Are you drawn toward systems that are full of rules, such as “courtship,” thinking that if you follow the rules just right, God will have to bless your children’s marriages? Or do you realize that courtship is not a “thus saith the Lord” issue, but is based on man-made rules drawn from Old Testament stories. What is biblical is wisdom, discernment, marrying only a Christian, chastity before marriage, and knowing that both your child and his or her spouse will sin—but there are biblical ways to deal with it.
- Have you ever thought, If I overeat (or any other sin), God will be mad at me, and I must not be saved, or would you think, My salvation does not now nor did it ever depend on what I eat. I must believe God when His Word says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
The legalist thinks that her outward religious activities will cause God to be obligated to save her or, if not that, then at least she will be more pleasing to God if she keeps her rules and regulations. We have seen that instead of having disdain for those who do not follow our rules, we must put up with non-sinful differences; instead of having a sense of superiority over others, we must have humble compassion, understanding that we could be worse than they; instead of holding to an unbiblical view of God’s grace, our lives should be a model of God’s grace; and instead of fearing the consequences if we do not do everything just right, we should enjoy the freedoms the Lord has given us and be grateful for the forgiveness we have in Christ.
Do not too quickly label people as legalists just because they have stricter or different personal standards than you. Legalism is not what you or they do but what you or they think about what you do. The legalistic heart is in bondage to a sinful system of spirituality. If this is a problem in your heart, you must repent and come out of the darkness of self-righteousness and into the light of God’s glorious grace.
4. The first four on this list were adapted from J. C. Ryles’s book Warnings to the Churches (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 62–66. This material was originally published in Home Truths and later in Knots United (first published in 1877).
Martha Peaceis a gifted teacher and exhorter. She worked for eight years as a biblical counselor at the Atlanta Biblical Counseling Center, where she counseled women, children, and teenagers. She also instructed for 6 years at Carver Bible Institute and College in Atlanta where she taught women’s classes including “The Excellent Wife,” “Raising Kids Without Raising Cain,” “Introduction to Biblical Counseling,” “Advanced Biblical Counseling,” “Personal Purity,” and “The Book of Esther.” Martha has authored a workbook, Raising Kids Without Raising Cain, and books entitled The Excellent Wife, The Study Guide to The Excellent Wife, and Becoming a Titus 2 Woman.