I Just Love Rules, Don't You? Part One

Note: This chapter is from Damsels in Distress and is reprinted by permission from P&R Publishing (Phillipsburg, NJ). This chapter is being reprinted in two parts.

by Martha Peace


Our daughter, Anna, attended a well-known Bible college back in the 1980s. At that school they had a rather thick rule book. To her dismay, she broke four of the rules before she even had time to read the book! Not being a rebel in her heart, Anna had no problem keeping the rules once she knew what they were, but what she did have a problem with were those students who loved the rules so much that they became like self-appointed, private investigators looking to trap and turn in students who broke or appeared to break the slightest rule. These students became like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who were religious in a bad sense. The students and the Pharisees became amazingly creative in their ability to make up religious rules that they thought saved them or made them more pleasing to God. Usually accompanying those self-imposed standards was a disdain for those who did not follow their rules, a sense of superiority over others, an unbiblical view of grace, and fear of consequences if they did not do everything just right.

The modern-day legalist is a lot like those students and the Pharisees. The legalist is drawn toward unbiblical thinking—so much so that there are strong Scriptural warnings against such man-made religion:

“Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees… .” (Mark 8:15, NASB)

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (Col. 2:8)

Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited. (Heb. 13:9)

The life of legalists is not the joyous Christian walk that God intends. It is a life of burden for themselves and the others they influence. Martin Luther vividly described the mindset of the legalist: “Christ’s a fine Master. He makes the beginning, but Moses [the Old Testament Law] must complete the structure. The devil’s nature shows itself therein: [if] he cannot ruin people by wronging and persecuting them, he will do it by improving them.”[1] In this chapter we want to cover what the Bible teaches about legalism, typical legalistic thoughts and actions, and how to overcome the sinful bent to add to God’s standard of righteousness.

What the Bible Teaches about Legalism

The Pharisees were a Jewish religious sect that evolved into very rigid, self-righteous, letter of (their) law group. They were thought to be the epitome of righteousness. They hated the Lord Jesus because He saw through their façade and knew their hearts. The Pharisees made up hundreds of new laws that they were comfortable keeping. In order to justify observing certain laws and not others, they divided God’s Law into greater laws (that they kept) and lesser laws (that were in their opinion optional). The laws that they arbitrarily decided were the “greater” laws were, of course, the ones they would not have broken anyway.

The Old Testament Pharisee and the modern-day legalist are a lot alike. They are both sinfully proud. They think they can earn God’s favor or that they deserve it in some way, and they look down on those who are not as “spiritual” as they think they are. Legalism is a vivid example of not trusting in the Lord, but instead leaning on your own understanding (see Prov. 3:5).

Biblical Principles Concerning Legalism [2]

To understand legalism, let’s look at twelve biblical principles:

1. Legalism aims to attain spirituality by means of what one does or does not do. A legalist establishes an external standard of spirituality and then judges everyone by that standard. Since the individual has established the standard, normally that person always achieves it: [3]

For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. (Rom. 10:3)

2. The Law is a divine rule or commandment. Often when people say the Law, they are referring to the Ten Commandments or to the entire Mosaic Law located in the first five books of the Bible:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven. You shall not make other gods besides Me… .’ ” (Ex. 20:22–23)

3. The Law has three aspects:

a. The sacrificial system: The Jews would bring animals for sacrifice and the priests would carry out the sacrifice. There were varying reasons for the different sacrifices, but the main reason was as a guilt offering to atone for Israel’s sin. This is no longer necessary because the sacrifice was fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ:

For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. (Heb. 7:26–27)

b. The civil law: The civil law was given to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. There were many civil laws, including dietary laws, laws dictating which years to let the land rest from planting crops, and laws telling how many days after a male baby’s birth he was to be circumcised. We are no longer under the civil laws:

But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate Peter stood up and said to them … “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts 15:5–7, 11)

c. The moral law: We, like those in the Old Testament times, are under the moral law of God. For example, we are told not to commit adultery in the Old Testament, and the New Testament standard is the same. In fact, the Lord Jesus further explained that we are not even to lust in our hearts. The moral law of God convicts us, restrains sin in society, and is the rule of life for the believer:

Then God spoke all these words saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery… . You shall not commit adultery.” (Ex. 20:1, 14)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I [the Lord] say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27–28)

4. God has provided all the resources for man’s salvation from sin. The Lord Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the only provision for sinful man’s salvation that is acceptable to God. Christ obeyed God’s Law perfectly by living the sinless life that we should live but cannot. God’s provision for salvation is undeserved by man. Because of sin, man deserves condemnation. Because of God’s gracious provision, man can be saved but only through faith in Christ alone:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3–4)

5. Liberty is the life of the Christian under the control of the Holy Spirit. In Christ the believer is free to live a life pleasing to God no longer under the penalty and power of sin.

For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (Rom. 6:5–7)

6. Legalism is an unbiblical response to the law of God. The unbiblical response to God’s law is man’s attempt to add his own good works to God’s grace. In so doing man seeks to conform to a code for the purpose of glorifying self:

Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Gal. 3:11)

7. The problem with legalism is in man’s heart (what he thinks) . The natural heart is a legalistic heart; man thinks he can help God or make God a debtor to him, or that he deserves what God has done for him. It is pride that keeps us from seeing our sin and how utterly dependent we are on God to do the work of our salvation:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. (1 Cor. 2:14)

8. Because of man’s nature and his propensity to sin, he wants to make the Christian life workable in the flesh. The legalist looks for techniques and formulas (step one, step two …). Commands are too general. He thinks he needs more organization concerning the answer to the complexities of life. Some modern-day examples are “steps to find God’s will” or “witness to X number of people each day” or “clothing must be a certain style” or “abstain from certain foods”:

Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food… . (Rom. 14:20)

9. Legalism is any attempt to change people through conformity to rules. Churches that are unbiblically authoritarian often do this.

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1–3)

10. Legalism is manifested in a variety of ways: men think their acts should gain God’s favor because God is somehow obligated to them; men outwardly go through the motions of vain, repetitious religion; men commit acts based only on human wisdom and strength without regard to the Word of God or the Holy Spirit:

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (Col. 2:8)

11. Legalism is an unbiblical response to the Old Testament narrative stories. This code may be biblical or man-made. Legalists often go to Old Testament narrative stories, miss the point, and make their rules in relation to the story. Examples are dietary rules, courtship rules, and promises made because of parental “blessings.”

So Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him, and said to him, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and from there take to yourself a wife from the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother. May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you, that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.” (Gen. 28:1–4)

All Scripture is “profitable for teaching” us, but not all Scripture is written about us or to us (see 2 Tim. 3:16). Thus, parents who make up certain rules or special promised “blessings” for their child based on Old Testament narrative stories such as Isaac’s blessings to Jacob are missing the point of the passage. The point is what God is doing to fulfill His covenant promises to the children of Israel. Sometimes parents unintentionally misuse the passage and place an unbiblical burden of man-made rules or false expectations on their child.

Another example would be courtship rules. Having personal standards and family traditions such as the young man asking the father’s permission before asking the young lady out is fine. Not dating in a frivolous way is fine. What is not fine is thinking that these personal standards are a God-mandated rule that guarantees success in the marriage. Instead of hard-and-fast rules, the biblical standard is wisdom, discernment, marrying only a Christian, chastity before marriage, and knowing that both the child and his or her spouse will sin—but there are biblical ways to deal with their sin. So, have standards and base them on biblical principles. [sic] but do not elevate them to a “thus said the Lord” level.

12. Legalism seeks to exalt self and gain merit rather than to glorify God because of what He has done. The power source is self not the Holy Spirit. Israel fell into this kind of legalism:

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matt. 6:5–7)


1. Timothy George, The New American Commentary, Galatians (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994), 96.
2. This material was adapted with permission from material by Howard Dial, pastor of Berachah Bible Church, Fayetteville, Georgia.
3. John MacArthur and Wayne Mack, Introduction to Biblical Counseling (Dallas: Word, 1994), 381–82.

Martha Peace is 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.

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