Grace: What is legalism?
The core definition for legalism is excessive adherence to some form of law or formula. As the term relates to the attainment of eternal life, it is when a person bases their salvation or justification on some “religious” system of works, as with trying to observe the Mosaic Law and/or various aspects of it, rather than simply putting one’s faith in the one perfect work of God through Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. If we depend on our own merit system, our own efforts, even our own rituals to make us acceptable before a holy God, we have then become legalists. We have then substituted the greater of value for something of much lesser value. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States defines legalism as a pejorative descriptor for “the direct or indirect attachment of behaviors, disciplines, and practices to the belief to achieve salvation and right standing before God,” emphasizing a need “to perform certain deeds to gain.” Therefore, a simple and basic definition of legalism is believing that people can earn God’s favor by what they do or don’t do as a substitute for what God has provided.
There was a time when, for His blessing, God demanded, as an expression of faith, obedience to a system of works called the Law of Moses [Exodus 19-24]. It was by their works that people were to express their faith for salvation. We see statements that reflect on this in places like the book of James.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? [Emphasis added]
We today are not under this system of law that was given to Israel. We are not to live lawlessly but we are certainly not under that system of Law that was given to Israel through Moses. The apostle Paul explains this for us.
13 Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.
14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.
15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. [Emphasis added]
It was this same man, the apostle Paul, that God used to introduce this new program that takes us out from under the authority of the Mosaic Law. We are now, instead, said to be “under grace.” This means we are under the authority of a whole new program that provides us with instructions given through the revelation we now have in the apostle Paul’s writings. We find that by following his teaching we are following the teachings of Christ to us today.
25 Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and [even] the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, [Emphasis added]
The teachings of Christ in His earthly ministry have been superseded by His heavenly ministry to us through the apostle Paul.
II Corinthians 5:16-17
16 Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.
17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [Emphasis added]
All this tells us we’re in a whole new development today since the salvation and revelation given to the apostle Paul. However, that’s not what typically gets communicated in religious circles. Instead, the idea is put forth that at least some aspects of the Mosaic Law and other things are to be applied, and that faith in Christ’s work alone is inadequate. While it is true that obedience to the Mosaic Law was once required of God’s people for salvation, such is not the case today at all. Again, by no means are we to be a “lawless” people, but obedience to the Mosaic Law is not only not required today for salvation, but no portion of it at all is required for anything in God’s blessing. We are explicitly told that we are no longer under the system of authority set forth in the Mosaic Law. Again, today we are under a system the apostle Paul titled grace.
As God introduced a new system of law to Israel through Moses, He introduced a new program through a series of revelations He gave to the apostle Paul. Even the Twelve Apostles got their orientation about this through the apostle Paul. He even made a special trip to Jerusalem to inform them about it.
7 But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; [Emphasis added]
This new message had up to that time been a mystery, that is, a secret held in the mind of God.
1 For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,
2 If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
3 How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, [Emphasis added]
We have this body of truth today provided for us through the thirteen epistles written by Paul. It is a body of truth that tells us everything God wants us to know about the means to our salvation, as well as the manner of life He wishes for us to live as His people.
Legalism in law is the activity of majoring on minors and minoring on majors. It has always been a prevalent problem. We see illustrations of it in the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry.
23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. [Emphasis added]
Jesus spoke of those commandments that were the greatest and ones that served as a summary of the entire Mosaic Law.
35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Emphasis added]
But as marvelous a truth as all this is, it is not to us today. We’re to love God and treat our neighbors with love, but salvation rests in faith in the accomplished work of Christ, namely His death, burial and resurrection. I’ve known many people who claimed they loved God and tried to do right by their neighbor, but where’s the cross and resurrection of Christ in all that? None of that speaks of what Jesus Christ came into the world to accomplish in providing a way of salvation for us. Today we have people joining church, going through watery ceremonies, seeking to give up sin and more trying to earn a salvation that is absolutely free to us because of the dear price Jesus Christ paid for it. Following a series of do’s and don’ts never saved anyone. A life of legalistic obedience to rules and regulations never qualified anyone for Heaven. That’s why the apostle Paul gives us clear information about all this. Salvation is free and of grace, not merit of any kind.
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. [Emphasis added]
4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. [Emphasis added]
Yes, faith in Christ and nothing more.
This why we are warned about the various expression of legalism.
1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. [Emphasis added]
Many people are living a life where they are all tied up in the “nots” of legalism, as if they could somehow save themselves. No, it is Jesus Christ who does ALL the saving. We have nothing to add or to contribute. And faith isn’t a contribution. Faith non-meritoriously rests in what God has provided and that alone. But if you go outside the apostle Paul for your doctrine on all this, you’ll inevitably get confused. This is because what God demanded of Israel for salvation is not the same as what He expects of us today. Yes, He’s always demanded faith, but what God has demanded as the way the faith was to be expressed has not always been the same. For instance, there was a time when He demanded animal sacrifices, but such is clearly not the case today. God has not changed, but what He expects of us for salvation has. So, never allow yourself to get caught up in some system of legalism as if it could provide you or anyone with the blessing of God, for such is not the case.
I’m here reminded of the fifth verse of a great hymn penned by Mrs. Elvina M. Hall. Let us sing it with gusto, giving thanks for what our loving and gracious God has provided for each of us through Jesus Christ.
And when before the throne
I stand in Him complete,
“Jesus died my soul to save,”
My lips shall still repeat.
Jesus paid it all, All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.