The Many Faces of Legalism

Many years ago, I defined legalism as “an attempt to win God’s favor outside the completed and sufficient redemptive work of Christ.” This is a doctrinal kind of legalism that undermines the foundations of the gospel.

But there is also a practical legalism that is often ignored and misunderstood, and which has its roots in the core of every sin (1 Cor. 15:56). Legalism lives in every heart, and most often it is invisibly present in our conversations about God and how He treats His people. Doctrinal legalism distorts the gospel, and practical legalism hinders our fellowship with God and with each other. Some forms of legalism are more prominent than others, but there are five types worth noting:

Legalistic deeds

The rich young man, about whom we read in Mr. 10:17-22, thought he could “inherit eternal life” by keeping the law, and even thought he had succeeded in keeping the law when Jesus quoted the second tablet to him. “Teacher! He said, “I kept all this from my youth” (Mark 10:20). His question “what must be done to inherit eternal life,” although quite natural, meant his focus on the need to “do something” for salvation. The rich young man did not understand what the free gift of the grace of God in Jesus Christ was. If salvation is based on works, then each person must constantly evaluate himself – whether he is good enough; and if not, he should make more effort. Jesus, of course, wanted to show the rich young man that he had not really reached perfection in keeping the law and never would, no matter how hard he tried.

This is the most obvious, crude form of legalism, which can be called “doctrinal” and which is similar to all other existing religious systems. Trying harder and doing more good deeds to win God’s favor is the erroneous, rooted notion of all mankind. It takes a deep understanding of the free gift of God’s grace to break the chains of self-righteous attempts to earn salvation.

Legal holiness

Sanctification is an important part of the Christian life. Every believer should strive to become more and more like Christ, to achieve ever greater holiness for the fuller joy of walking with God. However, the pursuit of holiness can easily escalate into an attempt to “keep” salvation or win favor with God. The logic is this: we are saved by faith, but in order to maintain the right position before the Father, we need to work hard! John Owen called it “mortification that comes from its own efforts, invents its own ways, and leads to self-righteousness.” Sanctification undoubtedly requires diligent and regular use of the means of grace. Christians must do something for sanctification. However, to reduce sanctification to a list of good works and spiritual disciplines is to undermine the work of the Holy Spirit in us through legalistic attempts to achieve holiness. God’s love for me does not increase or decrease depending on how I practice spiritual disciplines. It does not depend on the strength of my faith and the depth of my remorse for sin. This is the legalistic assumption that I can do something by my own efforts to increase God’s love for me.

Legalistic “fences”

Every Christian should be willing to pray the following prayer of David: “Show me, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes, and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, and I will keep Your law and keep it with all my heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I have desired it” (Ps. 119:33-35). God’s law is a beautiful presentation of God’s unchanging character and should not be despised. It should bring great joy to us. However, the law was given as part of “God’s general counsel regarding everything necessary for God’s glory, the salvation of people, faith, life … to which nothing can be added, whether it be some new revelation or the traditions of people.” In other words, the law is completely self-sufficient and does not need the help of people to “preserve” it.

The creators of the “legalistic fences”, looking at the law established by God, “enclose” it so that it is not only not violated, but even “do not even come close” to the possibility of its violation. The logic is this: the more “fences” in the form of prohibitions, the further we are from the risk of breaking the law. The builders of “legalistic fences” reason, for example, as follows: “Greed is a sin; so we shouldn’t watch commercial TV or shop windows.” God has never built fences like this like the legalists do. Burdening the conscience of believers in a way that God never intended is always a false path that leads to the distortion and abuse of God’s law.

The apostle Paul rebukes those who build “legalistic fences” when he writes:

 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Col. 2:20-23). Building “legalistic fences” may stop a person from sinful action, but it has no effect on the real problems of the heart.

Legalistic interpretation of the letter of the Law

Our Pharisees’ hearts are well versed in the letter of the Law (especially when it comes to others), but Jesus constantly rebuked the Pharisees for misunderstanding and misapplying the spirit of the law. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is basically a clarification of the differences between the letter of a given commandment and its “spirit”, which is often ignored. It is easy to feel righteous if you have not killed anyone – and it is quite another thing when you read: “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matt. 5:22).

The justice system in the West understands this distinction quite well – at least in theory. The role of the judge and jury is to understand the facts of the case at hand, consider the relevant article, and determine whether the law is actually being used to prevent wrongdoing. Is the defendant the killer who killed the victim, or did he kill the other in self-defense? One and the same action can be considered by the spirit of the law in completely different ways (with different outcomes) – and quite rightly. The spirit and the letter of the law are different throughout the Bible and it is very important to understand and use this correctly.

Legalistic rhetoric

Sometimes legalism is not easy to detect when it is masked by pious and correct phrases. It can be so zealously emphasized that we need to spend more time “on the spiritual” and make more efforts to achieve spiritual goals, that we already become unable to enjoy God’s blessings. Agree, it’s hard to argue when someone declares: “God has done so much for us: He gave His Son, Who lived a perfect life, died the death of a sinner and rose again so that by faith we would receive eternal life; therefore, our duty is to give all our strength to the expansion of the Kingdom of God, and not be distracted by anything earthly!”

However, in this statement there is an underlying opinion that any deed in this life that is not directly related to the service of God is sinful or useless, unnecessary. This veiled practical legalism is often seen in our condemnation of those who enjoy God’s common grace.

“Do you want to watch that great football match?”

“No, it would be better to have a blessed prayer meeting instead.”

“Wanna Play golf?”

“No, the study of the Bible will bring more benefits.”

“Is it good to have lunch with friends?”

“No, it is better to give this money to the mission.”

Thus, God becomes an immensely demanding Judge, who expects more and more work from us and never allows us to enjoy the benefits that He has created.

We are all born with a legalistic bent, and the Christian life often shows us practicing our legal nature. Only then can we begin to fight every form of legalism when we understand how to properly use God’s law in deep unity with the gospel.

“Stand therefore in the liberty that Christ has given us, and do not again be subjected to the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).

by Nick Kennicott /


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