What is Legalism?
Legalism, in Christian theology, is an uncomplimentary term referring to an improper fixation on law or codes of conduct, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God. The end result of Legalism leads to the view that law, not faith in God's grace, is the principal evidence of redemption. Its opposing error is called antinomianism, which is the view that moral laws are not binding.
Jesus directed some of his harshest words at the Pharisees, the guardians of the ritual law of Judaism. Matthew 23 is just one of the sermons Jesus preached against them. The gravity of Jesus' charge against the Pharisees was that they meticulously followed the ritual laws of Judaism, but their exactitude did not make them more charitable or lead to repentance or inner peace. In fact, it most commonly resulted in arrogance and pride.
Jesus said that "except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). Jesus led believers to an inward obedience, in which righteous acts stemmed from an inward love of God. Legalism desires to appease divine retribution by pleasing others (instead of God) in order to appear holy in their eyes – obviously a misguided concept.
The error is addressed in the Pauline epistles. Paul had to deal with issues regarding the acceptance of Gentiles into Christianity, and the extent to which Gentile converts were bound by the traditional religious rules of Judaism. Paul generally rejected extension of the purity laws of Judaism to Gentile converts, citing Paul's statements such as that no one should "judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days" (Colossians 2:16).
In Galatians 2:14 Paul accuses Peter of "judaizing", i.e. Legalism. Paul also made bold statements concerning those who practice sin and how they "shall not inherit the
“Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless. 15 And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; 16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. 17 Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness. 18 But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.”
Evidently, Paul’s rebuke of Peter accomplished a positive change in his doctrinal approach to holiness.
Legalism is opposed to Grace.
The word "legalism" does not occur in the Bible. It is a term contemporary Christians use to describe a doctrinal position that emphasizes a system of rules and regulations in achieving spiritual growth. Strict literal adherence to those rules and regulations is demanded. Doctrinally, it is a position essentially opposed to grace. Those who hold this position fail to see the real purpose for the Law, which is our "schoolmaster" or "tutor" to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).
We are instructed to be gracious to one another, "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations" (Romans 14:1). Many legalistic believers make the mistake of demanding unqualified adherence to their Biblical interpretations and even to their traditions above that of sound Biblical truth. For example, there are those who feel that to be spiritual one must simply avoid tobacco, alcoholic beverages, dancing, movies, slacks on women, etc. As I’ve often heard said, “Don’t smoke, dip, dance or chew or associate with those who do.” The truth is that avoiding these things is no guarantee of spirituality.
To avoid falling into the trap of Legalism, start by listening closely to the words of the apostle John. "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). Always remember to be loving, gracious, kind and patient toward others and especially your brothers and sisters in Christ. Walk in the light of these scriptures: "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:4). "But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ" (Romans 14:10).
A word of caution is necessary.
While we need to be gracious to one another and tolerant of disagreement over disputable matters, we cannot accept heresy. We are exhorted to contend for the faith, "Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 1:3). Remember these guidelines, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world" (1 John 4:1-3).
The Roman Catholic Inquisition advocated burning Baptist at the stake for refusing to submit to Catholic dogma. What’s the significance of mentioning the inquisition? Legalism was the root cause of this Catholic atrocity and legalism will lead well intentioned Christians down a similar path of error if not stopped.