Legalism: The Unlawful Use of Law
"Regulations have indeed an appearance of wisdom but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh" (Col 2.20-23).1
Legalism is do-it-yourself religion, a sprawling system with countless permutations all sharing one core belief: self-effort saves. This is the natural religion of "the flesh" the selfish, sensual seat of sin in all fallen humans that enslaves them to evil (Rom 6.15-23; 7.8,11,25; 8.7-8). Confident of their ability to impress God and gain heaven, legalists believe that complying with holy codes of conduct and carrying out sacred ceremonies will end up convincing God on Judgment Day.
Legalism goes as far back as Cain, who believed that God was obligated to accept the fruit of his labour (Gen 4.3-8). This man of the flesh and father of legalism sincerely assumed that he could please God by his own effort. When God rejected his offering, however, Cains thin veneer of piety disintegrated. His religious acts could neither atone for his sins nor change his proud, angry, murderous heart. From Cain, the first legalist, we learn that human religion is a powerless sham.
The most virulent strains of legalism teach that law-keeping will bring eternal salvation. All of them are lethal. They infect the minds of men made gullible by sin, and cause them to adhere to endless artless practices and superstitious rites: so-called Christian baptism as a substitute for salvation, Jewish circumcision, the hajj to Mecca, rote Orthodox liturgies, the Buddhist eightfold path, Ojibwa totem veneration, Hindu last rites, Hmong shaman drumming, child sacrifice on Aztec pyramids, the ordinary mass of Paul VI, and the obliteration of New York skyscrapers with hijacked jets, to name a few.
Sincere practitioners would be surprised to learn that their legalism is pure blasphemy. In legalistic reckoning, human works earn genuine merit which God must acknowledge and reward. God, then, becomes a constrained Debtor rather than a gracious Benefactor. As God loses His glory, the legalists gain it: as they see their pious acts succeeding, they swell with pride and start to boast (Eph 2.9). The focus shifts from God to man. So the self-satisfied Pharisee of Luke 18.9-14 used his rule-keeping to impress God and also to intimidate other people (legalists love the praises of men Mt 6.1-18; 23.2-7; Lk 20.45-47; Jn 5.44). His pumped-up pride squeezed all the compassion from his heart, leaving only contempt for others. What is Gods view of all this? He resists the proud (James 4.6), regards their best efforts as filthy rags (Is 64.6), and asks them how they intend to escape the damnation of hell (Mt 23.33).
The gospel of Gods grace contrasts starkly with legalism. Gods unmerited grace His love in action offers free salvation to all who will turn from their dead works and receive it. Gods salvation rests solely on the accomplishments of Christ, and remains completely isolated from the contagion of human works (Rom 3.20,28; Gal 2.16; 3.11,21). If even one human obligation were to infect the gospel, then it would no longer be the gospel and would damn souls rather than save them (Gal 1.6-8). The pure gospel of grace frees us from legalism from depending on law-keeping for salvation (Rom 3.24; 6.14). Justified by faith apart from works, we have permanent peace with God, access by faith to further grace, the hope of glory, and unrelenting joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5.1-11). The humble believer is amazed by such grace. The unrepentant legalist, however, is not even slightly impressed.
Legalism Ignores the True Meaning and Intent of Law
"So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Mt 23.28).
Although Bible languages have no word for "legalism," the Scripture often speaks of this misguided law-keeping. The Greek word nomos (which normally means "law") may mean "legalism" in some contexts (e.g. Gal 3.11,21). When Paul uses the phrase erga nomou ("works of [the] law"), he usually means "legalistic observance of the law" (Rom 3.20,28; 9.32; Gal 2.16; 3.2,5,10), and when he writes hupo nomon ("under [the] law"), he generally means "subjection to a system that perverts law into legalism" (Rom 6.14,15; Gal 4.21; 5.18).
Legalism is externalism outward performance of rules with no corresponding internal compliance. The notorious Pharisees of Christs day generally faked their faith in this way, promoting a long list of dos and donts in public, and then ignoring them in private (Mt 23.2-7). Legalism is also literalism keeping the technical letter but not the true spirit of the law. So the Pharisees specialized in mechanical obedience to the technical phrasing of the law as a cover for violating its true intent (Mt 15.3-9; 23.16-22).
For legalists who do not love the laws true aim, there are distinct advantages to reducing each rule to its most narrow and wooden interpretation. Making each law as specific and concrete as possible opens up loopholes which then conveniently allow the same law both to be kept and legally broken at the same time. In contrast, the Lord Jesus always went beyond the legal particulars to uphold the broader principles. He thought in terms of the rule, while they thought in terms of the exception; He thought in terms of the truth, while they thought in terms of the technicality. They shrank laws and opened loopholes that allowed them to leave their wives and abandon their parents, while Christ expanded the same laws to protect marriage and reinforce family obligations (Mt 19.3-9; Mk 7.6-13).
Legalism is also diversion shifting attention away from weightier laws to less important rules that are either easier to keep or more conspicuous to others. The Pharisees loved to major on minors, focusing attention on peripheral laws that required no spiritual effort while ignoring the challenging central matters of the law (Mt 23.23-24). Their penchant for adding manmade rules to the Scripture was a further ploy to divert attention from the heart of the law, which they could not keep (Mk 2.16-3.6; 7.1-8). This focus on extra externals may look pious, but it is powerless to restrain sensual indulgence (Col 2.20-23).
The legalistic Pharisees tried to impose their religious tradition on Christ (Mk 7.1-23), and the legalistic Judaizers attempted to put Paul back under the law (Gal 2.4; 1 Cor 10.29). Both the Lord Jesus and Paul, however, proclaimed liberty from legalism throughout the land (Lev 25.10; Is 61.1; Jn 8.32-36; Gal 5.1,13). Salvation makes people new and brings the indwelling Spirit (Rom 8.9; 2 Cor 5.17). Obedience now wells up from within, from the heart (Rom 6.17). Oblivious to the existence of loopholes, the true believer delights in the weightiest matters of Gods will mercy, justice, and faithfulness and serves through love (Gal 5.13).
To be continued.
1 In this series of articles, unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations from Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version.