Two Dangerous Forms of Legalism


It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1

If you are a serious Christian who is pursuing holiness with all your heart you have probably been called a legalist before. People assume that because you are taking your faith seriously and you expect the same from other professing believers that you must be an ungracious Pharisee who Jesus would not want to be around. But what exactly is a legalist? In this article, I want to show the two deadly forms of legalism. If you find yourself in one of these two categories or even both repent immediately. If you do not fall into either of these then you are probably just being falsely accused or misunderstood.

Legalism is pursuing justification from God by works.

According to the website Reformation Theology, legalism can be defined as:

…any attempt to rely on self-effort to either attain or maintain our justification before God.

This legalist believes that he has God’s favor over others because he has maintained a holy lifestyle by living according to God’s law. He believes that God owes him salvation because he has been righteous. God loves him more than others because he is a good Christian/person. This is wrong and unbiblical thinking.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree. so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spiritthrough faith.”

(Galatians 3:10-14

Paul combats the false sense of security in our works by showing that unless a man is perfect in every commandment of God’s law then he cursed as a lawbreaker. No matter how righteous the legalist lives he cannot say he has never disobeyed in one commandment. This is clearly portrayed in the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-27. The young wealthy man believed he was perfect in regards to the law yet Jesus saw his riches for what they were, the man’s wealth was his idol. That is why he could not give up his wealth to follow Christ.

Paul shows us that it is by faith in Christ that we are justified before God. Only by the merits of Christ redeeming work on the cross where He endured the curse of the law on behalf of His elect people can we be saved. The legalism that teaches we can be justified by our works spits right in the face of Christ. It despises what Christ has done. We are only saved from sin because someone else was punished in our place and how dare anyone think otherwise.

Paul leaves us no doubt that this kind of legalism has no place among Christians and is a sign that someone is unsaved. “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace,” (Gal 5:4). There are many cults like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses and religions like the Roman Catholic church and Islam that hold to this kind of legalism. Make no mistake about it, you cannot be a brother in Christ and believe your salvation is based on faith plus works. It is only by faith in the person and work of Christ. 

Legalism is demanding something from someone that God does not require.

John Calvin says it best,

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For hypocrisy is always presumptuous, and we are by nature hypocrites, fondly exalting ourselves by calumniating others. There is also another disease innate in human nature, that everyone would have all others to live according to his own will or fancy.

This form of legalism demand that every person conform to our subjective opinions. Although this form of legalism does not necessarily indicate that one is not truly saved, it is still wicked and sinful nonetheless and is to be repented of and avoided. James speaks to this issue:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

James 4:11-12

To be clear James is not saying that all judgment is wrong. James is speaking to a very specific type of judging, that is judging someone by your own arbitrary standard. That’s why he says, “The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.” His point is that when we hold others accountable to what we prefer we deny the sufficiency of scripture. We judge the law of God insufficient when we hold others to our own man-made standards. 

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;

2 Timothy 3:16

The first form of legalism denies the power of the gospel whereas this one denies the power of God’s Word. It is from God that we get our standard of morality. His Word guides us in how to live righteously. We must conform our lives to the Word of God not the opinions of man. Thus when someone requires from anyone a certain behavior, lifestyle, activity or anything not stated or deduced from Scripture they are sinfully adding to the Word of God and undercutting God’s rightful authority. Jesus said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” (John 7:24) God hates it when we try to add to His law. His law is the revelation of His character and thus it is perfect.

Now to be clear, there is a significant difference between demanding that someone conform to your convictions and suggesting wisdom. For instance, I believe it is wisest to do your devotions early in the morning. I could show you the benefits that it has had on my life and walk with God. I would recommend everyone do morning devotions, but the moment I go from recommending to demanding this as something God directly requires I have stepped into legalism.

In conclusion, I hoped this article has helped you sort out what is and what is not legalism. I hope if as you read this you realized that I described you perfectly that you would simply repent. I confess I have overstepped my bounds and I have lived in legalism especially that of the latter form. However, God is gracious and merciful and ready to forgive every repentant sinner. Turn to him and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

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