What is Legalism and how does it relate to God’s laws?

Just what is legalism anyway? Is it true that keeping the Laws of God leads to legalism? In this post, let us take a look at what legalism is, what it is not, and what it means to keep the law of God.

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There’s no doubt: Christians should avoid legalism. However, there have been a lot of misconceptions about legalism. Most people have the wrong idea of what legalism is and what it is not. As a result, those who properly keep the laws of God are accused of legalism.

For this reason, let us take a look at what legalism is and how it should apply in our lives.

What is legalism

According to Wikipedia, legalism “is a pejorative term referring to putting law above gospel.” 

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 in order to achieve salvation and right standing before God.” 

The same source added that legalism emphasizes the need to perform certain deeds in order to gain salvation as opposed to the belief that salvation can only be received through the grace of God.

According to these definitions, legalism is the belief or practice of trying to earn one’s salvation through their own righteous acts.

With this definition, legalism is correct. No one can earn salvation by themselves. Salvation is a free gift from God through His grace made possible by the death of His Son, Yahshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ).

Now, here’s where the problem comes in. 

Legalism is being attached to all forms of keeping the commandments of God. In fact, if you go ask around big Christian groups, they would say a person is legalistic who practices the Sabbath, food laws, God’s Festivals, and adheres to the laws given in the Old Testament.

Is this kind of thinking correct? Let’s continue.

What is Legalism and how does it relate to God's laws
What is Legalism and how does it relate to God’s laws?

An example of legalism in the Bible

Among the most common forms of legalism were practiced by the Pharisees in the time of Yahshua (Jesus Christ). They were a branch of Judaism that had strictly adhere to their religious interpretations of the law and traditions. 

Because of their fear of displeasing God, they made a lot of humanly devised rules and regulations on top of the commandments of Yahweh. As a result, they have misinterpreted, misrepresented, and misapplied the Word of God.

Their form of legalism distorted the commandments of God to the point that the laws of God became a curse rather than a blessing.

Paul and legalism

One of the biggest challenges that Paul needed to address was the wrong idea of the Jews that they still needed to keep the ritualistic and ceremonial aspects of worshiping God, which were part of the Old Covenant.

This was to be expected because when a person converts to Christianity, they are bringing with them their former beliefs and doctrines. Some of them might still be relevant while others were not anymore.

Some of these doctrines include circumcision. That’s why in Acts 15:1, it was noted that some people were teaching the brethren that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

This doctrinal issue was so big that the Apostles needed to hold the Jerusalem Conference. A lot of Jews who converted to Christianity still believe that circumcision was needed to be saved.

(For more information, please read, “Did the Acts 15 Jerusalem Conference free us from keeping God’s law?”)

This is a form of legalism because they were arguing that in order for them to receive salvation, they needed to perform something, in this case, circumcised themselves, to secure eternal life.

As we have seen, grace is something we don’t earn. It has been and will always be the unmerited favor we receive from the Eternal.

Paul adamantly argued that even the strictest observance of the law will not suffice to remove your sins in the past, present, and future. It is only through Yahshua the Messiah (Galatians 3:1-22).

The right understanding of legalism

Here are five ways we can be guilty of legalism:

  • When we substitute God’s laws with our own humanly devised and interpreted laws.
  • When we rely on keeping God’s laws or any law to make us righteous.
  • When we believe that the sacrifice of Yahshua isn’t enough for God’s grace to be bestowed on us.
  • When we look for loopholes in keeping the commandments of God and just keeping it at the bare minimum.
  • When we only keep the letter of the law and not its spiritual intent

This is a quick summary of what legalism is all about. Now, let’s go to what legalism is not.

What is not legalism?

Here’s something you and I need to understand correctly:

Keeping the law of God, in its proper sense, is not legalism.

It is not and it is NEVER legalistic to obey God’s laws correctly. If it is, then Yahshua perfectly obeyed the law of His Father. Does this mean Yahshua was legalistic? Of course not!

Not only that, but the Apostles and first-century churches kept the law of God. Does this mean they are legalistic? Obviously, not.

Yes, it is true that we can never earn salvation. However, once we are forgiven of our sins, we must stop sinning. We must do our part in proving that our faith is not dead, but in fact, alive.

As James said, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).

In conclusion, don’t let anyone tell you that you are legalistic whenever you keep God’s laws. Our Father expects us to obey His laws and commandments because it shows us how we love Him and others around us.

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