Confusion Over Legalism: What It Is and Isn't
The religious authorities who accused Jesus Christ of breaking the Sabbath have been described as having a legalistic approach. But what does the term "legalism" mean? A dictionary definition of legalism is "a strict, literal or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code."
A popular meaning attached to the word today is that any form of biblical law-keeping is legalism and therefore to be avoided. The word is used pejoratively, especially against such practices as keeping the Sabbath or adhering to other laws given in the Old Testament.
However, this use of the word is incorrect. It is not legalistic to obey God's laws correctly. To be legalistic is to misuse God's laws in a way never intended.
Pharisees' interpretations undermined God's law
The Pharisees, an excessively strict branch of Judaism whose religious interpretations dominated popular thinking at the time of Christ, were examples of this. They added many of their own humanly devised rules and regulations to God's laws, which had the effect of misrepresenting and misapplying them.
Their added interpretations of God's laws so distorted the original purpose that they rendered them ineffective (Matthew 15:6), nullifying them. By following the Pharisees' interpretations and edicts, the people were no longer following God's law (John 7:19).
This mistaken view of God's law led many to reject Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah, even though that very law had prophesied of Him (John 5:39-40; Luke 24:44).
This was why Christ so strongly condemned the lack of understanding and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His time. He taught a return to the correct teaching and practice of God's laws according to their original intent and purpose, and also that He was the promised Messiah.
Paul condemned perversion of law
The apostle Paul also wrote extensively against those who would pervert the proper use of God's law. This is particularly apparent in the book of Galatians. What Paul addressed was not the correct keeping of God's law, which he himself elsewhere upheld (Romans 3:31; 7:12, 14, 22, 25), but a claim that justification (the forgiveness and restoration of a sinner to a state of righteousness) could be achieved by circumcision and strict observance of the law.
Some false teachers (Galatians 2:4; 5:10, 12; 6:12-13) subverted the Galatian churches by wrongly insisting that circumcision and the keeping of the law were sufficient requirements for justification and salvation, apart from faith in and from Jesus Christ.
Paul condemned this erroneous teaching, noting that obedience to the law had never made eternal life possible (Galatians 3:21). He made it clear that justification—being made righteous in God's eyes and thus gaining access to eternal life—is only available through Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16; 3:1-3, 10-11, 22; 5:1-4).
Paul made it clear that forgiveness of sin requires a sacrifice, and even the strictest observance of the law cannot remove the need for that sacrifice.
However, the law of God remains the righteous standard by which all mankind will be judged (James 2:8, 12). The law is not annulled or abolished by faith in Christ (Romans 3:31), as many falsely believe. Instead, said Paul, the law's proper use is established by faith.
When Solomon concluded that the whole duty of man is to "fear God and keep His commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:13), he expressed the enduring purpose of God for all mankind. The apostle John agreed when he concluded that, if we love God, we will keep His commandments (1 John 5:3).
Jesus told the woman taken in adultery to "sin no more" (John 8:11)—in other words, to uphold and live by God's law! Jesus told the rich young man, who came to Him asking what he could do to have eternal life, "If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments"(Matthew 19:17).
Biblical examples of legalism
So what does the Bible tell us about legalism?
To substitute humanly devised laws for God's laws, as the Pharisees did, is legalism.
To rely upon the keeping of any law to make one righteous in God's eyes, instead of faith in Christ, is legalism.
If all one focuses on is obedience to law apart from the motivation of pleasing God, loving God and loving neighbor, this distorts the purpose of the law (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:10) and is legalism.
If we believe that the keeping of God's law can earn our salvation as our reward, we are guilty of legalism.
Technical obedience, or strict obedience to the exact letter of the law while searching for ways to get around the underlying purpose and intent of the law, is legalism.
Proper obedience is not legalism
But Jesus Christ's teachings and the remainder of the Bible make one thing perfectly clear: Proper obedience to the law of God is not legalism.
After conversion, a Christian is given a much fuller understanding of the purpose and intent of God's law. He understands the importance of having faith in the person and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He is given a more complete understanding of why he is to be obedient. But it remains for him to obey. That is not legalism.
To obey God's biblical commands in a proper attitude, such as His command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, is not legalism. Don't allow anyone to beguile you with such a false notion, which is itself a contradiction of Jesus Christ's own command (Matthew 5:19).
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