September 10, 2014


            What is legalism?  In the last 20 -30 years we have started hearing Christians use the term “legalism,” but what do they mean by it?  The word isn’t found in the Bible.  The dictionary definition of the word is “Strict adherence to the law, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. The doctrine that salvation is gained through good works” (The Random House Dictionary). The purpose of this article is to help you have a clearer concept of the word “legalism” and be able to use it appropriately.

We need to use caution when we accuse someone of being legalistic.  Frequently someone is accused of being legalistic because he or she has higher moral standards than the one making the accusation.  It may be done to relieve the conscience of the accuser.  It is a way of putting down those who have higher standards than the accuser has.

We all have standards of conduct, but why do we have them?  It they are for the wrong reason, we could be legalists.  Some have standards to make them acceptable in the sight of others.  Some have standards because they hope thereby to obtain salvation.  Others expect to gain favor with God.  With that motive they are getting closer to the fundamental reason for having standards.  The most honorable reason for having standards is that of pleasing and glorifying God.  Ephesians 1:11-12 says, “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will:   That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ.” What God most wants of his children is found in Colossians 1:10.  “That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God.”  We shouldn’t think we have the right relationship with God because of our standards.  We should have standards because of our relationship with God.

When you accuse someone of being a legalist, you are judging his motives.  Do you know why he has the standards that he has?   If he does what he does to please God, who are you to judge him for it?  If he is doing it with the wrong motive, he has a doctrinal problem and needs help with that.

Some say that legalists are those who try to impose their standards on others.  That is something most of us aren’t very successful at.  Even if we are, it’s only a superficial success if they just accept our standards because we told them to.  We should want others to have higher standards; not just our standards.  We often see people hurting themselves and others because of their immoral standards.  We don’t just want them to accept our standards.  They need to see that what they are doing is wrong.  It is always more honorable to raise our moral standards rather than lower them.

Some say that legalists are those who have standards that are higher than those found in the Bible.  If you have convictions against smoking or taking illicit drugs, does that make you a legalist?  Those things aren’t mentioned in the Bible.

Romans 14:1-6 gives us a warning about judging others because of what they do or don’t do.  “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.   For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.    Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.    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.    One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.    He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.”  Just because someone doesn’t eat vegetables doesn’t make him inferior to you.  Does it make him more of a saint than you are?  Maybe it does, but maybe it doesn’t.  We had best let God be the judge.  We will all give account someday.

Most people have standards because of what they were taught as children.  They have grown up with them.  It is just their way of life.  Some have higher standards than others.  Unbelievers don’t have the habit of accusing others of being legalists because they have higher standards than they do.  It is a bad testimony to people of this world when they hear Christians label their fellow Christians legalists.  It gives them reason to question whether we love one another as we should.  Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

If you know someone who is a legalist, pray for him.  Don’t offend him by calling him a legalist.  If someone called you a legalist, would you take it as a compliment or a criticism?  Don’t try to convince a legalist to lower his standards.  He needs help in having the right relationship with God.   If one lives by rules, with a shallow relationship with God, he most likely is a legalist.

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