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Legalism: IS, and ISN'T

Legalism: IS, and ISN'T

            Hearing two recent uses of the term legalism reminded me of the squishiness of legalism's definition. First, on a religious website, entitled "You Might Be A legalist If..." the list included, "If you speak of fruit inspecting" (Jesus said, "By their fruit you will know them" - Mt. 7:16). Second, someone asked me if the book Muscles and Shovel was legalistic (Muscle and Shovel has been a run-away brotherhood best seller - we have given out dozens, but some do not like it).

            Used often, legalism is obviously used without having any standard definition. This article is written to explore some of the more common uses/misuses of legalism. Some of these definitions do describe attitudes and behaviors that ought to be avoided, but other attitudes and behaviors often condemned as legalistic are things we ought to do.

Legalism IS NOT

  • Carefully seeking the correct and accurate meaning of scripture is not legalistic. Paul told us to do exactly that in II Timothy 2:15.
  • Paying close attention to the correct and accurate meaning of scripture is not legalistic. Paul told us to do just that in I Timothy 4:16.
  • Treating the correct and accurate meaning of scripture as the commands of God is not legalistic. I Corinthians 14:37 uses those words exactly.
  • Using the correct and accurate meaning of scripture in sermons and Bible classes to correct and rebuke and encourage is not legalistic. Paul taught preachers to do that in II Timothy 4:2.
  • Using the correct and accurate meaning of scripture to show those who oppose it where they are wrong is not legalistic. Paul taught that in Titus 1:9.
  • In other words, many of the things that the New Testament plainly tells us to do are sometimes criticized as legalistic, but they are not.

Legalism IS

  • Reducing Christianity to mere law keeping is legalism. Frankly, however, having grown up in the Churches of Christ, I have never heard a sermon or Bible class in which anyone has ever said anything like "Just keep the commandments and don't worry about anything else." I have consistently heard people preach and teach, "Obey from your heart the pattern of teaching" (Rom. 6:17). It is not legalism to joyously obey God.
  • Attempting to trade good works for evil works is legalism. Some vainly try to balance the scales. This is sadly true of some who cannot forgive themselves for past lives of sin (see I Cor. 6:6:9-11, I Pet. 4:3). They mistakenly believe that they have to keep making up for what they once messed up. It is not legalism to joyously obey God.
  • Creating religious laws where there are no laws in scripture is legalism. We must be cautious. According to the present religious mind set, there are not such things as religious laws. But if we add to what God has commanded (Rev. 22:18-19), we have crossed the line. It is not legalism to joyously obey God.
  • Doing what we do only because that is what we have always done is legalism, and is also traditionalism. Our reasons must flow from deeper wells.   We should "stand fast, and hold the traditions which (we) have been taught, whether by word, or (apostolic) epistle" (II Thess. 2:15, 3:6).


            I enjoy the though exercises brought about by the use of terms like legalism, legalistic, and legalist. It is important to search our thoughts and motives. It is important that we not get fooled by the misuse of terms.