Today anyone who talks about “law” is almost immediately labeled a “legalist” or one who engages in “legalism.” It’s so easy for this to happen because the word “legal,” says the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means “of or relating to the law.” It also means “conforming to or permitted by law or established rules.”
The word “legal” comes from the Latin root lex (law) and the derivative form legis or legalis. From this form we also derive the word “legislature,” which the same dictionary defines as “a group of people with the power to make or change laws.” That group of people is said to have the power to “legislate” — to make laws, particularly for a political unit. “Legislation” is the act of making laws and rules, as well as changing or amending them. This same dictionary defines “legalism” as: “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.”
Another term people use for “legalism” is nomism. It comes from the Greek word for law, nomos.
We can find “legalism” (or “nomism”) — real or alleged — anywhere in the world and in any organization whenever “rules and regulations” are the subject of discussion. But allegations of “legalism” are more often addressed to persons or groups that take up with the “Book” of both the Hebrews and the Christians — the Holy Bible.
A more specific perception of religious or theological legalism (particularly, “Christian”) is expressed by Matt Slick in the following link: https://carm.org/what-is-legalism. This is the kind of perceived “legalism” that we will discuss in this present article.
The word “law” has come to be “loaded” with a lot of baggage — both intellectual and emotional — especially in evangelical circles, of which Matt Slick is an example, among many. Let us unpack that baggage here, and train the pure light of God’s Word on it.
Slick begins by defining the view of most in Christendom on legalism as “the excessive and improper use of the law (10 commandments, holiness laws, etc.).” He then lists the three forms that this legalism can take: 1) where a person attempts to keep the law in order to attain salvation; 2) where a person keeps the law in order to maintain salvation; and 3) when a Christian judges other Christians for not keeping certain codes of conduct that he thinks need to be observed (emphasis mine).
The process of salvation
In the first form of legalism, Slick apparently equates salvation with justification, which latter is how a person is “justified” or made “righteous” from being a sinner (and from thus being condemned to death, Romans 6:23). Indeed Romans 3:28; 4:5 and Galatians 2:21 clearly teach that we cannot attain justification from sin through any works that we might do, nor through the law (both the sacrificial laws and the “moral” law as codified in the Old Testament).
Our being made just or righteous through the forgiveness of our sins can only be attained by God’s grace through the sacrifice (and resurrection of Christ, as I will explain later), and our faith or trust in that sacrifice and resurrection. As evangelicals would say, we cannot add anything to Christ’s “finished work at Calvary (or the cross)” in order for us to be forgiven of our sins and to make us more acceptable to God (as in “more forgiven”).
What, however, is the role of God’s law in that justification? As Paul explained, the law of God defines what sin is. “I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet'” (Romans 7:7). In Hebrews 9:15 Paul [see: Who Wrote the Letter to the Hebrews?] says that Jesus has redeemed us from our “Transgressions Under the First Covenant” — transgressions of the Old Testament law.
The late founder and pastor-general of the Worldwide Church of God Herbert W. Armstrong explained the role of God’s law in our justification from sin, or cleansing or forgiveness of our sins. He compared God’s law to a mirror, by which we can see the dirt in our face. By itself, the mirror cannot cleanse that dirt. We need some kind of cleanser (soap and water, plus perhaps a face towel or sponge) to remove the dirt from our face. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross can be compared to that cleanser. Mr. Armstrong then asked: shall we throw the mirror away because it can only show the dirt on our face but cannot cleanse it? So also, we do not throw out the law of God because it cannot justify us. Even Christians continue to commit sin (1 John 1:8-10), and they need God’s law to point out where they have sinned. [For more on this subject, visit this link: http://www.herbert-armstrong.org, click ENTER HERE , select “Books & Booklets” and scroll down to the booklet titled “What Kind of Faith Is Required for Salvation?”]
Justification, however, is merely the beginning of God’s work of saving every sinner that believes in Jesus. Salvation is not a process that begins and ends at Calvary! Paul tells us something that ought to get us thinking straight about how a Christian ought to live one’s life after one is forgiven: “And if Christ is not risen [from the dead, through a resurrection], your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
Did you get that? The resurrection of Jesus — not just His death — completes our forgiveness from sin, because it proves that He was not merely the Son of Man but also — and especially — the Son of God (Romans 1:3-4), by whose power alone all men can receive forgiveness, in God’s own time [see: Predestination, This Is Not the Only Day of Salvation, Law Added to Law Transgressed, Moses and Jesus — Are They Contraries? and Two Goats Together].
Paul shows the dynamics in our relationship with God through Christ: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin [transgressing God’s law, 1 John 3:4, KJV] that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death; that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:1-6). [See: Freed From Bondage.]
Paul describes that “newness of life” as being “a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17) — one who is now a “slave,” not to sin but instead, “to righteousness” (Romans 6:18). Psalm 119:172 declares of God: “…all Your commandments are righteousness.” Luke 1:6 describes the priest Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, parents of John (the “Baptist,” or more properly the “Baptizer”): “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.”
Maintaining good works
The apostle Paul, who is the greatest defender of salvation through faith, wrote this to his underling Titus: “This is a faithful saying, and these things I want to affirm constantly, that those who have believed [have faith] in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men” (Titus 3:8). Paul continues in Verse 14: “And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful.” [Galatians 5:22-23 lists the nine facets of “the fruit of the (Holy) Spirit.]
Earlier, Paul had warned Titus about “insubordinate…idle talkers and deceivers…whose mouths must be stopped…teaching things which they ought not” (Titus 1:10-11), and instructed him to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith (Verse13). And why? “They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient and disqualified for every good work” (Verse 16).
Many evangelicals condemn, as “legalists,” people who believe in the Christian life as one of struggle against one’s sinful bent (plus Satan and his demons presently stirring up mankind to do evil, plus an evil society influenced by Satan). These evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ will “do it all” for a Christian to get one saved. One need not, as it were, “lift a finger.” One simply needs to “rest” in Jesus. Since Christ lives, in Spirit, in the lives of true Christians, He will do everything to get them saved. A Christian, according to this teaching, need not do anything to add to Jesus’ “finished work” (Philippians 1:6).
However, this forgets what Jesus said about the condition upon which He and the Father will live or dwell in God’s people: “If anyone loves Me [how? “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me” (Verse 21)] he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). [See: The Law of Christ.]
Paul told Timothy (and all Christians as well) that the Christian life is like that of a soldier engaged in warfare (2 Timothy 2:3-4; see also Galatians 5:17). It is a “struggle” against sin, like an endurance race, where we can only succeed when we look to Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-4) [See: Breaking Down our “Walls of Jericho,” God’s Spirit and Obedience and The Higher Law of the Spirit.]
May not Paul’s exhortation apply to today’s multitude of ready teachers and preachers who belittle the role of good works in the process of salvation — and who could, in fact, well accuse Paul of being a “legalist” according to their definition of legalism?
In this letter Paul instructs Titus to teach God’s people about right living in the church as well as in society. If we examined these detailed instructions on living, we would find that they all are compatible with the law of God. They are all about loving God and neighbor, which is the essence of God’s law (Matthew 22:37-40).
Paul wrote about this, in Romans 13:8-10, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Paul did not mean, as many mistake his intent to be (2 Peter 3:15-16), that fulfilling the law does away with the law! The true faith that justifies a Christian does not do away with God’s law. “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31). [See: The Law of Christ, Being and Doing, Saved for Good Works, and A Law-abiding Universe — But Man!]
Was Paul being “legalistic” for writing all this? As he would say, “Certainly not!”
Here’s where those who vociferously condemn others who judge people about their moral standards and behavior become self-condemned themselves! As the saying goes, when we point a finger at someone, we should remember that three other fingers point right back at us!
Jesus taught that, before we even think of pointing out a wrong in someone else, we should first clean up our own act. “Judge not that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).
The apostle Paul put it this way: “For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31-32).
Notice that Jesus did not mean that we should never judge others, especially those who are our “brothers” (both physically and spiritually), at all. [Jesus tells us who His real “brothers” are: “…whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother…” (Matthew 12:50).] In fact, Jesus told His physical “brethren,” the Jews: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). “Righteous judgment” is one based on God’s law! [In our courts today, whoever became a proper judge without a working knowledge of the laws of the land, and how to apply them in every case presented to him?]
Paul, who was directly and personally taught by Christ (Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17; Acts 26:16-18), taught that members of the Church of God ought to be able to properly judge disputes among the brethren by themselves without having to resort to judges outside of the church (1 Corinthians 6:1-6). Earlier, Paul had said, “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside [the church]? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those outside God judges” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).
To say that judging others (particularly those within the Church of God) based on God’s laws is being “legalistic” is contrary to Bible teaching, as we’ve just pointed out Paul as saying. Paul taught that church leaders should rebuke brethren who are sinning (1 Timothy 5:20; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:13; 2:15) — those who are transgressing God’s law.
Jesus Himself taught: “If a brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). One cannot judge when a brother is sinning, without basing one’s judgment on God’s law. Is this “legalism?” More on this later.
As for those outside of the Church of God, God deals with them for now with a “witness” or “testimony.” Jesus said that His Church will fulfill what is written in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom [of God] will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end [of this present age] will come.” That age will end as Jesus returns to put down all human misrule (by nations now misguided by Satan the devil) and bring about God’s loving but firm rule on earth (Revelation 11:15; 19:15; Zechariah 12:10). [See: The Four Dimensions of Christ’s Love and World Peace — At Last!]
That final end-time “witness” will be proclaimed by God’s two anointed “witnesses,” as described in Revelation 11:1-13, and as long before prophesied in Zechariah 4:11-14, before Christ returns in power and glory. Most who will hear their testimony or prophesying (preaching) will not believe them — may even call them “legalistic!” for upholding God’s law. These people will instead feel “tormented” by the witness of these two end-time servants of God and will have them killed (Revelation 11:7-10). But God will resurrect these two witnesses [apparently at the return of Christ to resurrect all true saints] (Verses 11-12).
Then God will pour out on wicked mankind His “seven last plagues” (Revelation 11:15-18:24). These human beings will have their time of judgment (for salvation) when they will be resurrected after the 1,000 years of the reign of Christ on earth with His saints (Revelation 20:5). [See: Predestination and This Is Not the Only Day of Salvation.]
“Improper” and “excessive” use of the Ten Commandments?
Evangelicals talk about the “improper use” of the Ten Commandments (among others of God’s laws) by “legalists.” Just what is the “proper” use of God’s law? As explained earlier, the proper use of God’s law is to define what righteous conduct is, and what unrighteous conduct is. It is thus by God’s law that our attitudes and behavior are judged as to whether they are righteous or otherwise. [See: No Such Thing as Sin? and A Great Omission in Doing the “Great Commission”.]
The apostle Peter declared that God’s judgment [for salvation in this age] has begun “at the house [church] of God” (1 Peter 4:17). [See: Predestination and This Is Not the Only Day of Salvation.] And God has His duly ordained ministers to teach them God’s ways — including God’s laws that show righteous living. Paul charged his assistant Timothy regarding the church brethren: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (1 Timothy 4:2).
The “epistles” of the New Testament (consisting of mostly the letters of Paul plus those of John, Peter and Jude) are all of an “exhortative” nature — encouraging the church brethren to conduct themselves in a way that lines up with God’s Word — including God’s law.
Can we say rightly that these letters are “legalistic?” Not from God’s perspective! It is the “carnal” mind that smarts against God’s law (Romans 8:7) and calls faithful obedience to God’s law “excessive” and “improper.”
Jesus taught that there are “the least” of God’s commandments (Matthew 5:19), as well as “the great” commandment (Matthew 22:36-38). He warns: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
Jesus also taught about being faithful in “what is least” (Luke 16:10) — including what is least in God’s commandments. [See Matthew 23:23 for Jesus’ command about not leaving little matters of the law undone.] Some might consider that “excessive” and “hair-splitting.” But that is not what God’s law is, which is just perfect (Psalm 19:7-9)! This “law” is to be distinguished from Law Added to Law Transgressed. [See also: The Two Laws in Hebrews 10 and Transgressions Under the First Covenant.]
It is what man has done to God’s law that has become “excessive” and “improper!” Psalm 94:20 says that man (especially those who rule) can devise “evil by law.” How many laws have men legislated that oppress some while favoring others? Jesus condemned the scribes and the Pharisees for their human-devised rules and traditions that bound “heavy burdens, hard to bear” upon the shoulders of the Jewish people (Matthew 23:4). These man-made traditions actually laid aside God’s very commandments (Mark 7:5-13). [See: Did Christ Cleanse All Meats?]
Today we have modern “scribes and Pharisees” who devise their own rules of conduct that prohibit what God allows and make “legal” or “lawful” what God condemns as sinful and abominable! [See: Switching Positive and Negative, The Whole Counsel of God and What If the Sabbath Is Still Holy?]
These — not God’s law — constitute “legalism” in the sense that Matt Slick and others mean the word to be: “improper” and “excessive!” [See: Barking Up the Wrong Tree.]
As can easily happen, perhaps unknowingly, one who accuses another of being “legalistic” can himself end up in a “reverse” legalism by being very strictly and excessively against legalism — whether real or only perceived — in others! [Strange but true: many who are against bigotry often end up being bigots themselves against all bigotry!]
This only goes to show that all — legalists and anti-legalists — “have sinned [transgressed God’s perfect law] and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)! Each human being — sooner or later — will stand in judgment before Jesus Christ, according to every word that He has said (John 18:31) or inspired — which is the whole Bible. As Paul wrote: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10) — and that according to God’s law. [See: The Law of Christ and Being and Doing.]
God no legalist
It is God’s sole prerogative to decide what is good and what is evil, which is what God’s law is about. [See: The Divine Prerogatives.] As the Creator of all things and all life, God alone is the perfect Law-giver. As such, He cannot be called a “legalist” in the sense that many have defined “legalism!”
God’s law may seem hard and harsh, but in the ultimate analysis, God’s law is all about love — love for God, love for neighbor, and love for all of God’s creation. [See: The Four Dimensions of Christ’s Love and Leanings.]
James 1:25; 2:12 describes God’s word and God’s commandments as “the law of liberty” — not a harsh, restrictive law. The anonymous psalmist who wrote Psalm 119 brims over with delight in God’s law and says, “So shall I keep Your law continually, forever and ever. And I will walk at liberty , for I seek Your precepts” (Verses 44-45). Faithfully preaching and practicing even the minutiae of God’s law cannot be called “excessive” and “improper” — and thus “legalism!”
In the final judgment, only “those who do His [God’s] commandments…have the right to the tree of life [will have everlasting life], and may enter through the gates into the city [the New Jerusalem]” (Revelation 22:14).
When we understand, and live out, the “width and length and depth and height” of the love of Christ, we cannot be accused rightly of “legalism.”
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.