Source: GraceNotes Article on “Legalism”


  • What legalism is not:

  • Being a model Godly citizen isn’t legalistic! It is showing willing submission to our Lord (Rom. 13:1-5; Tit. 3:1; Prov. 8:15).

  • Paying what is owed, and relating to others in a Godly fashion, realizing the importance of public behavior are also not legalistic (Rom. 13:6-9; Eph. 5:18; 1 Pet. 4:3).

  • Our human system of work and reward is like this: I work for you and you pay me. This is obviously legitimate, it’s the way commerce works under divine institutions and free enterprise (Rom. 4:4-5, 11:6)

  • But the religious legalist is convinced that God works by the same system - or at least he hopes so. He says: I work for God and God rewards me by saving me and blessing me in some way.

  • If a person takes the works route for salvation, then the following questions have to be asked:[1] o “How do we discern what is a genuine good work?” o “How many good works does a person have to demonstrate to be sure of salvation?” o “How long does a person have to demonstrate those works?” o “How does a person’s life have to change?”


  • Religion is any system in which man by his own efforts tries to earn the approval of God.

  • Legalism is a religious system that teaches that a person can do something to earn or merit salvation or blessing from God.

  • Legalism were some standard governs whether or not you are “in” or “out”

  • It is certainly true that having strict standards in both our personal lives and in our Churches is acceptable, the interaction with our fellow brethren when opinions clash can cause others to stumble (Rom. 14:1-5).

  • For example, your view of the moral code of Rom. 14:21 may lead you to adopt abstinence from alcohol as a standard, out of your regard for weaker brethren who might be caused to stumble. This would certainly be a strict and legal conformity; but it’s not legalism, because you are not trying to earn points with God by your actions. Someone else may consider this excessive, but it’s none of their business. It is not wrong for you to set high standards for yourself, and neither is it religious legalism. In fact, quite often what a grace believer calls legalistic is really someone else’s setting high standards for himself.

  • Causing another to stumble then becomes the key (Rom. 14:13, 21, John 16:1; James 3:2)

Systems of Legalism

  • There are four principal spiritual transactions in which Works are not accepted by God: Salvation, Spirituality, Maturity, and Reward.

  • Legalism in Salvation o “If we were to define legalism, we would say that it is the belief than one can either earn their salvation by keeping the Law of Moses, or that one pleases God by that Law and thus focuses on the commandments instead of the Lord. The Christian life is to be successfully lived only by Christ living through us and transforming us into His image.” [2]

  • Legalism in Salvation o There are many religious systems which teach salvation by works, or which try to mix works with faith, such as:  Believe + keep the Law of Moses (Rom. 8:1-4).  Believe + be circumcised (Acts 15:5, 19, Rom. 2:25, 28-29).  Believe + water baptism (Acts 2:38, 1 Pet. 3:21).  Believe + confess your sins (1 Jn. 1:9).  Believe + give up your bad habits and fully surrender  Believe + make a public display or have great sorrow of a show of tears  Believe + church membership o Performance-based religion gives comfort to some believers. It allows them to measure and pass judgment on the spirituality of others, usually in comparison to their own. But of course, everyone’s ideas differ on the biblical standards of behavior that prove salvation or spirituality. Yet somehow the performance-based legalist always seems to arrange the rules so that he comes out ahead. [3] o Common Source of Legalism:  Ignoring basic Bible study rules, especially those having to do with the plain sense of the language and the context;  Holding a theological bias, like assuming unsupported definitions for important words or resorting to careless proof-texting (i.e. citing Bible references authoritatively but not appropriately, as if the meaning should be taken for granted); [4]  Tradition— holding a view that Christians have historically believed about this subject or Bible passage;  Parroting a respected teacher without a strong personal conviction based on firsthand study of the Bible’s teaching.

  • Legalism in Spirituality o Speaking in tongues, false doctrines involving when we have the Holy Spirit.  When do we have the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14).  Some denominations make tongues as sign of indwelling (1 Cor. 14:13-19)

  • Legalism in Maturity o It is not viable to begin the Christian life by faith and move to spiritual maturity by works. The works of the flesh cannot complete the process of maturity. The Greek indicates that the Galatians thought that they were maturing themselves. (Gal. 3:3) [5] o The Bible clearly describes stages of Christian growth:  There are Christians who are “babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1-2),  Those who have not grown enough to receive the “meat” of deeper truths (Heb. 5:11-13),  Those who are mature (Heb. 5:14). [6]

  • Legalism in Reward o Obedience to God’s Word is not legalism. Remember the definition. Everything you do has the potential for reward in heaven, under the right circumstances.(Gal. 6:9; Eph. 3:13; 2 Thess. 3:13) o But the legalist thinks that the good works he does for God will not only keep him in fellowship and walking with the Lord but will also make him more spiritual and a great Christian.(Gal. 6:1-4) o Assurance: John 5:24; Acts 16:31.

  • Legalism in Christian Living o Here are some types of religious legalism imposed on Christians:  Taboos: thinking one is spiritual because he abstains from certain things or follows a certain system of do’s and don’ts.  Imitating Personalities: the idea that living the Christian life is conformity in dress, mannerisms, speech, etc., with those who seem spiritual.  Relative Righteousness: “your sins are worse than mine, therefore I am more spiritual” or “I am spiritual and you are carnal.”  Ecstatics: spirituality by speaking in tongues, groaning, getting in a trance, fainting.  Asceticism: spirituality by self-sacrifice or extreme self denial; giving up normal activities or even necessities in the mistaken notion that God is impressed.  Ritual: idea that one is spiritual because he goes through various forms of ceremony or ritual. In the Apostle’s day, the Jews promoted circumcision as necessary to the Christian walk. These days, baptism or one of the other sacraments is promoted as being necessary to salvation.  Confusing Means with Results: the idea that you are spiritual if you are faithful in praying, giving, witnessing, attending church, and so forth. But - these legitimate activities are a result of Christian growth and the filling of the Holy Spirit. They are not the means for spirituality or growth in Christ. It is important to distinguish this difference.


  1. Bing, C; Dillow, J.; Edmonson, J. “Free Grace Theology, 5 Ways it Magnifies the Gospel,” 2016

  2. Kenneth Yates “Legalism: No laughing Matter”

  3. Bing, Charles C.. Grace, Salvation, and Discipleship: How to Understand Some Difficult Bible Passages (pp. 14-15). Grace Theology Press. Kindle Edition.

  4. Bing, Charles C.. Grace, Salvation, and Discipleship: How to Understand Some Difficult Bible Passages (pp. 14-15). Grace Theology Press. Kindle Edition.

  5. Bing, Charles C.. Grace, Salvation, and Discipleship: How to Understand Some Difficult Bible Passages (p. 15). Grace Theology Press. Kindle Edition.\

  6. Dr. Grant C. Richison. (Grace Notes/Galatians).

  7. Bing, Charles C.. Grace, Salvation, and Discipleship: How to Understand Some Difficult Bible Passages (p. 22). Grace Theology Press. Kindle Edition.

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