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Legalism is following, often publicly, a human standard for righteousness that derives from human tradition or wrongly interpreted Scripture, claiming that the standard has God’s authority, and imposing this standard on others in order to gain eternal salvation, Christian life blessings, and future blessings.


  • Definition and explanations.
    • Legalism is following, often publicly, a human standard for righteousness that derives from human tradition or wrongly interpreted Scripture, claiming that the standard has God’s authority, and imposing this standard on others in order to gain eternal salvation, Christian life blessings, and future blessings.
    • A legalistic person believes that a one must act a certain way so that God will save, bless, help, and prosper him.  Legalism fosters wrong motives. Legalism has its source in bad doctrine, pride, and self righteousness. Legalistic people impose false standards on others. Legalistic people work, apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, for God's eternal salvation and other blessings. They confuse cause, means, and result. Legalism is wrong; avoid it.
    • The Bible teaches that believers are to think and act a certain way because God has already blessed, continues to bless, and will bless in the future those who obey him and serve him from right motives and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The believer is to live the plan of God out of genuine gratitude, knowledge of Scripture, and through the power that God supplies by the Holy Spirit. The believer is unable to contribute anything to God through his own human efforts.
    • Legalism becomes a heavy yoke or load to live under (Matthew 11.28). A legalistic person has separated himself from the easy yoke and light load of freedom in Christ (Matthew 11.30; Galatians 5.1-4).
    • Legalistic people replace Bible doctrine, the spirit of Bible doctrine, and God’s power from the Holy Spirit with human standards and human power (Matthew 12.1-8; 15.1-3; Galatians).
    • Legalistic people often attempt to force their lifestyle upon others and thereby judge and interfere in the freedom of other believers (John 7.19-24; Romans 14.1-12; Galatians 2.1-5).
    • Pride, self righteousness, and a critical mental attitude characterize legalistic people and perpetuate legalism (Matthew 12.10; Luke 18.9-12; Galatians 2.3-5; 6.12-13).
  • Legalism is against:
    • Salvation by grace (Galatians 1.6-9; 2.16).
    • Spirituality by grace (Galatians 3.2-5; 5.5).
    • The freedom to live the Christian way of life by grace; to live apart from pressure imposed by self and others, by taboo lists, by checklists of right things, by a religious community (Galatians 4.8-11; 5.1-5).
  • Practical expressions of legalism demonstrate that people are trying to earn eternal salvation, spirituality, and God's blessing.
    • Common legalistic practices in Bible times included religious ritual (Galatians 4.10-11; Colossians 2.16), special days, months, seasons, years (Galatians 4.10-11; Colossians 2.16-18), circumcision (Galatians 2.3-5; 5.2-4), taboo lists (Colossians 2.20-22), hand washing before eating (Matthew 15.1-20), special rules for the Sabbath (Matthew 12.1-1-5, 9-14), self righteousness (Luke 18.9-14), depending on personal heritage, ability, and conformity to a regulatory system to please God (Philippians 3.4-6).
    • Current day expressions of legalism include doing something for eternal salvation such as believe plus promise to change the life, believe plus make Christ Lord, believe plus join the church, believe plus give up habits (such as eating without washing the hands, smoking, movies, Sunday comics), believe plus an emotional experience, believe plus circumcision, believe plus keep church rules or the law of Moses.
    • Believers have various standards of righteousness that we wrongly try to impose on others such as only one Bible version is to be used, condemning certain entertainment such as movies or playing cards, playing sports or watching sports on Sundays, listen only to one teacher, tithing or giving a certain amount of money to church or missions, placing Sabbath rules onto Sunday, not allowing certain clothes or hair styles or jewelry or make up, claiming that only certain musical instruments are biblical, home schooling or private schooling or public schooling, and even attending church.
    • Living the Christian life by human power or to impress others when one prays, gives money, studies the Bible, serves, refrains from certain activities, follows a cultural list of do this or not do that, and other similar activities.
  • Sometimes there are gray areas that, if not answered from a biblical point of view can become either legalism or license. The biblical principles for doubtful things help us here (1 Corinthians 8, 9, 10; Romans 14; Galatians 6).
    • The principles are liberty, love, sacrifice, profit, restoration, and burden bearing are principles that guide believers’ actions and attitudes toward self, others, and doubtful things.
    • See the chart with the principles about how to live regarding doubtful things.

Last Update

Wednesday, January 3, 2007