|Volume 24 Number 4 April 2022
What is legalism, or who is a legalist? The terms “legalism” and “legalist” have been and continue to be brandished about freely by public speakers and penmen alike.
Who is a “legalist,” and what is “legalism” is the question of the day. The answer seems to depend on what part of the road you’re on, which way you’re facing, and whether or not you’re moving in either direction. Some preachers, teachers, and elders have been dubbed “legalists” because they dared to proclaim the whole counsel of God and refused to accept denominational theories as doctrine. Others have been called “legalists” because they insist on the Lord’s standard of conduct for Christians. (Reeves 41)
“Brethren with a liberal attitude toward biblical teaching make accusations against the church for adhering to what the Bible – and especially the New Testament – teaches. They say, ‘Teaching obedience and commandments is legalism’” (Gardner 13). “It is fashionable today to characterize anyone who is concerned with biblical doctrine as pharisaical. The biblical condemnation of the Pharisees; legalism has been misread as a denunciation of doctrinal precision” (MacArthur 5). “…The charge liberals make against those who wish to follow the Bible and allow it to be their strict guide in doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17). They claim we are guilty of the same sin as the Pharisees of Christ’s time – legalism” (Suiter 23). “Christians today are called ‘legalists’ when they obey God – as if obedience was a terrible sin” (Brown 6). “Obedience to God was equated with legalism…” (Summers 3). In all cases, “legalism” and “legalist” bear a negative and distasteful connotation. Brother Earl Trimble wrote, “Legalism is a bad word” (77).
It is apparent that orators and writers use the terms “legalism” and “legalist” differently from other presenters and scribes using the same words. Legalism and legalist have become red flags or catch phrases to demonize whatever and to whomever one attributes them. Simply applying the label – with neither explanation nor definition and without evidence – to something or to someone is supposed to be sufficient to demonstrate some practice or person to be evil. That carelessness and casual behavior when uttering the words “legalism” and “legalist” is a reckless and an unbalanced handling of the Word of God. Similarly, Hall had this to say about “doctrine.”
Doctrine is a word that has fallen on hard times. It has become a “loaded” word, pronounced with a sneer. It is associated with authoritarianism and legalism, labels designed to produce prejudiced conclusions without thinking and without evidence. Doctrine smacks of right or wrong and true or false, unacceptable concepts in this postmodern relativistic age. Thus, doctrinal preaching, always difficult, is now disdained and despised. (1 emphasis added)
In the first place, the words “legalism” and “legalist” do not appear in the Bible in either testament. One must resort to dictionaries to ascertain their meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, “legalism” has two different definitions. “1: strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code… 2: a legal term or rule.” Christians often wield the first definition to castigate and disarm practitioners of the second definition. That is a travesty. In other words, not pleased with God’s biblical legislation, some Christians employ the words “legalism” and “legalist” to rebuke fellow Christians who readily accept what God caused to be recorded upon the pages of inspiration – the Bible. Using the first definition of legalism against the second definition is an unvarnished and ignoble attempt to disarm the impact and application of God’s Word. In that vein, anyone who proceeds to obey biblical instruction would falsely be labeled as a legalist. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ is “the Author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). Dismissing the application of the Word of God – for we who live today, the New Testament – is spiritually criminal (Revelation 22:18-19).
Similarly, as the word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible but what that word means is defined in the Bible, though the word “legalism” does not appear in the Bible, its meaning is defined in the Bible.
First, the Bible defines legalism. What is the Bible definition of it? The Bible defines it as being an attempt to hold on to the law and to be justified by the law. Three books in the New Testament discuss this subject from three different views. All three (Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews) show that the ones that were caught up in this were Jews that wanted to hold onto the law, or Jews that wanted to return to the law, or Gentiles that were being misled by Judaizing teachers that attempted to bind the law on Gentiles. (Camp, “A Review” 3)
Already, one can discern that there is a difference between the frequent misapplication of the label of legalism or legalist and the true, biblical treatment of the concept.
Obeying the New Testament or the Gospel of Christ is maligned as “soul-shackling legalism” (Fred Blakely qtd. by McClish, “Are They Really So Nice”). Others describe obeying the Scriptures as cold legalism, the stagnant pool of legalism, ceremonial legalism, pharisaic legalism, formalism and heartless legalism. Some of those terms (cold legalism, ceremonial legalism, formalism and heartless legalism), when correctly applied, do describe the disease of the first century Pharisees, and that disease can infect Christians today, too. However, willingness to obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ and implement it in one’s life, as well as to announce it others, is not legalism. Instead, it is obedience – without which a person cannot be saved (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). “It is not ‘legalism’ to be concerned about following God’s will and being obedient to His commands, but rather it is following the example of Jesus to be so concerned. Jesus said, ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ (John 14:15)” (Ayers 82).
Much of the time, brethren who scream “legalism” or “legalist” do so to conceal, disguise or justify their own behaviors. “Outcries of ‘legalism’ serve as convenient smoke screens to justify departure from the faith and to cloak innovations in the Lord’s church” (Wilmoth 7). “These ‘ministers of righteousness’ use the smoke screen of ‘legalism’ in undermining the idea of a Biblical pattern and a ‘thus saith the Lord’ for what Christians must do to be pleasing in God’s sight” (McWhorter 1225).
Legalism is the cry that some make when error is pointed out. Quite often when we emphasize the importance of strict adherence to the word of God we are accused by our religious friends of denying the grace of God and trying to be justified by commands. For example, when we show them from the word of God that remission of sins follows scriptural baptism, or insist that the New Testament Christians were commanded to sing in worship instead of playing some mechanical instrument we are accused of being legalistic. Also, when we show from the word of God that all spiritual blessings are in Christ (Eph. 1:3), and that we cannot be in Christ without being in his church (Eph. 5:23) we are often branded as legalists. Neither can they understand why we follow the Bible example of observing the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week (Acts 20:7). …The Apostle Paul tells us that the Lord will take vengeance on those that know not God and obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 1:7-9). (George 2)
“Matt. 5:19 – It is evident from this verse that one cannot obtain the Lord’s approval while violating any of His commandments. Consequently, charges of ‘legalism’ which are leveled at those striving to honor the entirety of Christ’s New Testament are grossly unreasonable” (Berard). In an article entitled – “Is it Legalism?” – Himmel masterfully disassociated the terms “legalism” and “legalist” from obeying God’s instructions.
As Lot and his family were brought forth out of Sodom they were told, “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee…” (Gen. 19:17.) Lot’s wife did not follow this command in the strict sense, for she looked back. God turned her into a pillar of salt. Had she strictly conformed to God’s command, that might have made her a “Legalist,” but who wants to be a nasty “Legalist” when he can be a pillar of salt? Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, offered fire before the Lord which he had not commanded. (Lev. 10.) The liberal view is that details do not matter. They may have reasoned that fire is fire, so what difference does it make. Well, God sent fire which devoured them both and they died. If they had been “Legalist” enough to do only what God commanded they would have lived, but they chose fiery death to that terrible thing called “Legalism.” At Kadesh, Moses was told to speak to the rock and it would give water. (Num. 20:8.) As if in opposition to the idea of strict conformity to divine law, Moses took the liberty to smite the rock twice and to say, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” He got the water without being a “Legalist,” but he missed the land of Canaan. (Num. 27:12-14.) But who wants the Promised Land if he must be a “Legalist”? If strict conformity to law makes one a “Legalist,” and “Legalism” is as terrible as many preachers describe it, why not hail Lot’s wife for her practice of individual liberty and think of the pillar of salt as a memorial to freedom? why not praise Nadab and Abihu for their broad-mindedness and view them as martyrs for the cause of freedom to worship as we please? why not exalt Moses as one who denied himself the blessings of Canaan rather than be guilty of strict conformity? Is strict conformity to God’s word “Legalism”? …Or is it just plain obedience? Is this opposition to strict conformity to divine law anything other than opposition to doing exactly what God teaches? What is “Liberalism” but “Infidelity” in disguise?
Brother Guy N. Woods astutely observed:
To say that if we must comply with the commandments in order to be saved is legalism is both false and foolish; to urge that justification is received in the act of believing and not on condition of keeping the commandments is contradictory since the act of believing is as much a human act as is either repentance, confession or baptism. To those who asked, “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him, whom he hath sent.” (John 6:29.) (68)
The ramifications of declining to obey New Testament teaching include disregarding the plan of salvation when it comes to baptism for the remission of one’s sins. “It would be interesting to hear one of them explain how one can become a Christian in obedience to the demands of the gospel, and still have their obedience not be legalistic” (Camp, The Word 22-23). Apparently, their response to the scheme of redemption is to dismiss it. “Larry Dotson, in Integrity, March/April, 1990, on ‘Baptized into Christ... Without Getting Wet,’ denounces as ‘legalism’ a ‘plan of salvation’ which emphasizes conditions of salvation” (Liddell 5).
Essentially no part of the Christian faith is safe from assault. The following excerpt demonstrates the wide critical swipe liberals unabashedly make against biblical Christianity.
The sermon was entitled, “What Is So Wrong with Legalism,” and was an unrelenting attack from beginning to end against the church of the Bible for which Jesus Christ died to establish and over which He is Head. The so-called sermon was loud, angry and harsh. Decried were patternism and legalism, and a long list of non-essentials in religion were assembled to include: church organization, church autonomy and a cappella music in Christian worship. As it turned out, the preacher plagiarized word for word and punctuation mark for punctuation mark a chapter from the book of an elder, lawyer, politician who has already crossed the biblical Rubicon. (Rushmore 54-55)
Liberals regularly pit grace and love against obedience, elevating grace and love – distancing them from obedience. “‘If you understand grace,’ they say, ‘you are above do’s and don’ts’ and ‘legalism, and rules, and commandments.’ Yes, we hear them all the time, but we recall that Jesus said, ‘If ye love me ye will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). And again he said, ‘Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you’ (John 15:14)” (Moffitt, Denominational Doctrines 11-12).
Were liberal brethren granted their evaluation of the Holy Scriptures, God’s revealed Word would be relegated to the status of bedtime stories and at best a love letter from God. McGee quoted one such outburst. “Anyone who has been confronted by Christ in the pages of the New Testament cannot possibly imagine that he who swept all traditional ritual and ecclesiastical legalism as a means of getting right with God into the religious trash heap, thereafter invested a book with the authority to set them up again! …God’s answer to the human condition is not an idea, a plan, a system, or a book – it is a person” (Lanny Hunter qtd. by McGee, “A Brother Rejects” 18-21). “Rather than deal with what the Bible says, many simply label biblical positions as ‘traditionalism’ and ‘legalism’” (Sanders, “Paving the Way” 13). “They do not believe in a literal interpretation of the Scriptures; they think we should not make a rigid application of the word of God, especially to minor matters. To do this is legalism” (Brewer 3). “Some brethren are wanting to classify all ‘rule keeping,’ scripturalness, and a ‘thus saith the Lord’ authority, as legalism” (Trimble 76). “Expressions of concern about moral issues are met with dire warning about legalism and the failure to focus upon the weightier provisions of the law” (Banks 46).
The battle within the Lord’s church over following the Word of God or dismissing it is not a new challenge at all. The smear of “legalism” or “legalist” has long been the assault of liberal brethren upon their brethren.
The “Old Paths” in the 1870’s were called “legalist” and they were constantly criticized. In 1871 David Lipscomb wrote, “We have been pained for some time to see reproach cast upon those who insist upon faithful obedience to the law of God, as the condition of his blessing, a legalist, and the principle that required the submission as legalism. …Some of our progressive brethren have even gone so far as to deny there is any law in the New Testament as there was in the Old.” (Cline 52)
Faithful brethren refuse to surrender to the slander and disregard for Scripture characteristic of wayward brethren – false teachers. “Loving obedience to God’s law is a response to God’s grace, not legalism. Christ himself required obedience in order to demonstrate love (Jn. 14:15, 21, 23)” (Sanders, “Facing Moral Dilemmas” 38). “In God’s eyes careful obedience is not self-righteous legalism but a cause for blessing” (Sanders, “Speak” 20). “It is not legalism to insist upon obedience to that which Jesus has commanded” (Dub McClish qtd. by Hill 4). “No where does the New Testament say that being obedient to Jesus Christ whether becoming a Christian, or being a Christian is legalism! Instead in the New Testament, there is great emphasis on the importance of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord himself stressed obedience to him. He said to some, ‘And why call ye me, Lord, Lord…’ (Luke 6:46)” (Overton 2). “It appears that you think that everyone who loves the truth and willing to stand on it is a legalist. …I contend it is not legalism to obey the Lord. It is not legalism to follow the Word of God by rightly dividing the truth and making proper application” (Robinson 75).
First Century Legalism Correctly Defined
The following quotation distinguishes between the defamation liberals heap upon Bible believers as legalists and the legalistic Pharisees of the first century.
The voices which ridicule and condemn brethren who insist, upon sensitivity to truth, are becoming louder and more numerous. They brand as “legalistic” and “fundamentalist” those who refuse to capitulate to their lax and open attitudes toward the “strait and narrow.” In many quarters of the brotherhood, one is eyed with suspicion if he becomes too vocal in stressing to Christians the need to conform strictly to the will of God in all matters of faith and practice. He is set aside as an immature and pharisaical misfit who has simply never grown to the point of grasping the true spirit of Jesus. He is a “negative” and “brutal demagogue.” He is a “legalist.” …One generally thinks of the Pharisees as the classic example of “legalism.” But how so? (1) They were guilty of hypocrisy. They pretended to be devoted and went to great lengths to appear righteous, but they did not actually follow through with genuine, loving obedience to God. (Matthew 23:4-7, 25-28.) (2) They gave attention to some biblical matters but neglected others of greater importance. (Matthew 23:23-24.) (3) They misinterpreted Mosaic law (Matthew 5:17-48) and even went about binding and enforcing their fallacious interpretations, elevating these human traditions, laws, and doctrines to the level of Scripture. (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13.) With these errors in mind, notice that “legalism” does not have to do with fervent attention to fulfilling the “letter of the law.” The Pharisees were not condemned because they were too zealous about strict obedience to God’s will. They were condemned because “they say, and do not.” (Matthew 23:2.) …In reality, outcries of “legalism” can serve as convenient smoke screens to justify departure from the faith and to cloak innovation in the church of our Lord. (Miller 1, 18)
Brother Miller aptly identified the original legalists, or as Jesus called them, “Hypocrites!” (Matthew 15:7) – “the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 15:1). “The Jews who let their hearts wander from God ended up either in the liberalism of Sadduceeism or in the legalism of Phariseeism” (Webster). “He [Jesus] refused to pay homage to their [the Pharisees] man-made, inconsistent legalisms, accusing the Pharisees of approaching God with the mouth and with the lips while keeping their heart far from the Father (Matthew 15:8)” (Key 22). “The Pharisees in their legalism made the existing legal system unbearable” (Sheerer 373). “On the one hand there was the Pharisaical legalism that had perverted the Law of Moses. Jesus warned His disciples to obey the law, but to avoid its perversions that exalted the legalism about the Truth, (Matt. 15:7-9)” (Taylor 8).
The Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders in the first century did not represent the Law of Moses or Judaism correctly. Furthermore, it is a gross misunderstanding of the Old Testament to view it, like they did, merely as a collection of rules that didn’t require any emotional or spiritual investment.
It is wrongfully assumed that worship in spirit and truth was not a requirement under the Law of Moses. This goes to the mistaken notion that any doctrine of worship which strictly required certain rituals could not be “in spirit and truth.” It is thought to be legalism when there is law and insistence on rules. This totally misses the purpose of God in the Jewish system. Though often ignored by the people, it was always God’s purpose that their worship be spiritual and certainly that it be according to truth. One who assumes that the Old Testament system was a mere system of legalism should reflect seriously on the fact that God is the Author of that system. When under the Law of Moses they worshiped sincerely and according to the rules of the Law, they were true worshipers, the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. It was under the Old Testament system that Joshua urged the people to “serve him [the Lord] in sincerity and in truth” (Josh. 24:14). Another text for comparison is Samuel’s admonition to “serve him in truth with all your heart” (I Sam. 12:24). Acceptable worship has always been “in spirit and in truth.” (Pharr 10 emphasis added)
“When Jesus talked of the necessity of exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), he did not indict the Old Testament law as a system of legalism. He indicted those Jews as legalists!” (Workman). There was a huge discrepancy between the sacrifices and other rules followed by the Jews versus their spiritual involvement in the Law of Moses. At best, the Jews went through the motions of obedience without putting their hearts into the performance. At worst, there was a complete disconnect between their outward religious practices and their godless lives.
“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” Says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats. When you come to appear before Me, Who has required this from your hand, To trample My courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies – I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, You shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You shall be devoured by the sword”; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 1:11-20 NKJV)
Yes, God had commanded the sacrifices, but because the sacrifices were not accompanied by a proper spiritual participation in the appointed worship, God rejected their worship. Secondly, God rejected his own appointed worship because His people’s lives were filled with ungodliness. Under those circumstances, the Jews’ worship was worthless – not really worship at all! Luke 18:9-14, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, illustrates the hollowness of the Pharisaic religion contrasted with the humbleness of the tax collector.
Additional interchanges between our Lord and the Pharisees bring into focus the disposition of the Pharisees.
To understand better their legalism, let us look at one of the clearer examples in connection with their traditions of the Sabbath. The fourth commandment to the Jews was to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The sabbath was the seventh day of the week. On this day they were to rest and worship God; it was to be set apart and no work was to be done. The Pharisees added their traditions to the Sabbath and broke down into minute detail every possible circumstance and how they were to act. Thus in Mark 2:23-27 they debated with Jesus concerning his disciples’ use of the sabbath. It must be kept in mind that they did not violate the sabbath from the scriptural point of view, but they violated the traditions concerning the sabbath which the Pharisees had bound upon the people. Thus the Pharisees were highly incensed when the disciples of Jesus went through the grain field and plucked corn and ate it on the sabbath. They accused them of being sabbath-breakers. They had not committed just one sin in the sight of the Pharisees; they had committed two. The Pharisees reasoned that if one violated the sabbath every act must be broken down into an individual sin. Thus they felt that the disciples sinned first by plucking the grain in that they had harvested it, and secondly that they sinned again in rubbing the ears of corn which was threshing or grinding it. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and attempted to show them that they were legislating where God had not and were binding things upon the people which God had not. (Bell 373-374)
Though the apostle Peter hadn’t developed an appendix of rules to the Law of Moses, he did share a legalistic perspective with the Pharisees. “Peter, ever ready to ask questions, inquires, like a Jewish legalist, for some rule to limit the number of times one must forgive another; and he suggests seven times as a proper limit. But Jesus gently reproves his loveless legalism. ‘Not seven times,’ said he, ‘but seventy times seven’” (Williams 9).
Aside from the Pharisees, Judaizing Christians later tried to blend Judaism and Christianity. Both the Pharisees and Judaizing church members were legalists in the sense that they made rules where God had not authored commandments. “In the background of Galatians, Judaizing teachers were calling for Gentile converts to obey the law of Moses if they wanted to be saved (cf Acts 15:1). Paul wrote the epistle to defend the liberty of Christianity against such legalism” (Winkler 91). In the strictest sense, “legalism [is] (binding what God has not bound)” (Hicks).
Instead of making laws where God has not made laws, we need to concern ourselves rather with obeying what God has commanded. Christianity is difficult enough, and so we don’t need to make it any more difficult than it is already. Remember, “if demanding a ‘thus saith the Lord’ and teaching commandments are to be obeyed is legalism, then Paul, the other apostles, and prophets as well were all legalists” (Weekley 6-7).
Manifestations of Contemporary Legalism, Part 1
Legalism is a disposition to make laws; liberalism is a disposition to disregard law. The former seeks to bind where God has not bound, and the latter would loose where God has bound. Both extremes are wrong. The problems of legalism and 1iberalism confronting the church today are not new, but have existed through all the history of man. …We should content ourselves with continuing to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.” Let us not add to that which is written, or take away from that which God has spoken. “Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9). (Dobbs 18-20)
The contemporary legalists in one sense are those who have added interpretations of Scripture that go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6). These are commonly referred to as anti churches, and there are several different forms of them (i.e., schisms opposed to located preachers, multiple communion cups, Bible classes, inter-congregational cooperation, benevolence toward non-Christians, eating in the church building and several other matters involving the church treasury). “…The long shadows of Daniel Sommer’s legalism still haunt us. In the last 100 years, the body has been rocked time and again by antischisms” (Waddey 11). Daniel Sommer has been ascribed by some to be the father of antiism. “When legalism (‘anti-ism’) threatened the church in the early 1950’s, good men sat by in silence until it did untold harm to the body of Christ” (Shelly 1-2). Not only do legalists in the sense here entertained make Christianity more difficult than it is already, but they also harm the brotherhood of Christ, resulting in unnecessary and arbitrary divisions.
Manifestations of Contemporary Legalism, Part 2
There is a second way in which one can be a legalist today, and that danger is more widespread than antiism, which has severely harmed and hampered the Lord’s church across the USA and around the world. One characteristic of legalists among Old Testament Jews and New Testament era Jews was hypocrisy – a contradiction and contrast between God-authored religion and worship versus attitudes of disinterest or sinful behavior by the children of God. Thus, part of the definition of “legalism” involves the void of heartfelt worship, Christian living and Christian service. “The term is used derogatively to signify a conformity which has missed the inner spirit or purpose of the laws and degenerated into a barren observance of externalities” (Waddey 11 emphasis added). Cold legalism, ceremonial legalism, formalism and heartless legalism describe the disease of the first century Pharisees, as well as their forefathers about whom we noticed in Isaiah 1:11-20. That disease can infect Christians today, too.
Our Christian worship can be cold, ceremonial, formal and heartless; we can simply be going through the motions without having our hearts in it. We are mistaken if we presume that our worship is acceptable to God simply because we do the right things, in the right way and on the right day but have no spiritual attachment to them. This type of an attitude has never been acceptable to God!
Not only one’s worship, but Christian living and Christian service are derailed because of the same disposition. “A church spawned in indifference, cradled in legalism, spoon-fed on spiritual pablum, and rocked to sleep in the lap of material luxury will never share its treasure with others” (Shipp 4). “We have been so strong in the legalistic part of the gospel that we have often been stranded on the rock of legalism. We have been so busy on formal obedience – baptism, the Lord’s supper, attending church – that we have failed to be filled with the spirit of Christ, and to imitate his life of service to those around us” (Otey 4).
Forasmuch as the churches of Christ have capitalized on teaching the Truth, there is more that ought to characterize the church of God (1 Corinthians 1:2). For instance, Christians are called upon to “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Not the outward formality of worship alone, but the internal, spiritual participation in our worship is necessary in order for Christian worship to be acceptable to God. Wandering minds, sleeping, texting, etc. during our worship cheapens it and quite possibly makes it unacceptable to our God. Scripture calls upon Christians to examine themselves before attempting to worship the Almighty (1 Corinthians 11:28). Stop and consider your preparedness to worship God “in spirit and truth.”
“We are just as afraid of liberalism as of legalism. One extreme is as bad as the other. We do not believe that the Bible teaches either extreme. It is non-biblical to preach that one may, by doing good works, earn brownie points toward a crown with stars in it. It is just as non-biblical to teach that we are exempt from law” (Lemmons 9). Throughout the worldwide brotherhood, there is a noticeable and lamentable absence of earnest conviction in conversions as well as in Christian worship, Christian living and Christian service. There exists an obvious hypocrisy in worship, deportment and evangelism. This type of legalism – going through the motions without spiritual participation – cold, ceremonial, formal and heartless – remains a real danger to the Lord’s church.
“Legalism, in a good sense, simply refers to acting according to law” (McClintock and Strong 5:325). “Christians are under (amenable to) law (cf. Gal. 6:2). Therefore, if, by legalism, one means ‘acting according to law’ then legalism, in this sense, is not something to be avoided. However, there is a legalism that should be avoided” (Pugh 11).
“The history of religion is one of extremes. Two manifestations of religious extremism are liberalism and legalism. Liberalism is the doctrine of those who ignore the restraints of the Sacred Scriptures and loose where God has not loosed. Legalism is the doctrine of those who ignore the liberties of the Sacred Scriptures and bind where God has not bound” (Pugh 11). “The Legalists make and bind laws where God has not done so. The Liberalist looses laws that God has made and bound” (James 359). “Some have espoused LIBERALISM and loosed where God has bound. Others have embraced LEGALISM and bound where God has loosed. Both extremes are wrong for both violate the authoritative headship of Jesus” (Adams 10). “If we neglect love and grace, for example, we will probably head toward legalism. If we emphasize grace and love too much, we put ourselves in jeopardy of thinking that obedience is not important” (Summers 101).
The following lengthy quotation summarizes much of the exchange between Jesus and the legalists of His day.
Jesus, in preparation for His coming kingdom (the church of Christ), addressed both liberalism and legalism. He was in controversy with the liberal Sadducees (Matt. 22:23-34; cf. Acts. 23:7-8). He also debated the legalistic Pharisees who taught as doctrines “the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9) and bound “heavy burdens, hard to bear” and laid them on others (Matt. 23:4). Legalism was evident in the early church when “certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). Legalism involves binding on others what God has not bound (cf. Matt. 16:19). Some of the basic aspects of legalism are seen in the epistles written to the Galatians and the Colossians. To the latter, Paul wrote, “…[W]hy… do you subject yourselves to regulations. Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle …according to the commandments and doctrines of men?” (Col. 2:20-22). …This is the basic aspect of legalism – to make, and bind, a law where God has not bound. …Although there is a standard/pattern (i.e. the law of Christ), which is prescribed, legalism makes additional standards/laws in the realm of liberty. …Where there is a pattern we must adhere to such (i.e. 1 Tim. 2:12). Where there is no pattern we must not fabricate one (i.e. James 1:27; Gal. 6:10). …The major legalists whom Jesus confronted (i.e. Pharisees) were interested in self-exaltation and personal merit. They taught as doctrine the commandments (laws) of men (Matt. 15:9) and did their work “to be seen of men” (Matt. 23:5, emp. added). For a pretense (a show) they made long prayers (Mark 12:40). (Pugh 11, 14).
“If legalism is to be defined as the doctrine of salvation by good works, then let us oppose legalism with every fiber of our beings. Isaiah dealt with Israel’s legalism, that is, the idea that salvation came as a result of doing the deeds. They believed as long as they followed the rules they would be blessed by God” (Kee 562-563). Again, this is a primary danger facing the churches of Christ today – a lethargic exercise of Christianity – in worship, Christian living and Christian service.
On the other hand, false accusations by erring brethren and false teachers attribute legalism to Christians who conscientiously endeavor to practice what the New Testament teaches. “It has become quite common to assume that the scriptures are subject to a type of rather hazy relativistic interpretation and that to oppose such a view is to deny freedom of will and to surrender to legalism” (Trout 25-26).
Far too many, both inside and outside the church, have rejected the authority of God. Yet, even if every person on earth were so to do, the fact that Christ’s revealed will is the standard by which all of us who have lived in the Christian Age will be judged remains unchanged (John 12:48). Those who profess to love the Lord while rejecting His authority may continue to call faithfulness legalism, Pharisaism, bibliolatry, ultraconservativism, or some other derisive term. What these liberals are really expressing is the same rebellious attitude most people had toward following the “old paths” and “good way” in Jeremiah’s day: “We will not walk therein” (Jer. 6:16). (Ellis 31)
“Change agents accuse many in the church of being Pharisaical for alleged legalism. They hurl, ‘You Pharisees think you are going to be saved by meticulous law-keeping.’ ‘You Pharisees don’t believe in grace’” (Moses 4). However, “urging obedience to God’s conditions is not legalism; it is telling people how to love. Jesus said, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words’ (Jn. 14:23-24)” (Sanders, “Is Salvation” 38). “To contend that truth is absolute (100 percent right) and that there is no middle ground (‘gray’) between truth (‘white’) and error (‘black’) in the view of liberals is to become guilty of ‘legalism’” (Warren 15). “‘These things command and teach’ (I Tim. 4:11). Are we under law today? Must we keep commandments? Paul clearly says, ‘These things command and teach.’ And we have seen that that is not legalism. It is love, for Jesus said, ‘If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). He even said, ‘Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you’ (John 15:14)” (Moffitt, Denominational Doctrines 164-165).
“‘Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded…’ Is that legalism, Noah? No, it isn’t. What liberals think is legalism is spirituality in its highest form” (McGee, “The Need” 107). “Human adherence to Divine law while trusting in grace and the provisions thereof for atonement does not constitute legalism. The concept of the Old Testament being exclusively a law system and the New Testament a grace system is utter foolishness! The Pharisees endeavored to make the law of Moses a legalistic system, but that was their doing, not God’s” (Chesser 388).
Finally, Moffitt recaps the libel directed toward scrupulous Christians.
When God knew we could not be saved by being sinless, He found another way – grace through obedient faith. Because we love Him, may we keep His commandments, and may we oppose all who tend toward saying “grace only,” “faith only,” “no law,” “law-keeping is legalism.” Such statements are not only shallow, they reveal that the one speaking them has not yet understood the nature of grace or law. …Liberals sometimes call those who want to follow closely the law of Christ “legalists.” They chide us for not realizing that we are under a “law of liberty” rather than a law of legalism. “We do not have to pay such close attention to law, rules, commands, and precepts,” they aver. “We are free,” they say. “We are above rule-keeping and all shades of legalism. If we are just loving and spiritual, grace takes care of all these nit-picky violations. We are not to bear a harsh, cold pack of rules and regulations. We can loosen up and enjoy a real liberty from mundane regulations and do’s and don’ts.” (Moffitt, “Law, Transgression”)
With brother Woods we concur. If the inaccurate name-calling – legalist – because we revere and try to implement in our lives the Word of God – were to stick, we would wear it proudly as faithful children of God, rather than surrender our faith and confidence in God’s Word. “If it is legalism to insist that every command of Christ should be equally respected and faithfully obeyed, then let us all be legalists! Far better this than to deny the plain affirmations of his word and thus, in effect, to become infidels” (Woods 296).
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