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Just What is Legalism?

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Throughout this chapter, references are made to the legalistic approach of religious authorities who accused Jesus Christ of breaking the Sabbath. But what does the term “legalism” mean? A dictionary definition of legalism is “a strict, literal or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.”

A popular meaning attached to the word today is that any form of biblical law-keeping is legalism and therefore to be avoided. The word is used pejoratively, especially against such practices as keeping the Sabbath or adhering to other laws given in the Old Testament.

However, this use of the word is incorrect. It is not legalistic to obey God’s laws correctly. To be legalistic is to misuse God’s laws in a way never intended.

The Pharisees’ interpretations undermined God’s law

The Pharisees, an excessively strict branch of Judaism whose religious interpretations dominated popular thinking at the time of Christ, were examples of this. They added many of their own humanly devised rules and regulations to God’s laws, which had the effect of misrepresenting and misapplying them.

Their added interpretations of God’s laws so distorted the original purpose that they rendered them ineffective (Matthew 15:6 Matthew 15:6And honor not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have you made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.
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), nullifying them. By following the Pharisees’ interpretations and edicts, the people were no longer following God’s law (John 7:19 John 7:19Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keeps the law? Why go you about to kill me?
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).

This mistaken view of God’s law led many to reject Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah, even though that very law had prophesied of Him (John 5:39-40 John 5:39-40 39 Search the scriptures; for in them you think you have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. 40 And you will not come to me, that you might have life.
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; Luke 24:44 Luke 24:44And he said to them, These are the words which I spoke to you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
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).

This was why Christ so strongly condemned the lack of understanding and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His time. He taught a return to the correct teaching and practice of God’s laws according to their original intent and purpose, and also that He was the promised Messiah.

Paul condemned the perverting of the law

The apostle Paul also wrote extensively against those who would pervert the proper use of God’s law. This is particularly apparent in the book of Galatians. What Paul addressed was not the correct keeping of God’s law, which he himself elsewhere upheld (Romans 3:31 Romans 3:31Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yes, we establish the law.
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; Romans 7:12-14 Romans 7:12-14 12 Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. 13 Was then that which is good made death to me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.
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, Romans 7:22-25 Romans 7:22-25 22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
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), but a claim that justification (the forgiveness and restoration of a sinner to a state of righteousness) could be achieved by circumcision and strict observance of the law.

Some false teachers (Galatians 2:4 Galatians 2:4And that because of false brothers unawares brought in, who came in privately to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage:
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; Galatians 5:10-12 Galatians 5:10-12 10 I have confidence in you through the Lord, that you will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubles you shall bear his judgment, whoever he be. 11 And I, brothers, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offense of the cross ceased. 12 I would they were even cut off which trouble you.
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; Galatians 6:12-13 Galatians 6:12-13 12 As many as desire to make a fair show in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. 13 For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.
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) subverted the Galatian churches by wrongly insisting that circumcision and the keeping of the law were sufficient requirements for justification and salvation, apart from faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul condemned this erroneous teaching, noting that obedience to the law had never made eternal life possible (Galatians 3:21 Galatians 3:21Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness should have been by the law.
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). He made it clear that justification—being made righteous in God’s eyes and thus gaining access to eternal life—is only available through Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16 Galatians 2:16Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
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; Galatians 3:1-3 Galatians 3:1-3 1 O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been evidently set forth, crucified among you? 2 This only would I learn of you, Received you the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh?
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, Galatians 3:10-11 Galatians 3:10-11 10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.
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, Galatians 3:22 Galatians 3:22But the scripture has concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.
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; Galatians 5:1-4 Galatians 5:1-4 1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I Paul say to you, that if you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. 3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect to you, whoever of you are justified by the law; you are fallen from grace.
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).

Paul made it clear that forgiveness of sin requires a sacrifice, and even the strictest observance of the law cannot remove the need for that sacrifice.

However, the law of God remains the righteous standard by which all mankind will be judged (James 2:8 James 2:8If you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you do well:
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, James 2:12 James 2:12So speak you, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
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). The law is not annulled or abolished by faith in Christ (Romans 3:31 Romans 3:31Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yes, we establish the law.
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), as many falsely believe. Instead, said Paul, the law’s proper use is established by faith.

When Solomon concluded that the whole duty of man is to “fear God and keep His commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 Ecclesiastes 12:13Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
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), he expressed the enduring purpose of God for all mankind. The apostle John agreed when he concluded that if we love God we will keep His commandments (1 John 5:3 1 John 5:3For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
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).

Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “sin no more” (John 8:11 John 8:11She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said to her, Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.
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)—in other words, to uphold God’s law! He told the rich young man, who came to Him asking what he could do to have eternal life, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17 Matthew 19:17And he said to him, Why call you me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.
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).

Biblical examples of legalism

So, then, what does the Bible tell us about legalism?

To substitute any humanly devised laws for God’s laws, as the Pharisees did, is legalism.

To rely on keeping any law in the belief that it will make one righteous in God’s eyes, instead of faith in Christ, is legalism.

If all one focuses on is obedience to law apart from the motivation of pleasing God, loving God and loving neighbor, this distorts the purpose of the law (Matthew 22:36-40 Matthew 22:36-40 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like to it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
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; Romans 13:10 Romans 13:10Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
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) and is legalism.

If we believe that any keeping of God’s law can earn our salvation as our deserved reward, we are guilty of legalism.

Technical obedience, or strict obedience to the exact letter of the law while searching for ways to get around the underlying purpose and intent of the law, is legalism.

Proper obedience to God’s law is not legalism

But Jesus Christ and the remainder of the Bible make one thing perfectly clear: Proper obedience to the law of God is not legalism.

After conversion, a Christian is given a much fuller understanding of the purpose and intent of God’s law. He understands the importance of faith in the person and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He is given a more complete understanding of why he is to be obedient. But it remains for him to obey, with God’s help. That is not legalism.

To obey in a proper attitude God’s biblical commands, such as His command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, is not legalism. Don’t allow anyone to deceive you with such a false notion, which is itself a contradiction of Jesus Christ’s own command (Matthew 5:19 Matthew 5:19Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
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).

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