A Definition of Legalism:
1. Using the Mosaic covenant as though it is the covenant between you and God.
2. Attempting to be justified by one’s own works.
3. Attempting to be sanctified by one’s own works.
4. Suggesting that our worth or worthlessness, our self-esteem and self-satisfaction or lack thereof, rest on our own works.
5. Any attempt to please God judicially, or any supposition that our sin as believers has resulted in his judicial displeasure.
6. Teaching that we conform ourselves to our judicial standing in Christ (righteous and perfect) by our own works.
7. Attempting to attain godliness by a systematic change of behavior.
8. Obedience that does not spring from a renewed heart. As of an unbeliever who has no renewed heart. As of a believer who has a renewed heart but whose righteous behavior does not spring therefrom.
9. Any supposition that externally righteous acts have any value on their own, even as conduct that prepares the way for either.
10. Suggesting that faith is irrelevant in the accomplishment of some (or all) good works.
11. Trying to be justified by works that are created and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
12. Attempting to gain assurance of salvation solely or primarily on the basis of the sign of outward works.
Legalism does not consist in yielding obedience to the law. Rather, it is to seek justification and good standing with God through the merit of works done in obedience to the law – instead of by faith in Christ.
Legalism insists on conformity to manmade religious rules and requirements, which are often unspoken but are nevertheless very real… There are far too many instances within Christendom where our traditions and rules are, in practice, more important than God’s commands.
[We insist that God] must surely lead everyone as we believe He has led us. We refuse to allow God the freedom to deal with each of us as individuals. When we think like that, we are legalistic.
1. Distorting the gospel by adding conditions to free grace: Acts 15:1, 7-11; Gal.1:6-7, 2:11-16, 4:8-11, Gal. 5:2-4; Col. 2:16-17.
2. Substituting man-made regulations for the Word of God: Matthew 15:1-3.
3. Majoring on the minors and neglecting the more important issues: Luke 11:42.
4. Over concern with the externals while disregarding matters of the heart: Matthew 23:27.
5. Regarding with contempt or judging a brother based on matters of personal conviction: Romans 14:1-5.
6. Trusting in ourselves that we are righteous based on religious performance: Luke 18:9-14.
7. Hypocrisy, the leaven of the Pharisees: Luke 11:53-12:1.
Legalism is not:
1. A zeal for the commandments of Christ: Matthew 5:19; 1 Corinthians 7:19.
2. A ministry that teaches others to follow Christ in obedience: Matthew 28:20; 1 Thes.4:1-2.
3. Strong personal convictions (as long as they are not required of others): Romans 14:2, 5.
4. Man-made restrictions for personal protection from sinful habits (as long as we do not begin to view them as binding on others): Romans 13:14; 1 Corinthians 6:12.
5. A zeal for good works: Eph.2:10; Titus 1:16, 2:7, 14, 3:8, 14.
6. Limiting our liberty for the benefit of others: Romans 14:15, 21, 15:2; Acts 16:1-3.
7. Obedience: John 14:15, 23, 15:10; 1 John 2:3-5, 5:2-4.
Legalism makes believers think that God accepts them on the basis of what they do. Licentiousness makes believers think that God does not care what they do. Both errors have terrible spiritual consequences.
Make no laws upon the saints where Christ hath not made any.
Legalism is the teaching that sinners are saved (justified, sanctified, and accepted with God) upon the basis of their own works of legal obedience. Legalism is as damning to the souls of men as Hinduism, Mormonism, and atheism! We are not saved by our obedience to the law of God (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9). We are not sanctified by our obedience to the law of God (Gal. 3:1-3). Our inheritance in heaven is not, to any degree, won or earned by our personal obedience to the law of God (Rev. 7:9, 10, 14, 14). Salvation is, in its entirety, by grace alone. Believers are not, in any sense whatsoever, under the yoke of the law (Rom. 6:14-15; 7:4; 8:1-4; 10:4; Gal. 5:1-4, 18; I Tim. 1:9-11).
Legalism involves seeking forgiveness from God, justification before God, and acceptance by God through obedience to God. Legalism is substituting, in essence, my works for Jesus’ finished work. Legalism is self-atonement and the height of arrogance. It’s living as if the cross of Christ was unnecessary or insufficient.
The implications of legalism are staggering in their arrogance. Legalism claims that the death of Jesus on the cross was either unnecessary or insufficient. It essentially says to God, “Your plan didn’t work. The cross wasn’t enough and I need to add my good works to it to be saved.”
Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. In other words, a legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s approval and forgiveness through personal performance.
Legalism can also be described as false Christianity because that is essentially what it is. It uses Christian language and biblical terms. It sounds evangelical. It loves to use phrases like “evangelism,” “fundamentalism,” “biblical literalism,” and such. It sounds Christian, and looks Christian, but it is emphatically not true Christianity. It as a spurious fake, an imitation Christianity, an empty, hollow counterfeit of the real thing. It is a burdensome drag upon the spiritual life that creates a sense of bondage and guilt. It is a sickening, nauseating fraud in the eyes of others. God describes it in the Scriptures as a stench in his nostrils. That is what legality really is (Ray Stedman).
I’m baffled continually at how easily Christian people treat as moral law those things that God has neither forbidden nor required. Some feel an irresistible urge to speak loudly whenever the Bible is silent. They find the ethical stipulations of Scripture inadequate for living the Christian life and feel compelled to supplement the Word of God with countless little do’s and dont’s that they are persuaded are essential to winning God’s favor and blessing.
Legalism itself comes in two forms. On the one hand are those legalists who insist on obedience to the law, especially their law, as a condition for acceptance with God. To be saved one must submit to rules and regulations, sometimes biblical ones, sometimes not. But at the heart of this variety of legalism is the idea that works are a condition for justification… The other kind of legalist may well affirm salvation by grace through faith, but demands that others submit to his image of what constitutes true spirituality. Invariably he or she sets extra-biblical guidelines, identifies morally proscribed activities, and then severely judges those who fail to measure up.
Legalism is the tendency to regard as divine law things which God has neither required nor forbidden in Scripture and the corresponding inclination to look with suspicion on others for their failure or refusal to conform.
Legalism…is essentially any attempt to improve on what God has done for us by adding things that we do for Him… It is any attempt to earn approval from God with our imperfect actions, rather than accepting and being pleased with the approval that He freely offers us because Jesus has earned it for us with his perfect sacrifice. Legalism is always doomed to failure because we are imperfect and the God that we seek to impress is perfect. It robs us of peace and joy.
Legalism is the improper emphasis on works in our relationship to God. It focuses on the manifestations of spirituality that can be measured by number, frequency, duration, amount, and so forth. No one has the authority to force upon themselves or anyone else external measurements of spirituality that have no scriptural basis.