What is Legalism?

The word “legalism” is most often used in a religious context and it usually refers to somebody who attaches undue importance to minor details in his religious practices. This kind of legalism was perfectly exemplified in the behaviour of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. (Matt 15:1-2)
Of course, the word “legalism,” is applied in different ways and with different understanding by different people, because we don’t all agree on what is major and what is minor in terms of our religion. However, the word itself also suggests another meaning which can be applied in such a way that we don’t have to be confused about what we really mean when we speak of “legalism.”
“Legalism” is derived from the word, “legal,” which of course refers to what is acceptable according to constituted law. Legal-ism therefore in its simplest definition signifies the method, or the way which is based on legal law. When applied to religion, it signifies an approach to life which focuses on the law as the foundation of our religion.

Good Legalism
First of all let us note that legalism is not necessarily bad. It is usually a good idea to be legalistic where the laws of a country are concerned. Being legalistic about driving within the speed limit will save us from getting a ticket, but more importantly, it is a safer way that reduces accidents and deaths! Even in religion, there was a time when it was good for God’s people to be legalists. When God gave the law to Israel at Mount Sinai it was accompanied by strict details about how they were to behave in almost every aspect of their lives. The law covered issues such as how to cook a baby goat, what to do if one found a bird’s nest, and even rules about going to the bathroom! God’s people were required to be legalistic in their approach to these rules, meaning that any deviation from what was commanded was frowned upon by God and in some cases could even mean a death sentence! Their lives were to be governed by the rule of the written, legal law in every respect. This was legalism, but it was God who instituted the system and in the context of the people God was dealing with and the time in which they lived, this legalism was good, because it was exactly what was needed in those circumstances.

But what about in our lives as Christians, why does legalism now carry a negative implication?

Two kinds of law
Let us remind ourselves that there are two kinds of law which govern life. The first kind of law is the laws which we refer to as “legal laws. These laws consist of rules laid down by a governing authority, whether by God, or by human governments. These kinds of law are present in many different situations such as our families, our work places, our clubs and institutions etc. Basically they are the framework in which human beings operate in their association with others. These laws function by requiring us to behave in a certain way and there are always penalties attached to these legal laws. If someone disobeys them he will suffer the penalty if his disobedience is discovered. The police, or whoever is in authority will see to it that the penalties are carried out.
The other kind of law governing life is natural law, consisting of principles of nature. Examples of these are the laws of physics, chemistry and the spiritual world, they consist of elements built into nature which require us to behave in a certain way. If we break these laws, there are also repercussions, but these repercussions are the consequences caused by natural forces, they are not penalties carried out by a governing authority. It is because of these natural laws why we don’t put our hand in boiling water, we don’t jump from a height of 50 feet, we don’t try to run through a stone wall. We know the consequences, so we don’t disobey those laws, unless we want to die or be badly injured.

The Bible teaches us that both these laws, legal and natural laws, are involved in religious experience. The question is, how are they involved and how should a Christian relate to them?

Three laws
In Romans chapters 7 and 8, the apostle Paul speaks of three laws which are involved in religious experience. One of these laws is a legal law, and the other two are natural laws. He refers to these three laws as:
The law of sin
The law of God
The law of the spirit

I find then A LAW, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in THE LAW OF GOD after the inward man: 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. (Rom 7:21-23)

The first law he mentions is the one of which he says, “I find then a law.” This is the law which he refers to as “the law of sin which is in my members.” This law is not a legal law, it is a law of nature, it is a natural law which exists in the carnal man, or the natural man. Nobody instructs him to behave in this way, there is no legal requirement, it is something built into his nature. When he wants to do good, he finds himself doing evil, this is the way this law of sin works and as I said, it is a law of nature, it is not a legal law.

The second law he mentions is “the law of God,” which he also refers to as “the law of my mind.” He says that he delights in this law, meaning that he sees it as something good and desires to be in harmony with it. His mind appreciates and understands it and he wants to obey it. This of course refers to the legal law of the Ten Commandments. This is not a natural law, it is not something which his nature automatically does (unlike the first law). This is a law that he must first learn (with his mind), he must read it and learn its instructions, then he must try to obey it. It is also a law, but it operates in a different way than the first law.
Let us notice that the first law, the law of nature is stronger than the legal law. Although he wants to obey the legal law, the law of sin in his body is too strong. He finds himself obeying the law of sin and not the law of God. In fact, in verse 12 he says, “I am sold under sin.” He describes himself as being a slave to sin! The laws of nature are always stronger than legal laws. Legal law can be ignored or disobeyed, but the laws of nature are irresistible.
But in chapter 8 Paul goes on to speak of the third law which describes a way to escape from the law of sin. A person is not compelled to be a slave of sin all his life.
for THE LAW OF THE SPIRIT of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from THE LAW OF SIN and death. (Rom 8:2)

This third law is referred to as “the law of the spirit of life,” and it set him free from the law of sin. The law of God, (the legal law of the commandments) could not accomplish this deliverance from sin because it is a legal law, and legal law cannot overcome natural law! Natural law can only be overcome by another natural law and this is what God has done for us, he has provided another law of nature to cancel the first one, the law of sin. This law of deliverance is the law of the spirit of life. God gives us the spirit of Christ in our hearts which is the experience of being born again. We receive a new spirit which puts the old nature to death and delivers us from the power of sin. The law of sin no longer controls our lives but instead, the law of the spirit rules in us. Now it is not only that our minds desire to do good, but it is also the natural way of our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin, but we are slaves to righteousness in a free and natural way!
When we understand this distinction between legal and natural law, and understand that God’s way of deliverance and salvation through Christ is through a new, natural law, then we can see why seeking to serve God through the legal law of the commandments is a useless endeavour. Let us remember that there was nothing wrong with the legal law of the commandments, the real problem was that it could not solve the problem of the law of sin and therefore, as a tool for preventing sin, it was useless. With this understanding in mind, let us now examine some of the more difficult passages concerning the law in the New Testament and see what they really mean.

Letter vs Spirit
In 2 Corinthians 3:6, the apostle Paul speaks of the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant and he explains that the difference lies in the way we relate to the law.
Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. (2Cor 3:6)
He explains that the New Covenant is “not of the letter, but of the spirit.” What is he really referring to? The verse which follows makes it clear that he is speaking of the law, but the question is, which law?
But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? (2Cor 3:7-8)
When he refers to the letter, he is speaking of what was “written and engraven in stones,” therefore he is referring to the legal law of the commandments. As we saw earlier on, this law is helpless in the task of overcoming the law of sin. It requires right doing, but it cannot provide any help. This law is the foundation of the Old Covenant, a set of rules requiring obedience which could not accomplish what it demanded. This is why Paul refers to it as “the ministration of death,” it condemned a person to death for disobedience and that was all it could do.
But Paul says, “the spirit giveth life.” (as opposed to the letter which kills). This is another kind of ministry and it is the ministry of the New Covenant. This ministry is the work of the spirit, not the legal law, and we have already seen that the “law of the spirit of life” is a natural law. It is the law of Christ whereby he places a new spirit within us which NATURALLY produces the fruit of righteousness within us. So the spirit gives life. What we see then is that Paul is contrasting legal law with natural law and he refers to legal law as “the letter,” and he refers to the natural law as “the spirit.” One was written on stone, the other is written in the heart, one condemns to death, the other produces life, one induces continual failure, the other continuous victory. Both these laws focus on producing righteousness, but one only demands it, while the other fulfils it.
As we read through the New Testament and especially the writings of Paul, we need to constantly keep this understanding in our minds because it will greatly enhance our comprehension of what Paul is saying. Whenever he speaks of the law in a negative way, he is referring to the written law, the letter, the commandments written on stone and he does not say they are bad, but he says they are bad as a way of dealing with sin because in that context, they are completely hopeless. So with this understanding we can see why a legalist, somebody who approaches God from the perspective of the legal law, is bound to have continual failure in his religious experience.

Not under the law
Now we can understand what Paul means when he says that Christians are “not under the law.”
But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. (Gal 5:18)
This verse is no longer difficult to understand. To be led of the spirit means to have the spirit of Christ within and to have the “law of the spirit of life” working in our lives. If this is true, then we are being controlled by natural law and therefore, we are not under the legal law of the commandments. In other words, it is not the legal law that governs our behaviour, but the natural law of the spirit. We are looking at two different systems of government; it is either to be governed by legal law – the commandments, or to be governed by natural law – the spirit. Paul says that if we are governed by the spirit, then we are not under (governed by) the law (the legal law). This is perfectly in harmony with all that Paul teaches elsewhere in his writings, it is clear that Christians cannot be under the government of the legal law because Paul tells us plainly,
Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, (1Tim 1:9)
If we are still sinners, still carnal, without the spirit of Christ dwelling in us, then the law of the commandments still dominates our lives. It is the only way to restrain our evil behavior and it helps to prove to us that we are helpless to do good. But in Christ we do not need this government of the legal law because we have been set free from sin’s dominion.
For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Rom 6:14)
To be under the law means to be governed by the letter, to be governed by the commandments and as we have seen, under that government the law of sin dominates your life. You have no power over sin. But Paul says, this is not to be, sin shall not dominate your life, why? Because you are not governed by legal law, but by natural law! You are under grace! You are governed by the spirit which is the gift of God’s grace, so sin cannot dominate your life because the person that is born of God does not live under sin’s dominion. Christ in you destroys the power of sin (1 John 3:9)! It becomes clear then that what God’s people really need is to be delivered from the government of the letter and to come under the government of the spirit. This is exactly what Christ has done for us under the new covenant.

Delivered from the law
But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. (Rom 7:6)
We are “delivered from the law,” praise God! We are delivered from the government of the law and Paul explains what he means. This deliverance means that we do not serve God in the “oldness of the letter.” We do not serve by way of the commandments, we are not directed or controlled by the legal law, we are not legalists. We serve in “newness of spirit.” That is, we are controlled, dominated by, governed by the spirit of Christ and operate on the natural law of the spirit of life. The thing that held us a captive to sin (the carnal nature) has been put to death by Christ and we now walk with him in newness of spirit. This is why we are no longer legalists, we do not serve God in the way of legal law, but in the way of spiritual law.

End of the law
Our relationship with the law has ended. First of all there was the question of, “how can we overcome the sin of the carnal nature?” We saw that God set us free by delivering us from the government of the letter, and placing us under the government of the spirit. We have been set free from the dominion of both sin and the law. But there is also the question of, “how are we made acceptable to God? What about the record of our past sins, and what if we happen to fall into sinful behaviour, what then?” In such a case, does not the law come back into the picture?
In Romans 10:4 Paul shows us that such a thing is not in God’s plan. There is one way of righteousness before, during and after a person becomes a Christian. There is one way and one way only and it is not the legal law.
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. (Rom 10:4)
The word, “end” is an interesting word. It can mean, “goal,” “purpose,” or, “termination.” But all of these meanings apply to what Paul is saying about the law here. Of course one purpose of the law was to point people to Christ. In Romans 7:7 Paul says that it was the law that made him aware that he was a sinner. Without this awareness a person will feel no need of Christ, so one purpose or goal of the law was to direct people to Christ or to make sinners aware of their need of Christ. However, Christ is also the end of the law in the sense that he brings it to an end, he terminates it. First of all it is terminated as a governing agency in the life of the person who has found Christ as we have already seen. In Christ, we are not under the law. But notice that the verse says he is the end of the law FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS. In other words, as far as righteousness is concerned, as far as our acceptance with God is concerned, the law has come to an end. In the establishing and maintaining of our relationship with God, the law has no place, its involvement has come to an end. Under the old covenant, it had been understood that the way of being right with God was to obey all the commandments.
And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us. (Deut 6:25)
It was acceptance by works. Failure to keep the commandments even in the slightest degree meant that a person could not be accepted by God, it meant that he was never going to be in a right relationship with God. The only way to be right with God, if a person took the way of the commandments, was to do every single one of them perfectly, without failing in the slightest degree. As James says, if we offend in one point, we are guilty of all (James 2:10)! This is why we are told in Galatians 3:10, that those who try to relate to God through the law are cursed!
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. (Gal 3:10)
But now, under the New Covenant, Christ has brought that system to an end. It is terminated, abolished, it does not exist anymore. “Christ is the end of the law FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS!” As far as being right with God is concerned, Christ has abolished the law. Instead of obedience to the law being our righteousness, instead of our performance producing righteousness, there is a new and perfect, living way.
For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2Cor 5:21)
This is not just an idea that we are forcing into the Scriptures, this is something which the Bible is very forceful in declaring. It is not just that God has given us the gift of righteousness in Christ, there is also the emphasis that in this righteousness, the law has been eliminated! The legal law has nothing to do with this new covenant process of righteousness, it has been completely eliminated. Paul emphasizes that this righteousness is WITHOUT THE LAW.
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; (Rom 3:21)

All things lawful
Now we come to what may be the most difficult, of all the statements that Paul has made concerning the law. Yet from the perspective of what we have already examined, it becomes easy to understand.

All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. (1Cor 6:12)
Paul says that for him (and for all Christians) ALL THINGS ARE LAWFUL! What are the implications of this? It means that it is lawful to steal, to kill, to commit adultery, to break the Sabbath etc.!!! At the same time he adds, “but I will not be brought under the power of any.” In other words he is saying, “I am free to do whatever I choose to do as far as the law is concerned, but I will not allow any sinful behaviour to have power over me.” How can he say that he is free to break the law? How can he say that “all things are lawful,” is this true? It is absolutely true! The point he is making is that the legal law of the commandments has been removed from our experience as Christians, God does not relate to Christians through legal law anymore. So as far as the law is concerned, it cannot speak to me, it cannot control what I do, it has no authority over my life! For the person in Christ, all things are lawful! Does it mean that I will now live a life of carnality? No, of course not! I am now directed and led by the spirit of Christ within, which leads me in a higher way of righteousness than the commandments even could describe. So, as Paul says, “I will not be brought under the power of any.” But this has nothing to do with the government of the commandments, it has everything to do with Christ governing me from within.

(Source: David Clayton from Restoration Ministry)