Legality or Legalism Encyclopedia

Legality or Legalism. This term refers to the error of putting oneself or others under a legal standard as a rule for justification or practical holiness before God or man. Legality takes several different forms, but all the forms have a few things in common. Legality involves putting man under a legal standard, it makes man the focus rather than Christ, and it produces spiritual bondage and death. The New Testament epistles refute many errors, but none more extensively than the error of legality.
 
Various Types of Legality. The error of legality or legalism manifests itself in various ways, and some are more serious than others, although they do often occur together.
  1. Keeping Law for Justification. The first and most serious form of legality is that of teaching that Christians must keep the law (of Moses, or any other legal standard) in order to be justified (declared righteous) before God. What makes this so serious is that it puts the soul before God on the wrong basis, and gives false hope of acceptance. Our salvation is “by grace”, “through faith”, and “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). God will never accept any person on the basis of their own works, and therefore trusting in the law for justification has eternal consequences. “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The law can never justify, only condemn.
  2. Adding Law to Grace for Justification. We have an example of this form of legality in Acts 15, where the error being taught was for Gentile converts, “except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). It was not the ten commandments (the “moral law”), but the ceremonial law that the Judaizing teachers insisted on (i.e. circumcision). In Galatians Paul shows that the ceremonial law and the moral law are inseparably linked. You can’t put yourself under just one part of the law; “And I witness again to every man who is circumcised, that he is debtor to do the whole law” (Gal. 5:3). The same error is prevalent today, although in different forms. Even though we don’t often see Jewish ceremonialism today, we do see similar errors copied over in Christianity. For instance, the Catholic teaching that a person must be baptized to be saved, or take the Lord’s Supper to be saved. The point is, by adding or mixing law with grace, it puts the soul on the principle of law.
  3. Keeping Law for Practical Holiness. There are some who realize that justification is on the basis of grace and through faith alone, but they put themselves under law in order to achieve a status of practical holiness; i.e. practical sanctification. The Galatians were guilty of this as well as adding law to grace. This form of legality in practice involves having a legal standard (list of rules) that one lives under, and thinking that obeying those rules will free them from sin in their lives and give them a clear conscience before God. Legality tends to make a person look inward, constantly measuring their behavior against the legal standard. There are two outcomes of this form of legality:
    • Hopelessness and Destruction. We find in Romans 7 a soul under law seeking deliverance from sin, but finding that the law only makes sin exceeding sinful (Rom. 7:13). This produces a condition of hopelessness and despair, and leads to a perpetual state of unhappiness. It will inevitably lead to all kinds of other sin, destruction of relationships, etc. The law will never produce practical holiness, but instead it will produce more sin (Rom. 7:5), tend toward spiritual death (2 Cor. 3:6), and stunt a believer’s spiritual growth (Heb. 5:12). God has a different way of producing practical holiness; i.e. through the power of the Spirit of God and through occupation with Christ!
    • Pride and Self-occupation. Legality of this sort in the long term tends toward a law that is largely concerned with what is external and superficial, because it allows the flesh to still act while maintaining a religious exterior. This produces religious pride and makes a person extremely image-conscious.
  4. Forcing a Law on Others. This takes place when a person takes a standard that God has not given and imposes it on others. When we add something from man to the Word of God, or even take something that just goes a step beyond scripture and legislate it as a commandment, we fall into this type of legality. It leads to the development of a religious form. This is extremely dangerous because it binds the consciences of others in the name of God, but apart from the Word of God. This type of legality can come from two sources:
    • The Tyranny of the Legal Teacher. A legal teacher will often act as a tyrant, forcing his standards on others. This effort to exert control over the saints is often done for selfish reasons. We have an example of this in Galatia, where the Judaizing teachers were putting the Gentile believers under law in order to gain a following; “they wish you to be circumcised, that they may boast in your flesh” (Gal. 6:13). In Corinth, the Judaizers were after their money (2 Cor. 11:20). However, sometimes this is done with good intentions, such as believing it will make the saints more godly. The Judaizers desired to be “law-teachers”, but did not really understand the purpose of the law; “not understanding either what they say or concerning what they so strenuously affirm” (1 Tim. 1:6-7). They were using the law for the wrong purpose! Acting as a legal tyrant is never right, even when done with good intentions.
    • The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother. In Romans 14 we have the principle clearly set forth that those who are “strong” in the faith ought to bear with the “weak” in the sense of not belittling them for their extra-biblical convictions, and not flaunting their liberty before those who have a conscience about such things. However, a situation can arise when the “weak” brother begins to insist that others share his extra-biblical conviction. In this way, the weak brother becomes a legal tyrant over the faith of others. In such a case, those who care for the saints must put a stop to this influence. It is especially important that those in a place of leadership not cave in to the mandates of a tyrant. It was because of Peter’s weakness in the presence of those who came from James that he later had to be publicly rebuked by Paul (Gal. 2).
  5. Compliance with the Bare Minimum. Another form of legality is when a person is looking to technically meet the requirements of scripture, but the heart is not engaged. It is a legal spirit that is manifest when someone asks, “How can I do the bare minimum?” This is why looseness or worldliness is really just a different form of legality. The “bar” is just lower in the case of a loose Christian. On the surface legality and worldliness appear completely opposite. But it is important to understand that legality is really part of the principles of the world.

    Paul speaks of "the elements of the world" (Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:20), which are the principles that the world operates on. The world operates on the principle of works, not grace; e.g. in the world you need to have a contract to get paid for your work. The world also operates on the principle of self-exaltation (Matt. 20:25). Those principles are “weak and beggarly” (Gal. 4:8-9), because they pertain to the first man, and because we have far higher motivations in Christianity. Notice that in Galatians 4:3 the bondage of Judaism and in Galatians 4:9 the bondage of Pagan idolatry are both called called the “principles of the world”. The bondage of the world is on the same principle as the bondage of the law, only in a different form! When souls drift away from Christ, they often go toward one of the two errors; legality or worldliness. But the truth is that both are the elements of the world.

  6. Service with a Legal Motive. Another form of legality creeps in when we begin to serve God on a legal basis, with a legal motive. We have an example of this in the parable of the laborers of the vineyard (Matt. 19:1-16). The earlier workers contracted their service for a certain amount; they wanted to work based on a legal arrangement. Their legal spirit was later manifested by discontent. Those who came later in the day all served in faith – without a contract – trusting that the householder would do right by them. The Lord wants us to serve because we love Him, not because we believe we will get a certain reward, whether in this life (a wrong premise altogether) or even in that which is to come. Reward at the bema (judgement) seat is put forward as an encouragement to one who is in the pathway of service, but there is a danger that we might labor for the purpose of getting a reward. Instead, what should constrain the believer to serve is appreciation for the love of Christ!
  7. The Law of “Bare Minimum”. A more subtle form of legality exists when a believer is in a carnal state, and appeases his conscience by doing “the bare minimum”, in his own mind. We must understand that the worldly mindset is, in the underlying principle, the same as a legal person’s, only the worldly person is under a lower standard. The heart is not constrained by the love of Christ. They are trying to manage a balance between gratifying the flesh while “technically” complying with the directives of scripture. This is coupled with the attitude that seeks to do only what is absolutely necessary, and nothing more!
Legality vs. Worldliness? On the surface legality and worldliness appear completely opposite. But it is important to understand that legality is really part of the principles of the world.

Paul speaks of "the elements of the world" (Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:20), which are the principles that the world operates on. The world operates on the principle of works, not grace; e.g. in the world you need to have a contract to get paid for your work. The world also operates on the principle of self-exaltation (Matt. 20:25). Those principles are “weak and beggarly” (Gal. 4:8-9), because they pertain to the first man, and because we have far higher motivations in Christianity. Notice that in Galatians 4:3 the bondage of Judaism and in Galatians 4:9 the bondage of Pagan idolatry are both called called the “principles of the world”. The bondage of the world is on the same principle as the bondage of the law, only in a different form! When souls drift away from Christ, they often go toward one of the two errors; legality or worldliness. But the truth is that both are the elements of the world.

 
 
Legality vs. Grace. In the New Testament the principles of legality and grace are contrasted, especially in the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. Numerous contrasts are made:
 
  Legality Grace
Gal. 2:21; 6:14 Sets aside the work of the cross Glories in the cross
Gal. 4:29; 5:11 Appeals to the flesh Persecuted by the flesh
Gal. 4:16; 6:1 Hardens the heart towards others Makes us willing to restore a fallen brother
Gal. 5:19-21; Tit. 2:12 Produces more works of the flesh Teaches us to live holy
Rom. 8:1-4 Puts one under the law, but does not give the power to fulfil it Does not put one under law, but causes one to automatically fulfill the righteous requirement of the law
2 Cor. 3:3,18 Strives for an outward change through regulation Changes from the inside out by transformation
Phil. 3:4; Eph. 1:6 Looks inward to self for proof of acceptance Looks upward at Christ, an object in heaven, for proof of acceptance
 
What does legality look like? We all have a tendency to be legal because legality and the flesh are suited to one another, and our hearts are very deceiving. In Col. 2:21-23 Paul gives a number of things that mark a system of ordinances that constitute legality: a list of rules governing the outward behavior, a focus on temporal and earthly things, authority derived from the word of man such as “traditions” that set aside God’s Word, an appearance of super-godliness, and a system that is satisfying to the flesh.
 
Convictions. A conviction, for the purpose of this article, is the belief that a specific behavior or action is right or wrong for oneself, even if there isn’t a specific command about it in scripture. It involves the conscience being bound to take a certain course of action. 
  • Biblical convictions are conclusions drawn from the principles of scripture. Having these does not mean a Christian is “weak” in the faith. In fact, having these convictions is normal and healthy. This is normally what we refer to when we say ‘convictions’.
  • Extra-biblical convictions are not based on scripture. These are usually artifacts that remain when a person is saved out of a legal background, such as Judaism. A person with these convictions is comparatively “weak”, and as they mature in the faith, those convictions will fall away. Romans 14 addresses this in detail!
Biblical convictions are a very normal part of Christian life. Having convictions means that the principles of the Word apply in our lives practically. An example of a conviction would be the following: scripture says that women should dress modestly (1 Tim. 2:9), and therefore a sister is convicted that she should not wear certain clothing (fill in the blank) in public. This is totally normal and healthy. However, an obsession with our convictions, especially about superficial things, is not healthy (Heb. 13:9). Sometimes carnal or worldly Christians will label those with Biblical convictions as “legal”, and this is a serious misjudgment. On the other hand, we need to be careful not to judge another who doesn’t share our convictions.
 
When it comes to teaching others, it can be helpful to share our convictions as an example, but we must guard against teaching our convictions as if they were the Word of God. To do so would be to fall into legality. We are to teach the Word of God, not the word of man. We must “learn … the lesson of not letting your thoughts go above what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). There is everything right and nothing wrong with convictions, unless we (1) make them a rule for acceptance before God, (2) make them a standard for godliness, or (3) legislate them upon others.
 
Common Misconceptions about Legality. There are many false ideas about legality:
  • Practical exhortations and warnings are legal. The New Testament is full of warnings and practical exhortations, and it would be preposterous to accuse the inspired writings of Paul, for example, of legality. Paul instructed Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” (2 Timothy 4:2).
  • Legality is the same thing as obedience. This is totally false. As creatures of God we are responsible to obey Him. This is not legality. In fact, obedience to the Word of God is the highest expression of our love to Him (John 14:15). The great difference between legality and obedience is in the motive. Why am I doing what I am doing? The legalist obeys in order to get something, whether it be acceptance or reward. The liberated believer obeys because he wants to please the Lord; i.e. he is constrained by the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14). Sometimes people will excuse their disobedience by claiming to walk in grace. But one who walks in grace will walk in obedience to the Word of God.
  • Having convictions means a person is legal. Not at all. Having Biblical convictions is normal and healthy. It becomes legality when we push those convictions on others as a legal standard. On the other hand, a Christian without any convictions may very well be spiritually asleep (Eph. 5:14).
  • How can legality be bad if God used it for blessing in the Old Testament? God never used the legal principle for blessing. Galatians 3:18 shows that, all the way back to Abraham, the promise was given “in grace” to him. That is, the basis of God’s promises is not man’s faithfulness, but God’s sovereign goodness. Promise has always been by grace. Law was never part of it.
  • It can’t hurt to be a little bit legal. We need to be aware that legality is a hindrance to the working of the Spirit of God in our lives (Rom. 7), and that it produces spiritual death (2 Cor. 3:6). If we understand this we will see that any legality is bad. 
  • As Christianity grows weaker, we need to be more legal to keep things from slipping. In 2 Timothy when Christianity had taken a real turn for the worse, and many believers in Asia were abandoning Paul and his doctrine, Paul tells Timothy to be strong. At times like this there can be a tendency to be strong in something else, perhaps the law, when we see things slipping morally (Heb. 13:9). But Paul tells Timothy to “be strong in the grace which is in Christ Jesus”. This means to have an appreciation for the grace of God, and the place of favor in which the believer stands, not through our own efforts, but by virtue of our standing “in Christ Jesus”.
Conclusion. When we consider what the Word of God has to say about legality, we find that it is condemned in all its forms. Some forms of legality are more obvious, others are more insidious. We must see that the Christian’s responsibility is to follow the instructions given allegorically in Galatians 4:21-31, to “cast out the bondwoman and her son”. The bondwoman (Hagar) represents the law, and her son (Ishmael) represents the flesh, which desires to be under the law. In order to be free of legality we need to do both. We need to reject the legal principle (Gal. 5:1), but we also need to crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts (Galatians 5:24). The Galatians had fallen into both: they had a legal system of rules, and the flesh was at liberty. But there are two other dangers as well; we are to  “cast out the bondwoman and her son”. If we keep a legal standard while trying to suppress the flesh (cast out the son, but not the bondwoman) we have gained nothing. If we reject the list of rules but relish the lusts of the flesh (cast out the bondwoman, but not the son) we have gained nothing. The only path for us is to live as “children of the free woman”. We are called to “stand fast in liberty” (Gal. 5:1) and to “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16). It is grace that saves us, and it is grace that keeps us in holiness before the Father’s face!
 
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.
 
Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
And Grace will lead us home.1
  1. Newton, John. Amazing Grace! Hymns of Faith #200