Law and Legalism

H. E. Phillips

Law is: "A general rule of action or conduct established or enforced by a sovereign authority; as, a law of Caesar; a law of God" (Webster's Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged). Webster says of legalism: "Close conformity to law." Law and legalism are not the same. "Law" (nomos) means ". . . anything established, anything received by usage, a custom, usage, law." The New Testament uses the word as "a command, law; . . . of any law whatever". . ."a law or rule producing a state approved of God" (taken from Henry Thayer's Lexicon). It is a rule or principle established by authority.

The law of Christ is his word: the truth by which men are made free (John 8:32). It is that perfect law of liberty which will convert the soul (James 1:25; Psa. 19:7). It is the inspired scriptures that is sufficient to perfect a man unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16,17). The only way this law will make one perfect unto all good works is to obey it. How else could it be done?


"Legalism" has several, different definitions, opinions and views. The word is more often used by those of ultra-liberal attitudes toward the authority of Christ, and obeying all the commandments of God for the remission of sins, worship, etc. Some will deny this conclusion, but hundreds of quotations from books and magazines are available to prove it. Their writings and preaching bewail the idea of "keeping the letter of the law" and conforming to a rigid code of rules to be perfectly obeyed in order to obtain the blessings of salvation promised by God upon obeying him. The nature of law, the purpose of law, and the author of law make little difference to those who shrink from the very idea of obeying divine law. Law keeping, they say, smacks of Phariseeism.

I want to give the definition of "legalism" from one who stands opposed to obeying "a code of rules" for the remission of sins. Harold Key wrote an article in Mission Messenger of February, 1963, under the heading, "The Threat Of Legalism."

What, then, is legalism? Legalism is the attempt to reduce the will of God to a code  to a list of commandments  with the subsequent concentration upon the commandments rather than the God whose will the commandments attempt to express. Legalism is obviously an attempt to be related to God upon the basis of law. It is a legal rather than a personal relationship. It holds the position that justification and eternal life are rewards of fully and correctly doing all that the law requires" (Volume 25, Number 2, page 17). He says further, "Legalism tears the very heart and soul out of the New Covenant" (ibid., page 20).

What if there is no attempt to reduce the will of God to a "codeto a list of commandments"? Take it just as it is! What if there is no attempt to concentrate upon the commandments rather than the will of God? (How could one do that, anyway?) What if one simply obeyed the commandments from the heart, as he must do to obey the will of God? "... but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness" (Rom. 6:17,18). Would that make him a legalist? If yes, what is wrong with that? That is what I am: call me a "legalist." The person who does not obey the law of Christ is under condemnation from the word of God (2 Thess. 1:7-9).

This definition pretends to judge the heart and motive of the one obeying the law of Christ. There is no way to be related to God but by his word his law. One must be born again to be related to God, and that requires obedience in baptism by faith (John 3:3,5; 1 Pet. 1:23).

Robert Meyers edited a book entitled Voices Of Concern, published by Mission Messenger, Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1966. In his Introduction he gave his motive for publishing several articles from men and women who left the church of the Lord. In part he said: "Thousands are restless and dissatisfied with the aridity of exclusivism and authoritarianism. Bright young minds are refusing to be put off with answers that have no more to commend them than the hoary beard of antiquity" (page 3). His goal is: "The book obviously means to urge no one way of religious expression, but to plead from such evidence as is here the need for unity in diversity" (page 5).

The boredom and dissatisfaction of bright young minds to the aridity of the straight and narrow way of Christ (Matt. 7:13,14) does not commend them to the "hoary beard of antiquity" and therefore they turn to freedom of any religious expression that pleases them, and the "unity in diversity" concept of Christianity. That is the reason the author gave for his book. That is rejection of the will of God any way you look at it. These minds do not know God and understand nothing of the "love of God" as revealed in the Bible. If that is the alternative to legalism, I am what they call a "legalist."

One of the writers in Voices Of Concern, was J. P. Sanders. On pages 40 and 41 he says this of legalism:

We have seen that the priest seeks an exact system of faith which can be the basis for the sect, and he seeks it through the authority of the church or the authority of literal Biblical interpretations. This system is a code of requirements, or what is often called "the plan of salvation."

Legalism sees sin as a violation of the written code. The code may or may not have relevance to man's need; it may be simply arbitrary requirements revealed by God. Man's disobedience to these rules becomes an affront to God.

Arrogance is at its best when man claims to decide which of the commands of God he will obey and which he will not obey; which are relevant and which are not. All scriptures of God are relevant to man's needs to make him perfect to all good works (2 Tim. 3:16,17). If the "rules" are from heaven, and they are, disobedience to them is an affront to God. Who will decide which rules of God man can ignore and still please God?

For example, "But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him" (Heb. 11:6). Is this relevant to man now? What if the dissatisfaction of bright young minds to the aridity of the rigid rules of God does not commend them to faith in God, may they freely dispense with this rule and seek "unity in diversity"? Shades of infidelity!

Some, for example, put great emphasis on baptism as "essential to salvation." They do not usually put the same emphasis on forgiving enemies as "essential to salvation"  though Jesus said more about this than about baptism.

This implies that legalism makes baptism "essential to salvation" whereas Jesus gave more emphasis to forgiving one's enemies than to baptism. Baptism is essential to salvation regardless of how much is said about other matters. Of course, the necessary conclusion is that the rigid rule of baptism for the remission of sins must go in order that the bright young minds that seek the freedom of personal choice for their salvation may not be bound by this unnecessary rule. Baptism is a command in the name of Christ (Mark 16:15,16; Acts 10:48). One cannot be saved without obeying in baptism from the heart (Rom. 6:17).

Since legalism holds sin to be a legal violation, it holds salvation to be a legal payment. Man as a sinner must do certain things required of him for forgiveness.. .

This seems to be sarcasm. It is not "legalism" that holds sin to be legal violation, it is God (1 John 3:4). Sin is the transgression of the law. Salvation is not a legal payment. I know of no one who believes or teaches that doctrine. Salvation is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). Faith that saves is faith that works in obedience to the commands of God (James 2:20-26). A sinner must do certain things "required of him for forgiveness" or God's word has no power to save. But it does have such power (Rom. 1:16).

These statements bespeak one thing: Obedience to law is unnecessary to obtain the grace of God for remission of sins. It is evil and the cause of division in the body of Christ, and a barrier against the grace of God. On the other hand, they claim, love will answer the prayer of Christ for unity and make us acceptable to God without obedience to law. You read the works of the apostles of this rebellion against the law of Christ and see if this is not true. That is the crux of what I have read from advocates of liberalism.

Let us understand the meaning of the words "legal" and "legalist" and "legalism." "Legal" means that which is authorized or permitted by law. "Legalism" is that system which holds strict, literal adherence to law. "Legalist" is one who accepts the strict and literal obedience to law. If "legalism" is wrong and evil, all law ought to be rejected, and iniquity is a virtue. Whoever requires obedience to the law of Christ promotes division and fosters callous hearts. That is the consequences of this plea for abandonment of the New Testament law as the revelation from God to save the obedient believer in Jesus Christ.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 1, p. 10-11
January 6, 1994