The exact word “legalism” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. "Legalism" is a term Christians use to describe an adherence to a manmade system of rules and regulations one must follow to receive salvation, righteousness, or spiritual maturity. Legalism boils down to following a list of "to-dos" and avoiding a list of "don'ts" to earn God's favor.
This is just the kind of thing most of the Pharisees got in trouble with Jesus about...repeatedly (Matthew 9:14; 15:1–9; 23:5; 23:16, 23; Luke 11:42). Jesus applied the condemnation of Isaiah 29:13 to the Pharisees when He said, “Their teachings are merely human rules” (Mark 7:7).
Legalism is the exact opposite of the grace God has granted us through Christ. Before Jesus sacrificed Himself for us, God’s people were given laws to follow. Think, the Ten Commandments—but a BUNCH more. We can find these laws in the Old Testament, and, at that time, God’s people were to follow these laws, otherwise they would be considered unclean or to have fallen short of God’s standard of holiness.
After Jesus' life and sacrifice, the time of needing to strictly follow God's laws for His approval ended. Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life, following all of God's rules perfectly FOR us, thus fulfilling the requirement we could never attain (Matthew 5:17; Romans 10:4). God grants us grace for our sin through Jesus' sacrifice and because of our faith in His great love for us (Ephesians 2:8-9; John 3:16-17).
God wants to protect us from harm; that's the whole point of everything that's considered a "rule" in the Bible. Think of sin as the things that cause us harm—whether physically, emotionally, relationally, or spiritually. God knows what's healthy and unhealthy for us. In a way, God's laws are in the Bible to help us learn how to live our best lives in a way that glorifies Him and matures our faith.
When we look at God's laws today, we should combine them with the knowledge of who Christ is and how He lived His life. When we take all these things into consideration, we'll find that the Bible is like our "Guidebook to Being Human," complete with examples of both healthy and unhealthy behavior (Galatians 3:24).
Often, those who adhere to legalistic standards don't even know they're doing it. Some may have a misunderstanding of God's grace. Some may have been taught legalistic standards. Some may feel there's a checklist of things Christians can and cannot do, and that the more "can" boxes they check, the more holy they become. That said, just because someone adheres to legalism, that doesn't mean there's no hope. Even genuine believers may mistakenly feel the need to follow a legalistic faith.
However, the truth is that our salvation is not dependent on what we do or don’t do. Rather, our salvation is a gracious and loving gift from God, received through faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior from the punishment of sin (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Now, just because we don't have to follow those lists, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to do things that please God—of course we should! And our motivation to please God should come from a place of love for Him and a genuine desire to serve Him—not because we feel we're required to do so. Do you see the difference?
The Apostle Paul warns of legalism in Colossians 2:20-23 when he tells us, “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
While those who adhere to legalist practices tend to appear more righteous or religious, they're missing the point of God’s intention for His children. God's desire is for His sons and daughters to become more like Jesus Christ from the inside out—not just as a show of pious performance on the outside.
One of the biggest traps of legalism is an increased tendency to judge others based on the standards the legalist has put in place for themselves, rather than considering the other person's circumstances, experiences, morals, or convictions. A legalistic faith leaves no room for God's grace—either for the legalist or for other believers.
Judging believers based on things that are not essential doctrine or condemning others for differing personal convictions instead of extending grace, understanding, and love (Romans 14:4, 10) breaks down any chance at unity within the church or among brothers and sisters of Christ (John 17:20-23; James 2:13). When it comes to essential doctrine vs. heresy, it's OK to talk about those disagreements, doing so with love and grace and always referring to the truths and wisdom of the Bible (Ephesians 4:15; Jude 3).
Being a rule keeper, checking those boxes, and judging others based on unrealistic standards may grant a sense of righteousness or make us feel like we're helping others in their faith. But that kind of behavior is actually NOT what God endorses. To think we can exclusively live by the law is to allow thoughts of sin to dominate us. Yet Paul reminds us that we live under God's grace in Romans 6:14, "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace."
God has great grace for His sons and daughters when they sin. We ought to have grace for others in the same way. It's not our job to pay penance for our sin—nor to make others pay for theirs. All sin has been paid for by Jesus Christ, and we can rest in that grace (Colossians 2:13-14). When we do, we’ll find it easier to please the Lord out of love and to extend love to each other.
When we let go of spiritual checklists and the fear of messing up, when we allow ourselves and others the fullness of God's grace, we will be so much more powerful and effective for God's Kingdom.
"Legalism" is a term Christians use to describe an adherence to a manmade system of rules and regulations one must follow to receive salvation, righteousness, or achieve spiritual maturity. Legalism often means following a list of "to-dos" and avoiding a list of "don'ts" to earn God's favor. The truth is that our salvation is not dependent on what we do or don’t do. Rather, our salvation is a gracious and loving gift from God, received through faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior from the punishment of sin (John 3:15-17; Ephesians 2:8-9). Legalism is the exact opposite of the grace God has granted us through Christ.
Stephanie is a 21-year old with a passion to see believers grow and become passionate in their relationship with the Lord. She is a lover of sweat tea, sunshine, and the freedom that comes from Christ. In her free time, she can be found singing, playing guitar, writing or jamming out to Hawk Nelson, Phil Wickham, and worship music. Her dreams are to become a worship leader and a published author, while living a life full of fun and joy that comes from the Lord.
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two teenage kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.