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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, January 11 2024

Legalism: what it is and isn't

The word ‘legalism’ is often used pejoratively, especially about such practices as keeping the Sabbath or adhering to other laws given in the Old Testament. Many religious authorities believe any attempt to keep God’s laws is legalism, negating grace, but to obey God's biblical commands in a proper attitude, is not legalism.

Legalism: what it is and isn't
Technical or strict obedience to the exact letter of the law while searching for ways to get around the underlying purpose and intent of the law, is legalism.

The Pharisees, an excessively strict branch of Judaism whose religious interpretations dominated popular thinking at the time of Christ, added many humanly devised rules and regulations to God's laws, which had the effect of misrepresenting and misapplying them. In many cases, their added interpretations of God's laws so distorted the original purpose they rendered them ineffective (Matthew 15:6).

This mistaken view of God's law led many to reject Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah, even though that very law had prophesied about Him ( Luke 24:44). This was why Christ so strongly condemned the lack of understanding and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His time. He taught a return to the correct teaching and practice of God's laws according to their original intent and purpose, and also that He was the promised Messiah.

The Apostle Paul wrote extensively against those who would pervert the proper use of God's law. This is apparent in the book of Galatians. What Paul addressed was not the correct keeping of God's law, which he himself upheld (Romans 3:31 and 7:12-25), but a claim that justification (the forgiveness and restoration of a sinner to a state of righteousness) could be achieved by circumcision and strict observance of the law.

Some false teachers (Galatians 2:4 and 6:12-13) subverted the Galatian churches by wrongly insisting circumcision and keeping of the law were sufficient requirements for justification and salvation, apart from faith in and from Jesus Christ. Paul condemned this erroneous teaching, maintaining obedience to the law had never made eternal life possible (Galatians 3:21). He made it clear that justification—being made righteous in God's eyes and thus gaining access to eternal life—is only available through Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16; 3:1-22 and 5:1-4).

The forgiveness of sin requires a sacrifice, and even the strictest observance of the law cannot remove the need for that sacrifice. However, the law of God remains the righteous standard by which all mankind will be judged (James 2:8-12), and is not annulled or abolished by faith in Christ (Romans 3:31), as many falsely believe. Instead, Paul taught, the law's proper use is established by faith.

When Solomon concluded that the whole duty of man is to "fear God and keep His commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:13), he expressed the enduring purpose of God for all mankind. The Apostle John agreed when he concluded that, if we love God, we will keep His commandments (1 John 5:3). Jesus told the woman taken in adultery to "sin no more" (John 8:11)—in other words, to uphold and live by God's law. He also told the rich young man, who asked what he could do to have eternal life, "If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17).

To substitute humanly devised laws for God's laws, as the Pharisees did, is legalism. To rely upon the keeping of any law to make one righteous in God's eyes, instead of faith in Christ, is legalism. If all we focus on is obedience to law apart from being motivated to please and love God and our neighbor, this distorts the purpose of the law (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:10) and is legalism.

If we believe the keeping of God's law can earn our salvation as our reward, we are guilty of legalism. Technical obedience, or strict obedience to the exact letter of the law while searching for ways to get around the underlying purpose and intent of the law, is legalism. However, the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ make it clear proper obedience to the law of God is required of Christians and is not legalism.

After baptism and the receipt of God’s Spirit, (See Why Baptism? BIW#249) a Christian comes to a much fuller understanding of the purpose and intent of God's law, and the importance of having faith in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice. To obey God's biblical commands in a proper attitude, such as His command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, and observe the biblical ordained annual Holy Days is not legalism. (See Are Biblical Holy Days For New Testament Christians? BIW#213).