LEGALISM

A Smoke Screen

It has become common to hear preachers denounce those who up-hold standards by calling them  "Legalists".  


A preacher from California recently cried out while preaching on Galatians 5:1-5, "I hate legalism."  But he was referring to those who preach about standards for living.  Another chided  preachers for making such a big deal over "regional convictions."
 

If I am again something they are not, I am branded a legalist.  But "legalism" has also become an excuse to circumvent the Word of God.  


A phrase often used by those who think right and wrong is simply a matter of personal choice is, "I'm not convicted about it yet."  Statements like this sound spiritual and may please the ears of those who have been wanting to indulge in things Christians have stood against for years, but they demonstrate a lack of Bible knowledge concerning the Law and its importance to the child of God.
 

The dictionary defines legalism as a "strict, literal or excessive conformity to the law."  However, theological legalism has a different definition.  


Theological legalism is a strict adherence to the Law as a means to be saved or to keep saved.  Simply, any addition to works by man to the finished work of Christ to bring or keep salvation is legalism.  The upholding of standards that are in conformity with the Word of God is not legalism.
 

The Scriptures clearly teach that the Law condemns us (see Galatians 3:10), has no power to save us (see 2:16, 21), and cannot keep us saved (see 3:1-5).  

The Law does, however, point us to the Lord Jesus Christ where we can be saved by God's grace through faith.
 

The Proper Attitude About the Law ~
 

But to say that we as believers no longer look to the Law as the standard for holiness because standards are now only a matter of personal conviction is to misunderstand the Law.
 

Jesus set me free from sin.  He did not set me free to sin.  And sin did not change when I trusted Christ for salvation.  Nor did sin change when Jesus died on the cross. "Sin is (still) the transgression of the Law:”  (I John 3:4).
 

Romans 6:13-19 clearly sets forth our responsibility to holiness in living.  We are not to yield our members to unrighteousness but to righteousness.  Righteousness did not become personal conviction when I trust Christ for salvation.  It is still decided by the Word of God, regardless of my convictions.  And stating we "are not under the law, but under grace," Paul then asked the question, "Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace?"  He answered his own question with a resounding, "God forbid."  Even after an individual trusts Christ, sin is still decided by the Word; and he is not to sin!
 

When a person trusts Christ as his Savior, God does not throw His Book out the window and say, "Now that you are saved you can do anything you want to do..  It does not matter if I said it was wrong before; now you are free to live by your conscience.  You must quit only if you feel it is wrong."  Some quickly reply, "We do not serve in the oldness of the letter of the Law but in the newness of the Spirit."
 

Jesus gave us the answer to that objection in Matthew 5:13-48.  Several times He referred to the Law, saying, "Ye have heard that it was said,...but I say unto you."  A simple look at the passage shows Jesus was not giving His OK to throw out the standards of the Law, but rather HE taught that obedience goes farther than just the outward appearance.  Obedience should come from a right  heart attitude.
 

Jesus compared our testimony to salt and light in Matthew 5:13-16.  Then He reminds us that He would not destroy the Law but fulfill it.  He also taught the immutability and endurance of the Word of God.  Then Jesus showed that following the letter of the Law was not enough.  One can have outward obedience with inward sin.  However, inward obedience will also be manifested by outward obedience.
 

He began by using one of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not kill."  Jesus did not say we no longer were to obey it.  He taught that man can break the Law in his heart in the sight of God, which obeying it outwardly in the sight of man.  Man was not given a license to disobey the Law  unless he felt "convicted about it."  He was to obey it outwardly and to be careful his heart attitude was right inwardly.
 

Next, Jesus brought up another of the Ten Commandants: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." (v. 27-28) Again, Jesus did not do away with man's responsibility to obey, but rather He explained that outward obedience does not prove true obedience.  Man is not even to look on a woman and lust after her.  Our responsibility goes much farther than obedience to the letter.
 

Jesus then used the same arguments concerning marriage and divorce, swearing an oath, personal  vengeance and loving others.  In each case, the Law was not put aside for "personal conviction",  but rather a greater obedience was expected.  Actually, the spirit of the Law goes farther in  holiness than the letter of the Law.
 

Therefore, even though outward obedience to the Law does not prove a right inward relationship to God, a right relationship should be accompanied with nothing less than outward obedience.
 

The Profitability of the Law ~
 

Other New Testament verses proclaim the Old Testament's authority as a standard of holiness for believers.  Paul wrote to Timothy several years after Christ's death on the cross: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in  righteousness:  That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." (II  Timothy 3:16-17)
 

The first part of the verse proclaims the origination and authority of scripture.  Scripture comes from God.  Literally, it is God-breathed.  Lest we be careless in studying this verse, notice Paul was talking about "all scripture."
 

Even though it seems elementary, remember that "all scripture" includes every letter of every word of every chapter of every book of both the Old and New Testaments.
 

Just as "all scripture" is the subject of the first verb, "is given," it is also the subject of the second verb, "is profitable."  The verse tells us all scripture is profitable for four things: doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.
 

If "all scripture" is profitable for doctrine, then every chapter of every book of both the Old and New Testaments is profitable for doctrine.  Is there a conservative anywhere who doesn't use Old Testament verses to prove doctrine?  But now the inconsistencies begin to fly.
 

Second Timothy 3:16 did not limit Old Testament verses to being profitable on for doctrine.  Notice, they are also profitable for reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness.  Truly, we are no longer under the Law, in that it can no longer condemn those who have trusted Jesus Christ for salvation; but we are still to receive its reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness for daily living.  In addition, according to the Sermon on the Mount, we should not only be willing to obey  it outwardly, we should be willing to go even farther in righteousness with obedience from the  heart.
 

We receive much instruction in righteousness from the Gospel and the epistles, but that is not the limit of our instruction since "all scripture" is profitable for instruction in righteousness.
 

Peter demonstrated his agreement with this premise for New Testament Christians.
 

In I Peter 1:14-16 the apostle wrote:  "As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: but as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation: Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy."
 

Peter, writing some 30 years after Christ's death, when admonishing believers to live holy as Christians, supported his statement by quoting Leviticus 11:44, Why are Christian to be holy?  "Because it is written."
 

I can hear someone complain, "But Peter, that's in the Old Testament.  We're not under the Old Testament anymore.  We have liberty in Christ."
 

Some preachers and Christian throw the scripture "profitable for instruction in righteousness: out the window, using the excuse of "liberty."  Obviously, they are misusing liberty and denying the authority of scripture, given to guide our lives in holiness, because of its location in the Old Testament.
 

Some object, "But Christ is the end of the Law according to Romans 10:4."  Such objection is a careless reading of the passage and verse. Verses 1 to 3 explain how the Jews had gone about to establish their own righteousness by works.  They thought they could be righteous with God by being good enough.  As far as being righteous in our standing before God is concerned, "Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone that believeth" (v. 4).  A righteous standing before God is only possible through Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the Law.   "All our righteousness are as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6).  Romans 10:4 explains how a man may be considered righteous before God for salvation.  It is not denying the use of the Old Testament as "instruction in righteousness."
 

When Paul preached separation to the Corinthians in his second letter (6:11-18), the whole foundation of his argument was a principle laid down in the Old Testament.  When he stated, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers,"  his argument was based on Deuteronomy 7:2-7 and 22:6-12.  When he wrote, "Come out from among them, and be ye separate," he was speaking from Isaiah 52:11.  Did this make Paul a legalist?  No, he was a Biblicist.  He was using the Law "lawfully,"  as instruction in righteousness.
 

Solomon proclaimed that lying lips were an abomination unto the Lord (see Proverbs 12:22).  When Jesus completed His work of redemption through his death, burial and resurrection, did He make lying an acceptable practice for Christians?  Absolutely not.  Malachi 3:6 states of God:  "For I am the Lord, I change not."  What was an abomination to Him in 950 B.C. is still an abomination to Him in the 20th century.  Proverbs 12:22 is still good "instruction in righteousness" for the child of God.   It is not "legalism" to say a Christian shouldn't lie.
 

Moses wrote:  "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination" (Leviticus 18:22).  Did such a perversion cease to be an abomination to God when Jesus died on the cross?  Is it legalism to preach against homosexuality?  Is it legalism to say it is sin for a Christian to commit  homosexual acts?  Absolutely not!  Sin is sin whether a person is convicted about it or not. God's  Word, Old or New Testament, is the final determinant of right and wrong regardless of a person's  conviction.
 

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told women to "adorn themselves in modest apparel."
 (I Timothy 2:9)?
 

Was Paul a "legalist" when he said it was a "shame for a man to have long hair."
(see I Corinthians 11:14)?
 

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told bishops to be the "husband of one wife."
(see I Timothy 3:2)?
 

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told the Colossians to "put off...anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication." (see Col. 3:8)?
 

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told the Ephesians that fornication....uncleanness....covetousness, filthiness,... (or) foolish talking" were not to be named among them. (see Ephesians 5:3,4)?
 

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told the Corinthian church to turn the adulterer in their church over to "satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord  Jesus."
(see I Corinthians 5:5)?
 

Was the Holy Spirit a "legalist" when He told the New Testament church to "abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication." (Acts  15:28,29)?
 

Was James a "legalist" when he wrote: "Speak not evil one of another." (James 4:11)?
 

The list of questions like this could go on and on.   Obviously, they were not "legalists" when they preached standards.
 

We do not have to apologize for the verses on holiness found in a part of the Bible people do not want to accept today.  It is time we get back to using  "all scripture" for what it is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness.
 

I am not a legalist.  Salvation is by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ, not of my works.  It is totally of grace.  When a person trusts Christ, he is no longer condemned by the Law.  He is free.  However, God still expects holy living by His people.  They are to follow the Word of God.
 

By Mike Allison
Contributed