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10. what is legalism?

Legalism is one of the terms that is most used in our churches. It is a term that is not very clear and it has sometimes been misunderstood. We would like to explain in this topic the true meaning of the word and clarify who is legalistic and who is not.


The word "legalism" is not found in the Bible, it is a term used by Christians to locate those that emphasize a system of rules and regulations to achieve salvation, sanctification and spiritual growth. Theologically, it is a doctrine that is opposed to grace. We add that many of the legalistic enter the field of moralists (Romans 2:17:28).


We could say that legalism is the human attempt to enforce the law in their own strength, it is trying to be holy or just by keeping rules, traditions or ways. All God asks is that we believe by faith in Jesus and by his work on the Cross we are justified.


Are "legalists" found in the Bible?


The first legalists found in the Bible are located in the beginnings of the Church. They were called those of the circumcision, and were first mentioned in Acts 11:2. It seems that this aspect of doctrine argued that circumcision was a rite necessary for salvation. Recall that the circumcision was done only to the Israelites or the Gentile converts to Judaism. When a group of the circumcision came to discuss with Peter, he explained to them that the vision God revealed to him meant that the gospel of salvation was also for the Gentiles. 


In chapter 15 of Acts, those of the circumcision are named for the second time. Peter again explained the gospel of salvation by faith and not by rites or works.


Acts 15:7-9

7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that [a]in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God,who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.


Apparently this legalistic trend had a great influence on the early church. So much that Peter was trapped in it and Paul had to exhort him(as told in Galatians 2: 11-20) as Simon Peter was following the hypocrites of the Circumcision. Paul dedicated three chapters of the book of Romans (3.4 and 5) to oppose this aspect of doctrine, and explain that salvation comes by faith alone:


Romans 3:30

since indeed God who will justify the [a]circumcised [b]by faith and the [c]uncircumcised through faith is one.


Galatians 2:16

nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of [a]the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of [b]the Law; since by the works of [c]the Law no [d]flesh will be justified.


Who are today’s legalists


Today’s legalists are those who impose things you should do (or not do) in order to accomplish salvation. They say that if you consider youself a Christian, you should do what they tell you to do. Failure to do so, will cause you not to be saved. They impose burdens on others (many of which they themselves do not comply), impose rituals, works and do not let the Holy Spirit work in our lives. They limit the power of the powerful change and transformation of God within us, with a simple preconceived form of conduct, which they say leads to sanctification.


What is not legalism?


Sadly today the true meaning of legalism is confused. Many people have confused the meaning of obedience and holiness, and now call it legalism. This sad event, makes people who want to sanctify their lives in obedience to God, become labled as a legalist and marginalized in the churches. Obedience is not a bad thing or a sign of legalism. On the contrary, the Bible shows us that we should have a life in obedience:


Matthew 7:21 

21  “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.


James 1:22

22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.


John 14:15

15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.


Romans 1:5

5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship [a]to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake,


Acts 5:29

29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.


Hebrews 5:9

9 And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation,


Sanctification, which comes by faith, turning from sin and living a life in obedience to God is not legalism. Preaching of God's love, repentance of sins and of our bad habits by the Blood of Christ, is not legalism. 


Preaching against sin, a life in obedience, being be different and not making friends with the world (1 John 2:15) is not legalism.


The prophets cried out against the practice of sin of the people of God and called for repentance. Jesus began his ministry preaching repentance (Matthew 4:17), preached against sin and called to obedience as a result of our love for Him (John 14:15, Matthew 7:21, etc ....). Paul exhorted the church to holiness and and rejection of sin (Romans 12:9). Peter exhorted the church to santification (1 Peter 1:15) and James told us that we should not have friendship with the world, so that we do not become enemies of God (James 4:4).


If we crossed out as legalists those who live a holy life or preach of such things, then we are calling all the servants of God legalists (Abraham, Moses, Job etc ....), the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, etc ....), Jesus Christ and all the apostles.




We must therefore examine our lives and ask the Lord to cut all roots of legalism. We must pray that we remove the bad preconceptions of what we thought was legalism but in the end was obedience. We shall ask forgiveness of the brethren who we have offended while they were trying to live a life of holiness and move on in the narrow way of the Lord!


Note: If you have any doubt in what you have read or if you have any questions about anything that was not clear, please contact us, we will answer all your questions and give you all the information you need.

This is a brief explanation of the topic in matter. To learn more about the Bible, or if you want more details of its truth please contact us and we will gladly explain everything. 



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