Question

How would you define legalism. I have heard that there are churches that seem to practice legalism, but what is it? This term ‘legalism’ seems like someone’s idea to brand a practice that they don’t believe in or else they don’t want to believe in. 

Answer

My understanding and use of the word “legalism” concerns how strictly one follows a code or law, in this case the Bible.

In my experience, “legalism” is used negatively to describe a person who tries to follow the Bible as closely as possible. In this case, it is applied often by someone who, as you wrote, doesn’t believe in the practice in question or doesn’t want to be bound by it.

However, a careful study of the Bible reveals that it is imperative that we all be “legalists” as we try to please the Lord. Although He is love (1 John 4:16) and he has shown us grace (Romans 5:15), He still expects us to do all that is within our power to fulfill every command that He has given us. Christ told the Pharisees that they were responsible for all of the law, not just the little things or the big things (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42): “These [justice, mercy and faith] you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone [tithing of various herbs].”

We who are now living under the “better covenant” (Heb. 8:6) are still responsible for every commandment, every law. So I had better be a “legalist” if I hope to be pleasing to the Lord.

Just a little follow-up to what I sent you last night. I did a little more research on “legalism” today and found that some uses of the word include the idea that a “legalist” believes that one cannot get into Heaven without living a perfect, completely sinless life. Obviously, this isn’t possible because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). However, God still expects us to try to be perfect, and when the Christian is not (“Christian” in the New Testament use of the word; not the denominational use of today), he is commanded to repent, thereby having that sin removed from his record.

By Michael Molloy

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