From the Pulpit: What is a legalist?
It is all too common for us today to throw the accusation of legalism at someone because we are threatened by their devotion. Yes, we often call people legalists (or Pharisees) when they have a deeper commitment to living out God’s Word than we do. But we must be very careful that we do not engage in slander by accusing another believer or church falsely. We must be very careful when we accuse others of being legalistic, or for that matter, for being in the other ditch we call Antinomianism (which I will discuss next week).
What is legalism? How do we really detect it? When are we justified in labeling someone a legalist? We must understand that there are at least two different kinds of legalists. The first kind we will call salvation-legalists. These legalists are deadly to the soul and there are strong warnings in Scripture concerning them (Gal 1:6-9). What salvation-legalists do is add human works to the work of Christ for salvation. The example, in Galatia was a group who were adding circumcision to faith in Christ for salvation (Gal 5:2). Their formula was: faith + circumcision = justification. The Biblical formula is: faith alone = justification + good works. Notice in the biblical formula good works necessarily follow (James 2), but we must keep them in their place. Anyone who would add anything to the work of Christ for salvation is on dangerous ground and is a legalist.
The second kind we will call rule-legalists. These types love to add rules to the Bible. As if the commandments in the Bible are not sufficient, they want more rules to the Christian life. This kind of legalist is not as dangerous as the first kind, but they are still a problem. The Pharisees were a good example of this kind of legalist. Jesus charged them with “breaking the commandments of God for the sake of your traditions” (Matt 15:3). The Pharisees were known for making fences around the Word of God to keep people from sinning. These fences became extra rules that people needed to keep to “obey God.” The Pharisees were blind guides who distorted piety by majoring on minors (Matt 23:23-24), focused on outward righteousness rather than purity of heart and bound up people’s consciences with extra rules the Lord had not commanded. Jesus called them hypocrites for not living up to their own teaching and because they sought the approval of men (Matt 23:2-7).
Jesus is our model for living the Christian life. He always obeyed the law of God from the heart and commends those who uphold it in their teaching (Matt 5:17-19). After we see people come to Jesus for salvation and then baptize them we are to teach them to observe all that He has commanded (Matt 28:19-20). Being obedient is important in the Christian life; however, it must be done according to the right standard, with the right motives, and for the right purpose, which is to glorify God.