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Part 2d: What Are the Terms? Legalism

Glossary 23 Legalism/Legalistic 

Legalism. While Judaizing is a biblical term, legalism is a newly adopted term, often used pejoratively, to describe a range of beliefs and behaviors considered to be either theologically flawed or personally aberrant from the normal Christian life of obedience and sanctification. Obedience is compliance with a set of standards, instructions, or laws established by the one in authority, hence, the focus on the legitimacy of one’s beliefs or the legality of one’s behaviors. So, legalism represents a variety of ways in which there can be a breakdown in the proper understanding of and relationship to authority, the right application of the law, and the appropriate kind of obedience. Yet, legalism applies not only to biblical law (Mosaic law, Christic law, law of love) but more generally to any legal/ethical system that a person, group, denomination, movement, or society comprehends to be necessary for life or life beyond (Gal 4:9; 5:1). Hence, both the Jews under Mosaic law and Gentiles under the elements of the world (στοιχεῖα τον κόσμον) are enslaved to a lifestyle of legalism.[i] Baugh objects here to the term legalism by restricting its definition to “an unhealthy attitude or an empty performance of external regulations;”[ii] however, whether one’s commitment and dedication to that system is zealous or perfunctory, it remains their system of hope even though it cannot provide true liberty (Rom 10:1-3).  Also, Reisinger limits the use of the term legalism to justification and sanctification: “It is also sinful to label a person a ‘legalist’ for believing and seeking to obey all ten of the laws. . . when that person affirms and teaches that such obedience neither saves him nor keeps him saved.”[iii] While I agree with the sentiment, the term “legalism” now has a broader range of meaning.

The following illustration demonstrates the complexity and variables of law-keeping as a disciple of Christ, a citizen of God’s kingdom, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul summarized the above for Titus with these words: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:11-15). Peter assures us that God “has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Pe 1:2-3). And Paul commended the obedience of the Philippians with these words: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Php 2:12-13). Grudem advocates a two-pronged approach to sanctification, which guards against passivity on one hand and pride on the other: “It is important that we continue to grow both in our passive trust in God to sanctify us and in our active striving for holiness and greater obedience in our lives.”[iv]

As the term implies, legalism is an inordinate or improper focus on law with respect to 1) eternal justification before God, exclusively or partially by obedience to the requirements of some law(s); 2) sanctification of one’s life before God and man by adherence to some law(s); 3) requiring Gentiles to obey now-abrogated cultic OT laws that were designed to foreshadow Christ; and 4) declaring man-made laws or traditions—either obligations or prohibitions—to be conscionable. Let us describe these in order with the understanding that there can be some overlap of these conceptual categories and that these categories reflect a speciation of Judaizing.

“In the broadest general terms, ‘legalism’ may be defined as an improper use of the law.”[v] “The legalistic use of ‘law’ refers to the attempt to utilize the works of the law as a basis for saving merit: this is an unlawful use of the law …”[vi] “Legalism (or Neonomianism) errs by either (1) requiring complete and perfect obedience to the commands of Scripture or (2) lowering the demands by substituting either imperfect obedience or more accessible rules for Christian behavior.”[vii] “’Legalism’ is a term that may appropriately describe at least three errors addressed in Scripture: justification by the works of the law, adding to or taking away from the law of God, and sanctification by the works of the law.”[viii] I would agree with Bahnsen’s frustration that “some would rather effortlessly dismiss the idea [of desiring to obey or live by God’s law] by blindly attaching the label ‘legalism’ to it.”[ix] As such, it is inappropriate to use this term as an aspersion for anyone who simply has a positive view about God’s law, as if they were denying God’s grace, without first learning the greater context and meaning of that expression.

Justification. Justification is the legal declaration by God that the sinner is free of guilt.[x] The biblical record is absolutely clear: justification is solely by grace through faith, without the doings (works) of the law (Rom 3:28; 4:5; 10:3; Gal 2:16, 21; 5:3). A “legalist” is someone who believes they may earn redemption by their own works, or that their works are instrumental causes, along with God’s grace, for salvation.

Sanctification. Like justification, one’s sanctification is also a work of God through faith (Php 2:12-13; Col 2:20). “Legalists” are those who believe they maintain their salvation by their works (Gal 3:3). This may be theologically driven due to Scriptures that appear to contradict the position that a believer can undo the spiritual regeneration effected by the Lord. Christian obedience is a must (Jn 15:4-12; ; Jas 2:20), but it must be in accordance with a knowledge of God’s will and for His glory (Rom 12:1-2; 1 Cor 10:31; Col 1:9-10; 1 Thes 5:21-22). Problems with internal attitudes and motivation for obedience can lead to legalistic behaviors. A low view of self-worth may motivate the legalist to base their acceptance with God and others on their spiritual performance (Matt 6:5; 1 Cor 9:25). Pride in and recognition of one’s impeccable presentation or ascetic practices is motivation enough for the obedience of some legalists (Lk 13:14; Matt 7:21-23; Col 2:18-19).  A legalist’s obedience may also be motivated simply by the self-satisfaction of accomplishment without consideration of its spiritual value (Isa 29:13; 1 Cor 10:29).

Abrogation. This applies to ritual laws contained in the OT that were obligatory for the Jews until the advent of Christ. This kind of legalism is identical to Judaizing. The apostles specifically excluded Gentiles from the obligation to perform cultic/ritual laws of the Mosaic covenant (Act 15:24-29; Eph 2:11-18; Col 2:16). If a law is no longer important or essential, then there is little benefit in keeping it (Gal 5:1-6). “Paul [argued] that the mark of the people of God was no longer circumcision and law observance, but faith in Jesus Christ and participation in his Spirit.”[xi] A “legalist” requires Gentiles to perform laws that were meant only for the Jews while they were under the Mosaic covenant. In addition, should a Gentile submit to circumcision, they are actually making a commitment to perform all that the law demands (Gal 5:3). If a Jew can be saved in the same manner as a Gentile, then their circumcision or Sabbath-keeping no longer provides any advantage (Act 15:11). A “legalist” is also a Jewish Christian who returns to the performance of cultic rites as if they had spiritual value (Gal 4:9). Lastly, a Christian may be labeled legalistic if they determine that it is necessary to obey an abrogated law on non-exegetical grounds, such as guilt, thoughtless compliance, health, novelty, self-satisfaction, or camaraderie. They are merely using the law to justify their behavior, lifestyle, or abstention that they could perform anyway without citing the law.

Tradition. By extension, any ecclesiastic, formative, or pietistic rules, policies, or practices can become legalistic if they become equated with divine commands that bind the conscience (Isa 29:13) or promote ill-will among the saints (Gal 5:16-26). These practices have questionable value, yet require considerable time and attention to observe them, and often create an unnecessary distinction among believers. To be fair, it is not that someone is particular about the way they do things or has an obsessive-compulsive personality; it’s that the activity or avoidance of an activity diverts the person from a balanced view of righteousness or prevents them from being an integral part of the life of the church. Differences of opinion are met with intolerance. Legalists are dogmatic and prideful about how their church service is conducted with regard to manner, music, message, or ministry. Najapfour recognizes the effect this can have on church membership: “We unconsciously become legalistic in the way we deal with the life and ministry of our church. We become more concerned with our traditions than with the Scriptures.”[xii] People are pressured (externally or internally) to conform to an exterior behavior while their inner character and the fruit of ministry is undervalued. “And therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever.”[xiii] Some of these practices may have been well-intentioned and motivated by a spiritual goal, based on “sound inference” and accepted for generations, but when those who question or refuse to comply with those practices are excoriated or disfranchised, legalism is afoot.[xiv] “In the end, a heavy-handed legalism will do more to drive people away from Sabbath observance than it will do to preserve the day.”[xv]

Is it legalistic for a Christian to observe the Sabbath?

Justification. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if it is integral to the salvation message; that is, no one can be assured of eternal life unless faithful Sabbath keeping can be demonstrated on the right day and in the right manner.[xvi] The NT doctrine of justification negates the possibility that works of any kind are instrumental in redemption, yet Paul’s arguments about justification through faith alone are primarily against the Jewish belief that the outward ritual of circumcision was necessary to attain full acceptance before God. Paul asserted that circumcision is nothing under the new covenant (1 Cor 7:19). If the ceremonial law (circumcision) given to Abraham was no longer profitable, then the ceremonial laws (calendar, priesthood, food, dress) given to Israel through Moses were less than unprofitable. And if this is true in the case of justification, then it is also true in sanctification, abrogation and traditionalization. In the showcase of religious sects today, Seventh-day Adventism and Armstrongism teach the necessity of keeping the Saturday Sabbath as a requirement for salvation.[xvii] They believe that Sunday worship condemns its practitioners to hell. “Sunday observance—this is the Mark of the Beast… you shall be tormented by God’s plagues without mercy.”[xviii] “The sign, or seal, of God is revealed in the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath…The mark of the beast is the opposite of this—the observance of the first day of the week.”[xix]


Sanctification. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if it is part of the sanctification message. Christians should obey the commandments of God, the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the apostolic traditions—all of which articulate the obligation/command to assemble on the first day of the week to worship the Triune God in spirit and in truth. From the formidable warning against ceasing to gather together (Heb 10:24-25) we can conclude the relative importance of weekly worship in the spiritual life of a disciple of Christ. So, “going to church” on Sunday is a component of Christian sanctification, but there is a significant difference between keeping Sabbath and going to church (i.e., Christian assembly; gathering together; church meeting). The latter routine marks a time for fellowship, hearing God’s word, offering praise in prayer and song, giving to the poor, communion, and other functions. Sabbath-keeping on the other hand, as defined by the Sinaitic covenant, is to refrain from all manner of work from Friday evening to Saturday evening. It is legalistic to redefine the normative practice of church worship by adding the requirement to show piety through a twenty-four hour rest. According to Ray, “That final rest will only be obtained by those who… remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”[xx]


Abrogation. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if the motivation comes from the belief that it is a moral law, which is contrary to the theology of the NT. The abrogation of the Sabbath, perspicuously taught by Paul (Col 2:16), is ignored or explained away simply because the Sabbath can be used by the clergy to cajole church attendance. The Mosaic law and its threats for breaking the Sabbath are advanced to motivate Christians to appear every Sunday for the sermon that the pastor worked assiduously to deliver. Rather than appealing to the grateful heart to join together in Christ’s presence to comprise His mystical body (Eph 1:3-2:22) and to be better equipped to serve God through the teaching of His word (Eph 3:1-6:20), a nullified law is given preeminence over the Spirit. While Sabbatarian pastors also appeal to a Christian’s desire to please God as the motivation to keep the Sabbath holy, they are essentially diverting the focus of the congregation from loftier ideals (Hos 6:6) to a non-essential law (Hos 2:11). It is legalistic to “call back the ceremonies into use,” as Calvin asserted, because it eventually diminishes Christ.[xxi]

Traditionalization. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if a traditional mode of observation (i.e., not directly stated in Scripture) is determined to be critical for proper Sabbath-keeping, especially at the denomination level. Ceremonial laws are prone to legalism because the proper level of obedience must be legally defined. Yet, Sabbatarians do not want to fall into this Pharisaical trap. Chantry (SS) carefully avoids enumerating acceptable and unacceptable exterior behaviors: “All attention must not be to external details and endless regulations” and “He did not place elders in leadership so that they might dictate what specific course to follow in every particular.”[xxii] Admonishing Sabbath observance in general terms, Chantry at one point provided these guidelines: to avoid pursuing wealth, going fishing, watching television, and talking of sports or vacations.[xxiii] Ray (SS) tries to place the definition of work on the individual because everyone should know what constitutes work. “We don’t need 1,500 rules to keep. We all have a way of recognizing work when it comes our way.”[xxiv] He continues to identify our jobs as work, and adds housework, homework, and yardwork, to which I would add busywork and make-work. Even intellectual pursuits are think-works. Pipa (SS) is less abashed and lays out guidelines to prepare for Sabbath observance, advises giving rest to animals and working machines, and legislating business closures.[xxv] As Ratzlaff (LD) astutely observes, “As is true of any required legalistic observance, one never knows when his observance is ‘good enough’.”[xxvi]

Campbell (SS) states that the Sabbath principle is a moral one, but assures his readers that it is “quite out of biblical character for anyone… to draw up a list of prohibitions.” He quips that sportsmen arrive on the field and drivers appear on the roads knowing the well-defined rules, but “there is no list of prescribed or proscribed duties” for the Sabbath. He repeats the dictum that Sunday Sabbath is for works of mercy and necessity, but then states that “what is ‘necessary’ may vary from person to person, place to place, or even culture to culture.” He recounts that during his collegiate years, students studied night and day all through the week, but he refused to use the day for secular study. What was apparently a moral duty for him was not for the other students. One could reason, quite properly, the legitimacy of seminarians to study religion religiously and guiltlessly on their Christian Sabbath. These conflicting statements and the latitude he propounds can only be true if Sunday is not the Sabbath. Finding enjoyment and blessings and encouragement during Sunday worship is normal, but it’s not because it’s the Sabbath. Knowing that Sunday worship is good for a Christian’s sanctification is doctrinally correct, but it’s not because the Sabbath was shifted to the first day of the week. Stopping what you are doing to meet with other like-minded believers is obviously a necessity, but it is not observing the Sabbath. Freeing up your afternoon for additional Bible study, visiting the elderly, sharing a meal with company, and returning for the evening sermon is wonderful, but it is not keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath was fulfilled and annulled, and now off the table for Christians. However, Christians are obligated to assemble weekly on the first day of the week for worship at such time the community of believers determines, but they are free to spend the rest of their time as they choose. Under this scenario, Campbell’s statements make more sense: “Not everything that is necessary for me to do on the Sabbath [the Lord’s Day] is necessary for my brother Christian to do” and “I cannot pass judgement on their decision [to do things that I don’t do on the Lord’s Day].”[xxvii]

[i] Bruce, F. F. Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 202-203.
[ii] Baugh, S.M. “Galatians 5:1-6 and Personal Obligation” in The Law is Not of Faith; Estelle, Fesko, VanDrunen, eds. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), p. 267-268.
[iii] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 124. (Here, Reisinger limits the term to justification and security. The person in question may be legalistic in other ways.)
[iv] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP/Zondervan, 1994), p. 755.
[v] McGraw, Ryan M. The Day of Worship, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011) p. 123.
[vi] Bahsen, Greg L. By This Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), p. 183.
[vii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), p. 664.
[viii] McGraw, Ryan M. The Day of Worship, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011) p. 127.
[ix] Bahsen, Greg L. By This Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), p. 175-176.
[x] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) p. 723.
[xi] Kruse, C. G. “Law” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, T. Desmond Alexander,, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000) p. 635.[xii] Najapfour, Brian G. “2 Main Reasons Why Members Leave and Join Another Church” The Outlook (70:2, Mar/Apr 2020), p. 38.
[xiii] Belgic Confession, Art. 32.
[xiv] Sproul, R. C. “When to Stop, When to Go, When to Slow Down” (accessed June 20, 2020).
[xv] Chantry, Walter. Call the Sabbath a Delight (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 107.
[xvi]  The Jews associate Sabbath-keeping with the arrival of the Messiah, teaching that if all of Israel should obey the Sabbath (perfectly) just once, then the Messiah would come (Hertzberg, Judaism, p. 117). This essentially makes God’s will subservient to the collective behavior of countless Jews, in which case, the expected Messiah should never come. Christian Sabbatarians are not far off in mimicking this sentiment by proposing Messianic age blessings on the world in exchange for proper Sabbath-keeping. “Only as God’s people return to the habit of engaging in systematic spiritual exercises for an entire day each week, then will the moral fabric of our age begin to be strengthened” (Chantry, Call the Sabbath a Delight, p. 12).
[xvii] Ratzlaff, Dale. Truth About Adventist “Truth”, (Glendale, AZ: LAM Publications, 2007) p. 33. See also, Ratzlaff, Dale. Sabbath in Christ, (Glendale, AZ: Life Assurance Ministries, 2003), p. 371-395.
[xviii] Armstrong, Herbert W. “The Mark of the Beast” (Pasadena, CA: Ambassador College Press, 1957), p. 10-11.
[xix] White, Ellen G. Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 8 (1904), p. 117. See also The Great Controversy, p. 605.
[xx] Ray, Bruce A. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000) p. 50-51. This statement might very well fit the category of works-justification.
[xxi] Calvin. Commentaries, 21:193 (Col 2:17)
[xxii] Chantry, Walter. Call the Sabbath a Delight (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 37, 105.
[xxiii] Ibid. p. 39.
[xxiv] Ray, Bruce A. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000) p. 107.
[xxv] Pipa, Joseph A. The Lord’s Day (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1997) p. 197-207, 48-52
[xxvi] Ratzlaff, Dale. Truth About Adventist “Truth”, (Glendale, AZ: LAM Publications, 2007) p. 36.
[xxvii] Campbell, Iain D. On the First Day of the Week, 2005 (repr: 2011, Leominster, UK: Day One Publications), p. 191.


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