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What It Means for Christians to Be Legalistic

Updated on January 26, 2020
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Rev. Margaret Minnicks is an ordained Bible teacher. She writes many articles that are Bible lessons.

Many Christians today are legalistic, but they don't have to be. That might not be the term by which they describe themselves even though they do many things that are according to the letter of the law instead of according to the spirit. The people in the Old Testament were taught to live by 613 laws.

Jesus taught in the New Testament that we should live by only two laws found in Matthew 22:37-40.

"Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

So, isn't it easier to live by two laws instead of by 613? Besides, the Holy Spirit helps us live by those two principles.

Legalism: Definition

Legalism is a strict adherence to laws. Biblical legalism is living by the letter of the law rather than by the spirit. People who are legalistic are those who believe salvation is earned through good works. They believe they are blessed only when they do something that deserves a blessing. They are misled to believe that God's love for them is based on them having to follow certain rules and regulations of their local assembly.

Legalism is putting laws above the gospel of the saving power of Jesus Christ. According to the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States, legalism is defined as having the belief that we must follow certain rules and do certain things in order to be saved and to maintain right standing with God. In other words, we must perform some deeds in order to gain salvation rather than believing that salvation is free to humanity because Jesus paid our debt on the cross. According to Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God and not by works."

In this day and time, legalism goes against what the Bible says. Unfortunately, some people, even pastors, preachers, and Sunday school teachers, haven't gotten the memo yet.

Laws in the Old Testament

The Old Testament laws are in the first five books of the Bible. They are often referred to as the Mosaic Laws or the Laws of Moses. The Laws of Moses weren't written BY Moses, and they weren't given TO Moses for his personal use. They were God's laws given to Moses to give to the people of Israel to live by.

The entire book of Leviticus outlines all the Laws of Moses. They are repeated in the book of Deuteronomy as reminders. There were 613 laws that covered everything. There were laws about what to eat, drink and what to wear. There were laws about marriage, worship, and being hospitable. Nothing was left out when it came to laws to govern the people.

Some churches pick out parts of the Old Testament laws that benefit them and they use the verbiage that other things are "Old Testament" and not should be used today.

Examples of the Mosaic Laws

The Mosaic Laws are not confined to just one book of the Old Testament. They are listed in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The same laws are repeated in Deuteronomy as reminders and mentioned throughout the other books of the Old Testament by the prophets. This includes:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • Moral laws concerning murder, theft, honesty, adultery, etc.
  • Social laws on property, inheritance, marriage, and divorce
  • Food laws about clean and unclean foods and about cooking and storing food
  • Purity laws about personal hygiene for men and women, sicknesses, diseases, etc.
  • Feast days and celebrations such as the Day of Atonement, Passover, Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Weeks, etc.
  • Sacrifices and offerings listed and explained including the sin offering, the burnt offering, whole offering, heave offering, Passover sacrifice, the meal-offering, wave offering, the peace offering, the drink offering, thank-offering, dough offering, incense offering, red heifer, scapegoat, first fruits, etc.
  • Instructions for the priesthood and the high priest including tithes
  • Instructions regarding building the tabernacle and how the tabernacle was to be used

Grace in the New Testament

It was and still is hard to follow the Old Testament laws because there were so many of them. Besides, the people didn't have Jesus or the Holy Spirit to help them carry out the laws. They had to live by the letter of the law.

That was Job's problem until he experienced losing everything he had and was close to death. After he had a personal encounter with God, he repented and admitted that he only lived by the letter of the law and not by the spirit. Job confessed to God, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." In other words, the Old Testament Laws point us in the right direction, but Jesus made it clear that when we live by the two greatest commandments we have fulfilled them all.

The Pharisees and Sadducees

The Pharisees and Sadducees were prime examples of legalism. They practiced living by the letter of the law. They often confronted Jesus about certain things He did on the Sabbath because they considered it to be work that was forbidden in the Old Testament.

For instance, in Matthew 12:9-14, they cared more about Jesus working on the Sabbath than about Him healing the man's withered hand. Those teachers of the law were strict about people keeping the law no matter what else was important.

How to Recognize Legalism in Churches Today

Now that background has been given about Old Testament Laws and why we should not live by the letter of the law in comparison to living by the spirit, let's look at some of the things done in today's churches that can be considered legalistic.

Whenever the preachers tell the congregation to bow every head and close every eye during his prayer, it is legalistic. Why? It takes away people's free will to do as the spirit leads them. Sure, it gives reverence to God to bow heads and to close eyes, but it is not a law.

It is legalistic for a preacher to tell the congregation, "Get up from your seats and go to five people and tell them you love them." It is legalistic once a number is attached to something the congregation is told to do. Why? Someone might feel guilty if he goes to more than five people or to fewer than five people as commanded. Besides, it takes away the seriousness of professing love if you have to be told to tell people you love them. Sometimes it is difficult to tell loved ones you love them. So, telling strangers you love them might be even more difficult and phony. It puts some people on the spot and they would rather not do it.

It is legalistic when the church tells the congregation how much money to tithe, pledge, or what to put in an offering. Once a dollar amount is attached to something, it becomes legalistic. Some people might not be able to give that specified amount the pastor tells them to give.

On the other hand, some people might be able to give more and want to give more, but the pastor locked them into a certain amount. Therefore, they are compelled to give less than what the spirit is telling them to give.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line about being legalistic is that we shouldn't be. The Bible speaks against it. Instead, people should be spiritually discerned.

We should not confuse obeying the laws of the lands with being legalistic. An example of the law of the land is to obey the traffic laws by stopping at red lights and stop signs.

Did you learn something about being legalistic?

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