What is a “legalist”?

Today I want to think about the meaning of the word legalist.

I struggle with the term legalists because it means different things to different people.  Without explanation it is hard to know what a person means when they use the word, although something of their intentions can often be derived from the context or spirit in which the word is spoken.

The first use of the term, and I think the biblical use, would be of one who believes he is saved by adherence to the law.  Because of his faith in the law we could call him a legalist.   If a person’s faith is in the law and not in Christ alone (the Gospel) he is not saved. We would call this a system of salvation by works; and it is a very real problem in organized religion today.   However, this is a deadly wrong view which the New Testament thoroughly dealt with in Romans, Galatians and other places.

Gal 2:16  Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

Nonetheless, most people using the term today, do not intend to say that a person being labeled is unsaved.  They use the term in a different way.

The second way some people use the term is to apply it to other Christians who insist upon a stricter application of Biblical principles, particularly if that strict application is preached or taught.

For example, two Christians may disagree upon whether moderate social use of alcohol is permissible for Christians.  Both sides may rally behind certain Scriptures in order garner support for their argument.  In the end they will disagree.  The side arguing against moderate use of alcohol may accuse the other side of engaging in sin or worldliness.   The other side, which argues that moderate social use of alcohol is permissible, might accuse their opposition of being legalists.  There is no accusation that those labeled legalists are not saved or that they are depending upon adherence to law for their salvation.

This use of the word seems to imply that the so called legalist is creating laws for the Christian which are not in the Bible.  Such a view of the word legalist is probably the most common today, at least as I frequently hear the word used.

This view has similarities with the problem generated by the Pharisees who created additional laws, like hand washing, for the Jews and made them equal with the revealed law from God.   However, it is different than the biblical situation.  Whether it was the newly added Pharisaical laws, or original laws given by God, the problem with the Pharisees was that they were trusting in their personal adherence to the law for their salvation.  The problem was in what they were trusting.

Now might be an appropriate place to ask, “Is it right to create laws for the Christian which are not in the Bible?”   The word law is rather strong.  It might be better to ask, “Does the Bible intend to teach principles which are meant to regulate our behavior beyond the specific regulations of the New Testament?”  I believe the answer is an unqualified yes, and the way I have arrived at this conclusion is through what I call the “Biblical Discernment Principle”.  I have explained it in a paper here.

If the biblical discernment principle is true, and if it is applied honestly and accurately, it would be possible for a Christian to label something as sin which the Bible does not fully describe as being sin.  In doing so he is not adding to God’s laws, but making application of the principles of God’s law to current cultural situations.   As I described in the paper, there is a specific process necessary to discern these things, and it is certainly possible to do it in a wrong way thereby adding, as a law or regulation, things which God really does not intend to be added or regulated.

Finally there is a third use of the term legalist.   This would be a saved person who thinks he is pleasing God because he has strictly followed a list of do(s) and don’t(s), but has failed to obey out of a love for God or even an understanding of what God desires.  These lists may be directly from the New Testament, or may also include practical applications of biblical principles.

The result is Christians who are confused about how to please God.  They learn that pleasing God is a matter of following a list of rules which their church, pastor, parents, or school have taught them, and they strive to obey, but like the Pharisees, they fail to change in their heart.  They never come to understand the connection between three tings; 1) what the Bible says explicitly, 2) the principles underlying the explicit statements, and 3) proper modern application of those principles.  The burden for fixing this situation lies at the feet of those in leadership.   They must teach and explain the connection between the biblical principle and the modern application.

It gets even more serious when leaders make improper applications themselves.   And this happens too often.   Also, some applications change over time, even though the biblical principle does not change (this will have to be fleshed out more in future articles). To insist upon an application that is no longer culturally merited is to make an improper application.  Eventually Christians become frustrated or rebellious.

It is not enough to teach people that certain activities in our culture are wrong.  We must painstakingly show them from the Bible why such an activity is wrong.   Then they must develop their own personal, biblical, and logical conviction.  When they choose to behave in a certain way, it should be the result of reasoned spiritual maturity; the exercising of the mind, aided by the Holy Spirit, to discern good and evil.  I think this is what the author of Hebrews was trying to say.

Hebrews 5:14  But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

This third use of the word legalism may show similarities to the problem of legalism presented in the New Testament.   There, believers had become confused over the means of their salvation, thinking that they needed Christ plus the law to make them saved.   Today some believers may know in their heads that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, but in their hearts they feel that it is their obedience to a list of rules which guarantees their salvation.   Instead of obeying out of love and awe before God, they obey in order to be saved, but never learn to love and be in awe of God.  A truly serious problem.

My conclusion is that when people label me as a legalist it is normally the second use of the word that they mean.  Most often these people do not agree with the biblical discernment principle.  However, it is highly likely that they have not studied the Word sufficiently enough to even grasp the principle, and often they are responding in a fleshly way to someone suggesting that something they enjoy is wrong.

I will also confess that I am sometimes guilty of being a legalist in the third sense of the word.  I do not say that I have ever intended to do this, but that those I’ve taught may have ended up in this position.   If this has happened it has been because I have failed to show them the connection between the biblical principle and the modern application.  I’ve taught people that it is very important to follow a list of rules because, hey, some of those lists are in the Bible, but I’ve failed to teach them to love God and I’ve failed to teach  them to learn how to discern good and evil.  My goal for the future of my ministry is to spend more time teaching people how to arrive at proper conclusions and less time simply telling them what they should conclude.


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