The dictionary defines “legalism” as (1) strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. (2) Theology. (a) the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. (b) the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
In Christianity, the term “legalism” refers to (1) requiring works for salvation, which is the opposite of sola fide—faith alone. (2) emphasizing a system of rules and regulations for achieving spiritual growth. This is derived from the legal system of commandments, ordinances, and regulations contained in the Mosaic Law.
If you have to exert one ounce of
human effort to be right with God,
you have fallen from grace
Doctrinally, “legalism” refers to anything that requires human achievement, personal effort, or religious deeds to be right with God for either salvation or relationship with God. This is the opposite of grace. The opposite of faith. The opposite of truth. Consider what happened when the Apostle Paul went to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus when some of the Christians there demanded that Titus be circumcised…
Even that question came up only because of some so-called Christians there—false ones, really—who were secretly brought in. They sneaked in to spy on us and take away the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. They wanted to enslave us and force us to follow their Jewish regulations. But we refused to give in to them for a single moment. We wanted to preserve the truth of the gospel message for you. (Galatians 2:4-5)
Even Patrick Henry’s thrilling “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech pales in comparison to the importance of what the Apostle Paul is addressing. The Apostle Paul is fighting to “preserve the truth of the gospel message for you.” Anything that adds any kind of rules and regulations to the gospel message, is corrupting and obscuring that wonderful message. This is such a serious charge that the Apostle Paul goes on to say…
Christ has become nothing to any of you who are seeking acceptance with God through the Law: you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4)
Christ has become nothing—or, ye have disconnected yourselves from Christ. The verb καταργεῖν is a favourite word with St. Paul, occurring twenty-seven times in his Epistles, including twice in the Hebrews, whilst in the rest of the New Testament it occurs only once, and that in the Pauline St. Luke (Luke 13:7). Its proper meaning is “to make inoperative,” “make of no effect,” as above (Galatians 3:17). —Pulpit Commentary
fallen away from grace—Ye no longer “stand” in grace (Ro 5:2). Grace and legal righteousness cannot co-exist (Ro 4:4, 5; 11:6). Christ, by circumcision (Lu 2:21), undertook to obey all the law, and fulfil all righteousness for us: any, therefore, that now seeks to fulfil the law for himself in any degree for justifying righteousness, severs himself from the grace which flows from Christ’s fulfilment of it, and becomes “a debtor to do the whole law” (Ga 5:3). The decree of the Jerusalem council had said nothing so strong as this; it had merely decided that Gentile Christians were not bound to legal observances. But the Galatians, while not pretending to be so bound, imagined there was an efficacy in them to merit a higher degree of perfection (Ga 3:3). This accounts for Paul not referring to the decree at all. He took much higher ground. See Paley’s Horæ Paulinæ. The natural mind loves outward fetters, and is apt to forge them for itself, to stand in lieu of holiness of heart. —Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Don’t forget these admonitions…
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)