Legalism may be summed up in a word – TRADITION! Legalists are traditionalists. They adhere to religious traditions regardless of their source (not all religious traditions are of God), and they expect everyone else to do the same, or suffer the slings and arrows of their scorn. They’re secretly envious of the true Christian’s liberty in Christ, not having that freedom themselves (Gals 2:4). They seek to lay traps for those who follow Christ and his words instead of tradition, as did the Scribes and Pharisees to Jesus, hoping to catch him in some violation of the law (theirs or God’s) so they could condemn him. They accused Jesus of ‘breaking the Sabbath’ when he and a few of his disciples picked some ears of corn on a Sabbath because they were traveling and were very hungry (Luke 6:1-5).
They accused him of being a ‘winebibber’ and ‘glutton,’ because he ate and drank with heathen (Gentile unbelievers) – Mt 9:10-11, 11:19. They said he broke the law by not ‘washing his hands’ before eating, Mt 15:2. They accused him of breaking the law for healing a man’s shriveled hand on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11) and of having a ‘devil,’ because he went about healing people! (Mark 3:22, 30)
This is but a partial list of the false accusations the Pharisees and Sadducees flung at Jesus, and of their attempts to discredit his mission and ministry. In our day, the legalist operates much the same way using the same tactics. They look for opportunities to discredit your ministry and or induce a sense of guilt in you for doing things God’s Word doesn’t prohibit. They’ll severely criticize and chastise you for doing the works of God outside the city gate (church walls) by demanding to know where you attend church, who your covering is, and/or who gave you authority to do such things! Legalists teach the ‘letter only,’ while Jesus brought the “spirit (or intent) of the Word.” Legalism leaves no room for ‘mercy,’ you break a law or command you pay the penalty. God the Father had ‘mercy’ on mankind when he sent his son Jesus to be the propitiation (to pay the penalty) for sin. God is merciful, legalists are not. Legalists ‘add’ their own rules and codes of conduct to God’s Word, and condemn you if you break one of them. Mat 15:9 But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. Mar 7:13 making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do. An example of a man-made doctrine is, “You can’t hang pictures of Christ, people, or anything in Nature (animals, angels, heavenly bodies, etc.) in your home, because the 2nd Commandment says that’s IDOLATRY.”
Sometimes well-meaning believers apply allegory where they shouldn’t, and or, read into Scripture what isn’t there; which renders ‘private interpretations’ (2 Pet 1:20). We avoid these mistakes by ‘comparing scripture to scripture,’ interpreting it in its proper context.
Here’s the exact wording of the 2nd Commandment – Exo 20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: If taken OUT of the CONTEXT of its preceding and following verses, one could conclude that making a likeness of anything, is prohibited. When taken in the context of Exo 20:3 & 5 – Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: we see that what God is prohibiting is the making of IDOLS, and “bowing down to, and serving them.” To merely have a picture hanging on a wall in your home, doesn’t make it an idol or a thing of worship, unless you do bow to, and or, pray to it. Same with Lev 26:1 Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it:
The operative phrases in each of these four verses are, BOW DOWN TO THEM, and SERVE THEM. It’s the making of, or setting up of images for the purpose of WORSHIPING them that’s prohibited, not the mere displaying of them for the purpose of decorating and adorning your home. So, if and when someone tries to place guilt and condemnation on you for simply decorating your home, you can choose not to receive it. If God convicts you of sin, he almost always (unless you’re hard headed and have consistently ignored his correction) does it with a large dose of love and gentleness, without condemnation! If you know Christ, and you’re feeling condemned, it’s not him speaking to you.
Let’s look at this issue from another angle. If the mere displaying of works of art and photographs of people, places, and things was forbidden by the 2nd Commandment, then God is himself GUILTY of breaking his own commandment when he directed King Solomon to ADORN the Temple with all manner of workmanship and artistry; gold filigree, a pair of gold angelic figures which sat atop the Ark of the Covenant. The temple walls were carved with figures of cherubim (angels), flowers, and palm trees. Aren’t those ‘things in heaven above and on earth below?’ Read about the building of the first temple in 1 Kings chapters 6 – 9. It has been argued that this ornate decoration of the temple was allowed by God one time only, for this special purpose. I disagree because God wouldn’t direct something he considers a ‘sin’ or ‘sinful,’ to be used in his house or temple!
Some examples of the legalistic doctrines added to God’s law by the Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day —
Legalism says, You can’t eat without first washing your hands, because the dirt clinging to your hands will defile you. Jesus rebuked that man-made legalistic doctrine when he said, Mat 15:11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
Mat 15:17 Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? Mat 15:18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. Mat 15:19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: Mat 15:20 These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.
Blind leaders of the blind, Jesus called them (Mt 15:14) Legalists major in minors, and minor in majors. They nitpick at you for small, usually insignificant faults and offenses but ignore serious ones. Mat 23:23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone. Mat 23:24 Ye blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel! Mat 23:4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. Jesus does the opposite, Mat 11:28 Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Mat 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. Mat 11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Some are heartless and relentless in their pronouncements of judgment on those who don’t follow their man-made, religious traditions, while ironically labeling ‘legalistic’ those who obey and teach the commandments of Yahweh. Jesus said, Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5: 17-19) Legalism is obeying and teaching them from wrong motives, ie., for the sake of elevating oneself above one’s brothers, or as a requirement for salvation. When love for God and one’s brethren is the motive, it isn’t legalistic to obey and to teach them.
“Legalism is the strict enforcing or perversion of a law. Legalism is not equal to the Law (except in the mind of the Church). If you’re driving 61 miles per hour in a 60 mile per hour zone and a policeman gives you a ticket, that’s legalism—but the law is good. The Law was given so there won’t be chaos and accidents on the Highway of Life.” ~ http://seedofabraham.net/The-Lifting-of-the-Veil.pdf
Legalists know nothing of the love and mercy of God, and in fact, turn men AWAY from God – Mt 23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. They do it by putting stumbling blocks in the way of those trying to enter the kingdom, like telling them they must observe certain holy days and rituals which aren’t commanded by God – Rms 14:10-13. All religions have rituals, rites, and holy days, and rules about how to observe them, and how to worship. The Christian walk (or life) isn’t a dead, dry observance of endless rules about food, drink, and holy days! (Rms 14:17). It’s an exciting adventure of walking with the Living Word (Jesus), allowing him to fully immerse you in the Holy Spirit, and freely (without hindrance) flow through you any way he chooses (Luke 3:16). It’s only by the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit, that true and lasting works can be accomplished, for without him we can do nothing! (Jn 15:5)
The problem with legalists, is that they won’t allow the Holy Spirit to do what he wants to do (heal people, perform miracles, prophesy, deliver men from demons), because they want to be in control of the church, of its functions and its members. In many houses of worship, the Holy Spirit is quenched – not allowed to move in church services where very little time is allowed for praise and worship, certainly not enough for him to move upon people’s hearts and minds to prepare them to receive what he wants to do among them. So they leave still hungry and thirsty, sensing something is lacking or missing but don’t know what. Some are totally unaware of the deficiencies, having become used to a state of spiritual starvation! The typical church structure today is unlike that of the first century church where church elders and bishops were chosen by the other members, not by their papers, or some board. It was the Holy Spirit who called and appointed men and women to various positions and qualified them for service; not PhD’s or minister licenses. By his moving and flowing through various members, the Holy Spirit revealed what their giftings and callings were. That was possible because the Holy Spirit was ALLOWED to MOVE (work, function) in the assemblies and to FLOW through ALL the members, not just ONE! In the New Testament it is written that when Christians gathered together they were ALL expected to contribute to the service, not just the choir, bishop or pastor! (1 Cor 14:26) It was never God’s intent for the congregation to sit passively, like lifeless statues, until the pastor gives them permission to pray, sing, or speak. Where in that controlling structure is there room for the Holy Spirit to ‘speak’ through the other members? Fact is, God has already given ALL his Body members permission to speak or sing out what he has spoken to them in their PRAYER CLOSETS, and shown them in his Word. It would then seem that those in high positions in the Church are either ignorant of these facts (though I don’t see how, if they have read the Bible), or don’t want to lose control of the Church, so they keep a tight lid on the Holy Spirit and congregants.
Generally speaking, congregants are trained to be PASSIVE OBSERVERS rather than ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS in God’s program! That’s partly why they don’t go out into the whole world making disciples of all men, preaching the Gospel to every creature. Their idea of fulfilling the Great Commission, is giving money to a missionary or an evangelistic organization. The time is coming when Jesus will replace every aberrant thing, and restore true, spiritual worship to his house forever when he ‘builds again the tabernacle of David,’ Acts 15:16.
We don’t see God’s spiritual gifts (tongue-speaking, prophesying, miracles, healing, etc.) today like in Jesus’ day because of erroneous teachings that those ‘gifts’ ended in the first century AD, and were only given to the Apostles so they could start the Church. Cessationists, base their conclusion upon a few verses – 1Co 13:8 Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. 1Co 13:9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 1Co 13:10 but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.
I call that a ‘fly-by interpretation,’ meaning the interpreter doesn’t bother to think about what’s actually being stated, nor bothers to look up any of the key words in a bible dictionary to see what they mean. The unlearned remain ignorant of the truths in the Bible because they don’t take the time required to study and truly understand them. A real student of the Bible, ‘compares scripture with scripture,’ in order to find the truth. A thorough search of the scriptures shows that the charismatic gifts haven’t passed away and are still in effect.
Eph 4:11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; Eph 4:12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Eph 4:13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
We may deduce that the charismatic gifts are still needed, since that which is PERFECT hasn’t yet come. That which is perfect is when every believer has reached the state of full maturity in Christ, “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Since we don’t presently see every believer in that state of perfection, we can safely conclude that the gifts have not passed away. Furthermore, Paul wrote that he “wished they ALL would speak in tongues, but more that they would prophesy” 1 Cor 14:5. He wrote at length concerning spiritual gifts and their usage in 1 Cor 1:14-39, Acts 21:9, and Rms 12:6. “The doctrine of Cessationism did not originate from a careful study of the scriptures … [but] … originated in experience. A cessationist may say something like this: “The fact that at some point in history the church stopped speaking in tongues, is testament that the gifts were not meant to be permanent.” For further information on this false doctrine, go to http://www.bibleissues.org/gifts1.html and read, Are the Spiritual Gifts for the Church Today?
All the words in the Bible are ‘God-breathed,’ meaning that God’s Spirit inspired and over-shadowed men’s minds to write down what God wanted written (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21). Holy Prophets of God spoke and prophesied by the power of God’s Spirit speaking through them, and Christians today may do the same. Many sincere believers are being led astray by irresponsible interpretations and false teachings. One way to distinguish truth from error, is to become thoroughly familiar with the Holy Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Psa 119:165 Great peace have they that love thy law; And they have no occasion of stumbling. “stumbling” – H4383 mikshôl; Masculine from H3782; a stumblingblock, literally or figuratively (obstacle, enticement (specifically an idol), scruple): – caused to fall, offence, X [no-] thing offered, ruin, stumbling-block. H3782 kâshal; A primitive root; to totter or waver (through weakness of the legs, especially the ankle); by implication to falter, stumble, faint or fall: – bereave [from the margin], cast down, be decayed, (cause to) fail, (cause, make to) fall (down, -ing), feeble, be (the) ruin (-ed, of), (be) overthrown, (cause to) stumble, X utterly, be weak.
Another reason the Holy Spirit doesn’t often move in services, is that men don’t pursue or wait on him long enough in their prayer closets (hearts, private devotions) to receive from him. Worldly church members weighed down with the cares of this life (Lk 8:14), have become the norm. Rev 3:16 So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Many don’t seem to have a desire for the return of Jesus, they’re ‘living their best lives NOW!’ Jesus didn’t tell us to live our best lives now, but to PICK UP OUR CROSSES AND FOLLOW HIM – Lk 9:23, Mk 10:21, Gals 2:20, 5:24! Our BEST LIFE is in the hereafter – Rom 8:17 and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.
Yet another reason for the Spirit’s aloofness in the Church, is sin in the camp; dissention, divisions, striving for position, power, and titles (1 Cor 3:3, 11:18; Jms 4:1-3, 11). Many are spiritually DEAD – “Ichabod” (1 Sam 4:21) from whom God’s Spirit has departed, as it had from king Saul (1 Sam 16:14, 1 Sam 28:15). If your church doesn’t allow speaking in tongues, prophesying, and other works of the Holy Spirit in its services, and you never feel his presence there, seek God for direction.
Legalists love to burden you with a load of man-made rules and obligations, like blessing one’s self with ‘holy water,’ and ‘crossing one’s self with the sign of the Cross’ before entering the sanctuary and before eating, ‘bowing down on one knee’ in the aisle before entering a pew, repetition of prayers (Rosary and others), praying to deceased saints, wearing of talismans (medals and Scapulars), venerating a wafer as Christ’s body (as in Transubstantiation) and many more. Protestants have their own, yet similar set of religious works and rules by which they seduce men into a false piety, or outward show of righteousness. Some regard only ‘traditional forms of worship’ as viable; if you don’t attend church and do what they do there, you can’t possibly be a devout, faithful Christian, if one at all. Holiness and Pentecostal groups often have a list of do’s and don’ts like, “Don’t cuss, smoke, drink alcohol, play cards, go to movies, watch TV, wear makeup or jewelry, etc., and so long as you keep that list, you’re OK. Most of these things aren’t sinful per say; smoking in my opinion is since it defiles the body. Some may partake of them in moderation without defiling their souls, others may not. This is where God’s “permissible will” comes into play. When there’s no law against doing something which could become a stumbling block or temptation for oneself or someone else, one must follow his conscience or better, ask God if a thing is good for him or not, and accept his verdict on it. The point is, abstaining from outward, obvious sins alone doesn’t make one holy. God sees the heart, and his Word judges the sinful thoughts and intentions of one’s heart – like hatred, lust, greed, envy, and murder (Luke 5:22, Mt 15:19). Harboring hateful thoughts towards one’s neighbor, is tantamount to murder Jesus said (Mt 5:21-22), and is far worse than cussing for example. The legalist judges according to his own standards, not according to God’s, and often doesn’t even realize it (Mt 23:23). Tithing and going to church on Sunday doesn’t make anyone a Christian; one must be “born again” (by God’s Spirit) or he isn’t a Christian (John 3:3, 7; 1 Pet 1:23). Legalism may gain a stronghold in those who walk by the flesh and not by the Holy Spirit. When we walk by the Spirit (live through his leading), we won’t fulfill the desires of our flesh (nature) – Gal 5:16, 25. Also, when we ‘put on Christ,’ we won’t walk by our flesh – Col 2:6; 1 Jn 2:6. The Christian life requires constant vigilance (watching, checking one’s true spiritual condition) – Rev 3:3, 16:15; 1 Cor 16:13; 1 Th 5:6.
Legalists love to exalt themselves, seeking the top positions in church or synagogue so as to gain the admiration of their fellows.
Mat 23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, (priests and pastors often wear long, ornate robes to distinguish themselves from the rest of the congregants) Mat 23:6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues (or churches) Mat 23:7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. (or father, pastor, etc.) Mat 23:8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.
But be not ye called Rabbi,…. Do not be ambitious of any such title, fond of it, or affect it, or be elated with it, should it be given you; nor look upon yourselves as men of power and authority over others; as having the dominion over men’s faith, a power to make laws for others, impose them in a magisterial way, and bind and loose men’s consciences at pleasure, as these men do. – John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible
Mat 23:9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Mat 23:10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. Mat 23:11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. Mat 23:12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
Jesus was ‘humble’ and never sought praise from men. Mat 21:5 Tell ye the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, Meek, and riding upon an ass, And upon a colt the foal of an ass. Php 2:6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: Php 2:7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: Php 2:8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Jesus was exalted for his humble obedience to his father’s will and now sits at his father’s right hand – Eph 1:20, Rm 8:34.
Legalists are more concerned with outward appearances than with inward holiness.
Mat 23:26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the platter, that the outside thereof may become clean also. Mat 23:27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Mat 23:28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but inwardly ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
Not much has changed since Jesus’ day, there are many in houses of worship today who only appear to be righteous, but God knows all men’s hearts, and judges accordingly. It is written, Jas 1:27 Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
“to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction;”and not only to see them, and speak a word of comfort to them, but to communicate to them, and supply their wants, as they may require, and according to the ability God has given: where there is true religion in the heart, there is love to God; and where there is love to God, there is love to the saints; and this will show itself to them, in times of affliction and distress; and where this is wanting, religion itself is not pure and undefiled – John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible.
“keep oneself unspotted from the world” – will keep us from the maxims, vices, and corruptions which prevail in the world, and make us holy. Compare Rom 12:2 Jam 4:4 1 Jo 2:15-17. Albert Barne’s Notes on the Bible
“pure, undefiled religion” – (G283 amiantos) Thayer Definition: 1) not defiled, unsoiled; 1a) free from that by which the nature of a thing is deformed and debased, or its force and vigour impaired.
One way the force or vigour of pure religion is weakened and impaired, is to turn it into a legalistic observance only, while abandoning the spirit (intent) of the law – Mt 5:22-44. Another, is to make the observance of outward religious rites and dogmas the locus of righteousness, which Christ and all the Writings decry. During his earthly ministry Jesus corrected the false teachings of legalism.
Legalists persecute the righteous, and you’ll find them everywhere!
Mat 23:34 Therefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: some of them shall ye kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, (or churches) and persecute from city to city:
These are some of the tactics of legalists in every religion. The spirit of legalism seeks to discredit if not destroy, the ministry of true men and women of God doing the true works of God. For where there is the true, there is also the false; where there is ‘wheat’ there is also the ‘tare’ (Mt 13:24-39). If you think you might be a legalist, don’t despair, God forgives when we sincerely repent and ask for his help. At times, we have all been legalistic, usually without being aware of it. An unholy ‘spirit’ caught from being part of a legalistic church may be one cause. There are other causes as well, errant teachings, and of course pride – wanting to appear more ‘holy’ and righteous than one really is.
I realize that some things written here may offend a few people, which is never my intent or desire, but it can’t always be helped. Know that I take no pleasure in offending anyone, but the truth must be told. I’ll be held accountable, having been commissioned to “preach” and prophesy to the Church – Isa 58:1 Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Therefore, I will fear God and not worry about men’s opinions of me.
Debra R. Stout © May 24, 2015