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Legalism is an easy word to throw around, but a challenging term to define. For many of us, legalism seems to refer to whatever restrictions others might feel that I personally do not feel. But defining legalism carefully is vitally important.
 
It is important for each follower of Christ. It is a serious business to discount a restriction as legalism when it actually is displeasing to the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. Equally it can be stifling to the life He has given us to overlay unnecessary restrictions and thereby misrepresent Him to ourselves and others.
 
The issue of representing Christ to others means that defining legalism accurately should be a concern for every preacher. People look to us for guidance, both in clarification of the Gospel and in instruction for living. Every preacher treads a minefield in every sermon – preach legalism, or preach license, and damage will be done.
 
However, many of us never really think about the definition of legalism. I think part of the reason for this is that we have been lulled into a false sense of security by an inadequate definition.
 
Many definitions are essentially similar to this:
 
“Legalism is about trying to merit salvation by obedience.”
 
But there is a significant problem with this definition. Too easily we will hear this to be referring to the heresy of salvation by works. That is, the idea that we have to behave in order to be saved. And the problem with that understanding of legalism is that once we are saved (by grace, not works), then we are effectively immune from any charge of legalism. After all, doesn’t every born again believer in Jesus know that salvation is based on grace, not works?
 
Surely a definition of legalism that rules out any Christian from being a legalist must be flawed.  It concerns me because I am sure I have met a few legalists.  I have probably been one too.
 
So perhaps it would be better to define legalism as “trying to merit God’s favour by obedience.” After all, God’s favour is not just about getting into the family in the first place, we also value God’s favour in our ongoing relationship with Him.
 
Next time I would like to wrestle with this idea more and identify one big reason why believers can fall into legalism so easily.


Peter Mead is involved in the leadership team of a church plant in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often at BiblicalPreaching.net and recently authored Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014). Follow him on Twitter

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Joe Schuck

commented on Apr 6, 2016

For me, the best definition of Legalism comes from Dr. Holis Gause who said, "Legalism is any system of behavior that is divorced from the love of God." Salvation only starts the process of obediently following Christ. It is the "following of Christ" that defines obedience.... not any idea or system I can think up or demand from others.

Paul Barreca

commented on Apr 6, 2016

It might be helpful to maintain the term legalism for your first definition, "trying to obtain salvation by obedience." That appears to be the biblical use of the word. I like to use the word "judgmentalism" to describe human efforts and standards as applied to spiritual growth. Legalism is human efforts toward justification. Judgmentalism is human efforts toward Sanctification. Both are errors to avoid!

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