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Legalism vs. Loving Obedience

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Donald Grey Barnhouse tells this story in his book Let Me Illustrate:

around 1928, I led a Bible conference at Montrose, Pennsylvania, for about two hundred young people and a few older people. One day two old ladies complained that some of the girls were not wearing stockings. These ladies wanted me to rebuke them. Looking them straight in the eye, I said, “The Virgin Mary never wore stockings.” They gasped and said, “She didn’t?” I answered, “In Mary’s time, stockings were unknown. So far as we know, they were first worn by prostitutes in Italy in the fifteenth century, when the Renaissance began. Later, a lady of the nobility scandalized the people by wearing stockings at a court ball. Before long everyone in the upper classes was wearing stockings, and by Queen Victoria’s time stockings had become the badge of the prude.” These ladies, who were hold-overs from the Victorian epoch, had no more to say. I did not rebuke the girls for not wearing stockings. A year or two afterward, most girls in the United States were going without stockings in summer and nobody thought anything about it.

Nor do I believe that this led toward disintegration of moral standards in the United States. Times were changing, and the step away from Victorian legalism was all for the better.

“Legalism” and “legalist” are terms we like to use for others, not ourselves. “Legalist” is a pejorative term, an insult, a negative label. We are quick to think of others as legalistic, but often blind to legalism in our own thoughts. The word “legalist” is greatly misused and over-used; some people will just use the label legalist to identify a church or individual that has stricter views than we do, but today we want to look at what legalism really is, what it is not, and how we can pursue loving obedience of God instead.

Some of you know it was in September of last year that the elders invited me back to GCBC as prospective pastor, and this time to bring my family. A week before our second visit to GCBC, Sept. 14, 2006, Pastor Dale emailed me:

Phil, for your Sunday morning messages, we would like to have you preach on
"Legalism". That does not have to be the title of your sermon, just the
subject of your study and message. Of course, what the Bible has to say on
the subject … If you have any questions, don't hesitate to call me or email me.

I would have normally expected to be assigned a passage of scripture, as my usual preference and pattern would be to preach expositionally verse-by-verse through a passage of scripture rather than topical preaching. This request threw me for a little loop and I wondered why this topic, what is the background?  Of course, ultimately, my concern was not where the church was coming from but where God’s Word was coming from and what the Scriptures had to say.  So I went for it and preached boldly, trying not to worry about offending anyone except God, and later in September the elders extended a call to me to be their pastor, and the Lord brought us marvelously together.

The word “legalism” – I found in my study – means different things to different people, and takes different forms from how the word was originally used.

Chuck Swindoll tells a true story:

I was conversing with a man I greatly admire. He is a Christian leader in a position that carries with it heavy and extensive responsibility. He said he was grieved on behalf of a missionary family he and his wife had known for years. The legalism they had encountered again and again on the mission field from fellow missionaries was so petty, so unbelievably small-minded, they had returned to the States and no longer planned to remain career missionaries. He said it was over a jar of peanut butter. I thought he was joking, to which he responded, “No, it’s no joke at all.” I could hardly believe the story.

The particular place they were sent to serve the Lord did not have access to peanut butter. This particular family happened to enjoy peanut butter a great deal. Rather creatively, they made arrangements with some of their friends in the States to send them peanut butter every now and then so they could enjoy it with their meals. The problem is they didn’t know until they started receiving their supply of peanut butter that the other missionaries considered it a mark of spirituality that you not have peanut butter with your meals. I suppose the line went something like this: “We believe since we can’t get peanut butter here, we should give it up for the cause of Christ,” or some such nonsense. A basis of spirituality was “bearing the cross” of living without peanut butter.

The young family didn’t buy into that line of thinking. Their family kept getting regular shipments of peanut butter. They didn’t flaunt it, they just enjoyed it in the privacy of their own home. Pressure began to intensify. You would expect adult missionaries to be big enough to let others eat what they pleased, right? Wrong. The legalism was so petty, the pressure got so intense and the exclusive treatment so unfair, it finished them off spiritually. They finally had enough. Unable to continue against the mounting pressure, they packed it in and were soon homeward bound, disillusioned and probably a bit cynical. What we have here is a classic modern-day example of a group of squint-eyed legalists spying out and attacking another’s liberty. Not even missionaries are exempted.

He adds:

“If I were asked to name the major enemies of vital Christianity today, I’m not sure but what I wouldn’t name legalism first … it is a killer. It kills congregations when a pastor is a legalist. It kills pastors when congregations are legalistic. Legalistic people with their rigid do’s and don’ts kill the spirit of joy and spontaneity … [and] drain the very life out of a church, even though they may claim they are doing God a service” (from Grace Awakening, 77)

S. Lewis Johnson said it this way:

one of the most serious problems facing the orthodox Christian church today is the problem of legalism. One of the most serious problems facing the church in Paul’s day was the problem of legalism. In every day it is the same. Legalism wrenches the joy of the Lord from the Christian believer, and with the joy of the Lord goes his power for vital worship and vibrant service. Nothing is left but cramped, somber, dull, and listless profession. The truth is betrayed, and the glorious name of the Lord becomes a synonym for a gloomy kill-joy. The Christian under law is a miserable parody of the real thing.

-- (“The Paralysis of Legalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April–June 1963)

Even more important is the words our Lord in Matthew 16, who twice warns his disciples, “Watch out and beware [pres. tense] of the leaven of the Pharisees”

The “leaven” according to Matthew 16:12 is their teaching, the essence of which was legalistic. After Jesus confronts their legalism in traditions in Mark 7, in Mark 8 he warns his disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.”  Luke 12 also has the same warning and says the Pharisee’s “leaven” is also hypocrisy – the twin sin of legalism.

Leaven to the Jews was seen as a bad thing, an evil influence:

-         It infiltrated and permeated and affected the whole lump of dough

-         It doesn’t take a lot for it to spread, a little will leaven the whole, not just a part. 

-         It fermented the dough, which the Jews associated with putrefaction, which to them stood for everything bad and rotten. 

-         Soon the little leaven is spreading and growing , it is permeating and pervading and the whole is corrupted.

We need to take the word our Lord very seriously in this warning.

In Galatians 5, Paul dealt with the problem with these words:

v. 1 "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”  

v. 4 “you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything …”

v. 8 “This persuasion [about circumcision, or works for salvation or sanctification] does not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.

The leaven of legalism was not only a threat to the Galatian church, it also was a threat to the Roman church, from what we can tell in Romans 14.  In my own life, it’s caused serious problems in some of the fundamentalist church circles my family have been in,  and it’s something no church or individual Christian can assume they’re immune to.

In 1 Corinthians 4, where we’ll spend some time today, and later in Corinthians, the result of legalistic leaven has to be addressed in the Corinthian church (see chaps 8-10 about disputes over food, drink, conscience, etc.).  If this could happen in apostle-founded churches, beware.



We need to start by defining legalism.

I’m going to cover a lot of the same ground from that original message last year, but I want to begin differently. To help us with our definition, let’s start with a quiz.

QUIZ – True or False

  1. A Christian school is legalistic if they require students to attend 2 church services each week, chapel services (only 8 absences per semester), under-classmen curfew of midnight, no cable TV in dorms, no going to clubs, drinking, etc. 
  2. A Christian father is a legalist if he enforces strict rules for his home (no playing cards, alcohol, tobacco, no R-rated movies, no single dates for teenage children in the home, etc.)
  3. A Christian church is legalistic if the women wear head-coverings and long dresses
  4. A Christian person is a legalist if they believe Sunday is the Christian Sabbath
  5. A Christian mission group is legalistic if they ask their missionaries to sign a contract that they will not attend movies in the theater, due to bad connotations, among other voluntary restrictions for testimony sake
  6. A Christian organization is legalistic if they do not associate with other groups outside of their denomination or narrow circle
  7. The Puritan Christians were legalistic if they didn’t practice Christmas or want pianos in churches
  8. A Christian group is legalistic if they prefer and teach from the King James Version of the Bible

I believe the correct answer is FALSE to all of these, if we have the right and proper definition of legalism. Those facts alone do not necessarily make someone a legalist.


What Legalism is NOT:

    1. having rules or standards for school, work, your own home, etc.
    2. seeking to be a super-disciplined person

1 Timothy 4:7 “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness”

                        We must follow biblical rules and discipline ourselves with this motive

v. 10 says “we labor and strive

v. 11 "Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you

v. 15 “Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them …" (1 Timothy 4:13-16, NKJV)

è    We must do this to be obedient to Scripture

    1. limited to radical fundamentalists or Pharisees; we all need to beware of this leaven, this legalism, this thinking which can pervade and permeate and poison the whole bunch and corrupt the simplicity of scripture #. following the legal requirements of God’s law / obeying His commands literally and as strictly as we can

The issue is our motivation

è    is it love for Jesus? John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”

è    is our overriding ambition to please Jesus (2 Cor. 5:9)?

There is value in God’s law – we do not throw it out altogether

 “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (Ps 19:7)

I delight in your law” (Ps 119:70, also in vv. 77, 92, 174)

O how I love thy law” (v. 97, also in vv. 113, 163, 165)

The law … is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (v. 72)

IN NT AS WELL -> Rom. 7:22 “I delight [or ‘joyfully concur’] in the law of God in my inner man

    1. personal convictions or even taking the high-ground in debatable or “gray areas” (ex: choosing total abstinence from alcoholic beverages for ones’ self only, giving up liberty for sake of testimony) è    we just shouldn’t judge others as less spiritual if they don’t share our conviction in a particular area

è    nor should we look down on others who have higher standards than us, assuming they are just “weak” or labeling them as “legalists” (their personal view may be out of a sincere desire to honor Christ, and just like you don’t want them to judge your heart, you shouldn’t judge their heart either)


What Legalism IS:

1. Following God’s law or commandments in order to gain or maintain salvation

a)      overemphasis on man’s works to the neglect of God’s work in us through His Spirit (Phil. 2:13 “work out your salvation … for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work His good pleasure”)

b)      when biblical activities and disciplines (ex: bible reading, prayer) are changed from a means of experiencing grace into a means of earning grace (Mahaney, 115)

c)      All Christians know works do not save them, but many live as if they think their efforts make them right with God love or more loved by Him

d)      reducing Christianity to rules rather than a relationship

2. Assuming conformity to rules = spirituality

a)      believing what you do or don’t do makes you spiritual or unspiritual

b)      thinking you are spiritual if you do X, Y, and Z, and not spiritual if you don’t

c)      focusing on the external rather than the internal

d)      pre-occupied with man’s performance of spiritual duties and therefore undermining the work of Christ on the cross and the Holy Spirit in us

Don Whitney writes:

“Legalism is the improper emphasis on works in our relationship to God. It focuses on the manifestations of spirituality that can be measured by number, frequency, duration, amount, and so forth … we sincerely want to discipline ourselves to pursue godliness. And the fact of the matter is that these biblical disciplines (such as Bible intake, prayer, worship, fellowship, stewardship, and fasting) can all be measured in one way or another. What matters is why we measure them. If it’s to reassure ourselves of our soul’s condition based on our external performance, then we’re acting like Pharisees. But if we measure particular aspects of our disciplines in order to simplify our spiritual lives or to hold ourselves accountable to certain goals, then there may be real benefits. So a person might try to read a given number of chapters in the Bible daily in order to avoid deciding every single day how much to read, and/or to keep pace for reading through the Bible in a year.” (from Simplify your Spiritual Life)

3. The word “legalism” is also used of when extra-biblical rules are added as moral and normal standards for all

a)      Creating moral standards that are not found in Bible

b)      measuring spirituality (ours and others) by these standards

c)      being dogmatic where scripture is not, and divisive when some disagree

d)      when our preferences are elevated above the principles from the Bible, when our convictions over “gray areas” become commands

e)      “a good Christian doesn’t drink, dance, or chew, or ever hang out with those who do”

In summary, legalism is not just about actions, it’s primarily about our attitude towards God and others

Carey Hardy, one of the Shepherd’s Conference seminar speakers at my old church has shared some very helpful insights on this topic of legalism.

He writes:

Again, rules and standards are not the problem.  They have their place in the home, in schools, and in your personal life.  It’s fine to have personal convictions that you hold dearly.

The issue is insisting that compliance with rules makes one spiritual or right with God. 

What kinds of issues do legalists adopt to gauge spirituality?  There are many—more than you may think.  In fact, we deal with these issues on a daily basis.  We call them the “gray areas.”  By that we mean that the Bible doesn’t explicitly say that various opinions in these categories are either right or wrong.[But we’re not saying there’s no biblical principles involved, some degree]

Here’s a brief list of some of the categories involved [Carey’s list with bracketed text added]:

¨       ENTERTAINMENT—movies [theaters vs. home], TV, cards, pool, paintball, computer games, places to go

¨       EXTERNAL PERSONAL APPEARANCE—clothes, makeup, jewelry, hair [length]

¨      MUSIC—style, etc.

¨       PARENTING [demand feeding vs. scheduling babies, rock to sleep, etc.]

¨       DATING

¨       EDUCATION OF CHILDREN—home, private, public

¨       BUSINESSES [WE GIVE MONEY TO] — Disneyland [boycott]



¨       GIVING  [strict tithing or monitoring of offerings]

¨       POLITICS—parties, activism

¨       MEDICAL ISSUES—life support, transfusions, medications


¨       SANTA CLAUS [or Christmas in general]


¨       FOOD [in NT, from pagan idolaters, kosher vs. Gentile, vegetarian, caffeine]


¨       SUNDAY ACTIVITIES [is it Sabbath, recreation, watch football game?]





Some of these are issues in particular areas of the country, and not in others.  In some areas the pastor and congregation come down heavily on “mixed” swimming, while people in other locales consider such a thing nonsense.  Some of these are issues in certain parts of the world, and not in other cultures.

The point is:  we have convictions on these and many other issues.  Churches have experienced turmoil in the body due to the varying convictions held in these categories.  Some churches have even split over them. (from “Walking the Thin Line”, SC 2003)

Results of Legalism

a)      Judgmentalism (1 Cor. 4:4-5a) [note: the Bible does tell us we are to judge some things, but there are also some things only God can judge, like in this text]

b)      Measuring others’ hearts or motives (v. 5b)

c)      Going beyond what is written (v. 6a)

d)      Arrogance (v. 6b) [CROSS-REF: LUKE 18 “I thank you I’m not like …”]

e)      Superiority (v. 7a NASB “who made you superior” – NKJV “what makes you differ from another” -> idea is who made you better than another?)

f)        Forgets that every good thing we have or do is from God alone (v. 7b)

g)      Bondage, frustration, misery, that only Christ can liberate us from (Gal. 5:1)

h)      Rejects the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross (Gal. 2:16 & 21)

i)        Rejects the sufficiency and power of God’s Spirit to sanctify people without the help of our rules (Gal. 3:2-3)

j)        Rejects the sufficiency of scripture (by adding to it, as if what God said is not enough to stop sin) Col. 2:20-23

k)      Majoring on minors and minor on majors (“weightier matters of law”)

l)        Can destroy relationships, even churches

m)    Eliminates need for biblical decision-making

è    Short-cuts discernment to just tell people our advice or conviction (even when right) without walking through the biblical principles that will help them think scripturally

è    You never have to make moral decisions for yourself about difficult issues, because some authority always makes them for you, and when you have to start making your own, you’re paralyzed

Biblical Examples of Legalism:

  1. Legalism in salvation – READ PHIL. 3:3-9 #. Legalism in supplementing scripture with our rules – READ MARK 7
    1. Being offended and fault-finding when others don’t follow our extra-biblical traditions (v. 1-2)
    2. Involves imposing our rules and routines on others (v. 3-5)
    3. Legalism is the twin sin of hypocrisy (v. 6a)
    4. External spirituality without true inner spirituality of heart (v. 6b-7a)
    5. Elevating teaching of man to same level or even above scripture (v. 7-13)
    6. Does not prevent or curtail inner depravity (v. 20-23)

Dave Swavely, in his helpful book on the subject (Who are you to Judge?), writes:

“Legalism is a way of covering hypocrisy because it creates external rules that can be kep regardless of the state of the heart – at least in the eyes of others. It allows people to look good outwardly even when their hearts are rotten. But legalism also causes hypocrisy, because people learn to keep the external rules without being changed internally.” (p. 97)

“We cannot go beyond what is written [1 Cor. 4:6] without in some way detracting from the purity and power of the Scriptures … we don’t need to search the Scriptures for guidance when we already have extrabiblical rules that tell us what to do. We don’t need the Spirit of God to give us wisdom in applying the principles of the Word when man-made principles have already settled the issue for us. But though the fences and new laws of the Pharisees might make some decisions easier for God’s people, they also make us weaker, because they cut us off from the Word and the Spirit, which are the real sources of spiritual power …

We will never grow in our application and knowledge of Scripture if we are focused on creating and keeping rules that are outside of it. Put another way, we will never learn to be dependent on and directed by the Spirit of God when we allow men or movements to take the place of the Holy Spirit by telling us how to live the Christian life.” (p. 100-102)


Why does Jesus take so much time and effort in Mark 7, to make the point, that it is not evil from the outside that defiles us, but evil from the inside?

“The answer is that legalism gets this point precisely backwards. Legalism builds fences to keep sin away from us, or to keep us away from sin, but often fails to address the sin that we carry with us at all times inside our hearts.  This is one reason that we are so easily drawn toward legalism, because it provides an easy way to be spiritual, or at least to be considered by others.  It is easier to stay away from the movie theater than it is to have a transformed heart that loves good and hates evil when we see it.” (p. 107)

"“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Matthew 23:23-28, NKJV)

The Alternative: Be Pursuing Loving Obedience


The opposite of legalism is not libertinism or antinomianism – that is another error that overreacts against wrong uses of the law and the Word to say that the principles and commands in scripture do not really apply to us because we’re “under grace”


"What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed," (Romans 6:15-17, NASB95)

The proper antidote to legalism is obedience from the heart with the right motivation – the glory of God and love of God. 

"For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome." (1 John 5:3)

This is the only way to break the slavery and yoke, and burdensome nature of legalism

Galatians 5:1 "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”

v. 13 “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another! I say then:

Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law."

No rules can help us avoid the lusts of the flesh, it is only in walking by the Spirit (v. 16)


Suggested Applications:

  1. Be clear where the Bible is clear, that many activities are sinful (ex: Gal. 5:19-21)
  2. In other areas not as clear, remember that we are all at different stages of our Christian walk and be gracious to others with different views (Rom. 14:1-2)
  3. Study biblical principles to form your personal convictions for you and your house (Rom. 14:5).
  4. But do not judgmentally look down on others spirituality by these (v. 3-4, 10)
  5. Recognize that believers with different preferences or opinions are often both sincerely seeking to please God (v. 6); don’t look down on the stricter one either
  6. In areas of liberty, don’t make your precious brethren stumble (v. 13-15, 21)
  7. When in doubt, err on the side of caution (v. 23) and seeking peace (v. 19)
  8. Ask if the activity will be profitable and/or potentially enslave us (1 Cor. 6:12)
  9. Ask if it will profit others (1 Cor. 10:23-24). Will it glorify God? (v. 31)
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