This post is all about Legalism Theology, its characteristics, and dangers!
Legalism often comes with confusion, mainly because the Bible doesn’t use that exact word. People often debate as to what exactly it is; how can we spot Legalism? Etc. Also, people often use Legalism to infer or carry different meanings.
One thing that I have learned over the years since I was delivered from Legalism is the fact that one regards “law-keeping” and being saved by “works” or “merit” as a measure of living a wholly and acceptable life. Legalism really underplays the Grace of the Lord, His unmerited favor towards us.
Although there are many nuances and complexities to Legalism, I will discuss it as a whole for the purpose of this blog post.
Ready? Here we go:
New Testament view on Legalism Theology
As stated earlier, Legalism isn’t expressly used in the Bible. I would like to, however, bring to light two powerful verses from Paul and Jesus that we can deduce the implications of what we know Legalism to be today.
Firstly, let us look at Paul addressing the Church at Galatia. Paul addressed them as follows:
Galatians 1:6-9 6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the Grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert[a] the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be [b]accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
The following I what I understood from this passage (I have highlighted the portions I referenced above in the quotes as well)
- Some penalties come with preaching the wrong gospel.
- There was an illegitimate gospel being preached and presented.
- There is a perversion of the gospel of Christ.
- Trouble is present with this kind of perversion of the gospel.
Secondly, let’s see Jesus addressing the Pharisees. Here is a quick scripture for your reference: The Pharisees were often seen as “keepers of the law” when we see their many interactions with the Early Church. Most of the interactions note some heavy-handedness, strict and misguided approach to interpreting the law.
Mark 7:6-8 NKJV He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”
What struck me about this passage is the remark, “Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” This means the Pharisees added man-made doctrines. Also, there was a sense of pretense because they would honor and praise God with their lips, but their hearts did not represent complete surrender and genuine regard to God.
Characteristics of Legalism Theology
Friends, I fell prey to Legalism in a very subtle fashion. I grew up in a Christian Church that had a sound doctrine, but I found myself picking up Legalistic Ideologies along the way. People from culturally-heavy backgrounds who depend on tribal rules and regulations can quickly trade their ritualistic cultural ideologies to legalistic theologies. Unfortunately, many African Churches easily fall prey to this as they have been under stringent cultural rules for so long. (I happen to come from a very strict traditional and tribal cultural background.)
These ideologies, although subtle, chained me to have to “earn the love of God.” I wanted to do everything as per the law, and it would totally crush me when I fell short. It was not until 2010-2011 that God unearthed the subtle ways that hindered my spiritual growth. From there, I started breaking free and moved from fear to a relationship with God.
Here are the legalism traits that I can identify from my own experience:
1. Focus on fear than relationship
There is always a focus on the fear of God than relationship. People often see God as an angry and mean Old Testament God who will bring hellfire down to destroy one for not abiding by their legalistic ideologies. If one is unable to tithe one month, they feel that God may quickly punish them.
Let’s quickly go over the below scripture.
John 4:15 If ye love me, keep my commandments.
Note that the word doesn’t say if you fear me, keep my commandments! I believe as we develop a relationship with God, we will be at a point where we will desire to do what is right.
2. Adding man-made rules to church traditions
Most of these churches that have legalistic ways often add numerous rules that don’t appear in the word of God. Some churches may reject people with piercings or tattoos and say they are ungodly and unwelcome.
3. Burden and weariness
Most legalistic churches carry immense weight and burden on the congregation. You find that so many requirements revolve around the “service to the man of God.” If you don’t give or sow a seed towards the man of God, then they will write you off immediately as having “backslid.”
4. Serving God with words and not the heart
Some churches have an excellent mission and can have very good church speak that revolves around Christianity. However, their hearts are far from God. Remember the verse I shared earlier, Jesus said that the Pharisees honor Him with lips but not their heart!
5. Focus on alternate books rather than the word of God
A church I visited a few years back preached from the pastor’s “prayer points” books. After a 2-hour service, I didn’t hear any verse from the Bible. This is a red flag. If you aren’t African or haven’t fallen prey to Legalism, this may seem strange. However, this happens a lot!
Legalism theology is dangerous!
From my explanation of the characteristics of Legalism, it comes as no surprise that there are dangers to this theology. Some of the traits I mentioned are actual dangers of Legalism!
I want to highlight here that one can fail to walk into their full potential and purpose with Legalism.
Legalism is harsh; there is a lot of inner self-criticism or even criticism from church leaders who knowingly or unknowingly impose these theologies. The pursuit of “works,” “merit,” and “perfection” to please God is paralyzing.
One can fail to move by faith because they feel that they don’t deserve what God has in store for them.
I hope to do a YouTube Video about my deliverance from legalism testimony because it totally paralyzed me from stepping into my purpose. Once I complete the video, I will add the link to this post!
And that’s it folks, 5 Characteristics of Legalism Theology (and its dangers)
I believe that there needs to be a balance. Some people can use Grace as an excuse to continue a life of sin. From my reading and research (I’m not a Bible teacher by any means, I just share my faith and lessons on my blog), I know that there are Spiritual Jurisdictions and the law. It’s like a delicate balance.
If you are trying to break free from Legalism, this free audio teaching by Andrew Wommack on Galatians can be a good start for you! Also, if you are looking to understand the concept of Grace better, I suggest this free audio teaching by Andrew Wommack as well that is about the balance of Grace and Faith.
As I conclude, I want to provide the following quote by Thomas R. Schreiner. It is as follows:
“Legalism exists when people attempt to secure righteousness in God’s sight by good works. Legalists believe that they can earn or merit God’s approval by performing the requirements of the law,”
I think that is the perfect summation of this post, so that I will end with that note.