In the Church today, we throw the word “legalism” around quite a bit. I would even go so far as to say that it has become a Christian Buzz Word (CBW) in recent years. But do we really know what that word actually means? Where do we see the concept in Scripture?
First, let’s define the term. Legalism, for the Christian, is any standard that is taught that goes beyond what the Word of God has commanded. It is self-righteousness. We see no clearer example of this than with the Pharisees. During the Intertestamental Period, the Pharisees and religious elites of Israel added 400 of their own commands to the commands originally given by God to the Israelites. These commands went way beyond what the Lord Himself had deemed necessary and placed even heavier burdens on the people, thus constraining grace. You see this throughout the Gospels.
Paul deals with this issue directly in Philippians 3. He begins with this in verses 1-3:
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.
Paul is speaking about a group of Jewish Christians called Judiazers. Their teaching, which was that Gentiles must be circumcised like Jews in order to be saved, was one of the first teachings condemned as a heresy by the Church (see Acts 15). By teaching this, the Judaizers were imposing legalism upon Gentile converts to Christ. Paul goes so far as to call these people “dogs” (a Jewish insult) and “evildoers,” telling us that these people and their teachings were no good at all. Paul goes on to say that the sign of salvation (which is what circumcision was formerly regarded as) lies in believers who worship by the Spirit, glory in Christ, and put no confidence in the flesh, or in our own abilities. Paul then continues his case against this form of legalism (v.4-6):
Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Paul gives his “spiritual pedigree.” He lists all the ways that, by his flesh, he has reason for confidence. He followed the Law to perfection, was zealous for the Lord in persecuting the Church, and was an example to his fellow Hebrews. By his own works and self-righteousness, Paul was a model of obedience to the Law. Yet, Christ turned that all on its head. Look at what he says next (v.7-11):
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
How powerful is that? Paul confesses that everything he had ever done for the Lord was, as he puts it, rubbish. Trash. Meaningless. I’m sure he was agreeing that our own righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:4). We know that he dispels the notion for works-based salvation in Ephesians 2. Paul is testifying that works mean NOTHING. Not his. Not yours. Not mine.
He says that righteousness is not found in the law, but through faith in Christ. So, he was telling these Gentile converts that they didn’t have to be circumcised to be saved. Following the law doesn’t grant salvation. Faith in Christ alone is what does that. There is no work that can be added to the work of Christ. The work of salvation was accomplished at the Cross and confirmed by His resurrection.
We should beware that we do not add anything to what the Word says concerning righteousness, for that is legalism and betrays our trust in the work of Christ and the Word of God.
Legalism says you must work to be saved. Christ says it’s been done.
Legalism will bind your conscience to the conscience of others. Christ will set you at liberty to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
Legalism is impossible to maintain. Christ’s righteousness covers all your sin.
Rest in knowing that thanks to Christ’s work we are free to obey the commands of God and are given the power to abstain from the works and impossible demands of self-righteousness.