Are You a Legalist?

Most Christians have, at one time or another, been accused of being a “legalist.” Of course, the term “legalist” is used in derision intending that we would run backwards in horror of being connected with the nasty “L” word. In most religious circles, the term “legalist” is connected to the Pharisees and its meaning is assigned as being necessarily devoid of love or any proper motive. Obviously then, no one wants to be characterized as a legalist. But have you ever stopped to think about what “legalist” really means? What does “legalist” mean?

First, it is important to realize that this word is not even used in the Bible. Since the word is not found in the Bible, we will have to define it from the English language. Webster defines “legal” as, “deriving authority from or founded on law; conforming to or permitted by law or established rules.”

So then, a “legalist” is one who derives his authority from law, or founds his authority on law. The true “legalist” conforms to the law or established rules. He does those things that are permitted by law or established rules. Now you will obviously see that, while this word is not found in the Bible, the concept of “legalist” is there (Colossians 3:17; Hebrews 8:5; John 4:24; Matthew 28:18-20).

It is also interesting that the concept of legalism or legalist is not used in derision in the Scriptures! We can often learn a lot about a term or a phrase by examining its antonym or opposite. The opposite of legal is illegal. There is no such word as “illegalist” (which is what our accusers really are) so what is a person who is not a legalist? We can see from the definition that one who is not a legalist is one who DOES NOT derive his authority from law. He DOES NOT conform to the law and DOES NOT do only those things permitted by law. The Bible actually has a term that describes a person who does not found his authority upon law — that term is “lawless.” This word is used in Matthew 7:23 where Jesus says “depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.” The KJV translates this word “iniquity.” It is the Greek word anomia which means “without law.” A legalist conforms to law, thus one who is not a legalist is essentially “without law” or lawless. John tells us that “whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). The Bible tells us that Jesus “hated lawlessness” (Hebrews 1:9).  Would that make Jesus a “legalist?” A legalist is not necessarily devoid of love or any proper motive. The word “legalist” simply describes a person who finds it important to conform to the proper law or authority.

There is no doubt that our motive to keep God’s law must be love (Matthew 22:37), but love without law keeping is condemning (Luke 6:46) and really is not “love” at all (John 14:15). Jesus did NOT rebuke the Pharisees for their strict attention to law. When He spoke of their tithing (Matthew 23:23), He did not criticize their tithing but their failure to show mercy, justice and faith. Jesus said, “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” We should not pursue law keeping and ignore justice, mercy and faith, but neither should we pursue justice and mercy while ignoring law keeping. Jesus never criticized law keeping, but rather, He himself kept the law perfectly. I ask again, was Jesus a legalist? I believe He was and I am satisfied to be as Jesus.

The alternative to “legalist” is “lawless.” This is the reason that many who hate legalism will also tell us that we are not under law. More and more preachers are telling us that grace and law are mutually exclusive. One preacher was quoted as saying “For me, for years, Christianity was a moral code. It is now becoming a love affair. For years there were rules and regulations, now it is a relationship.” This effort to escape the accountability of Christ’s law is lawlessness.

Brett Hogland

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