Legalism: What It Is and What It’s Not

By listening to the teaching of our day, we can see that there is a critical misunderstanding of what legalism is. I have heard legalism called so many different things from modern preachers that it’s really confusing, unless of course you understand the Bible.

In fact, as a pastor, I have had visitors come to my church and accuse me of being “too legalistic.” And I have heard other preachers called legalistic before too, and in every case I knew the accuser didn’t have a clue about what legalism really was, and was simply parroting what they had heard someone else say, who was equally uninformed.

In several New Testament books, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul dealt with the legalism that the Judiazers were bringing into the church. So, what is the legalism that Paul and others dealt with in the early church? The legalism they dealt with was an attempt by false teachers to require born again, Spirit filled believers to return to the Mosaic Law, and observe everything contained within it, including ceremonial washings, animal sacrifices, and so forth.

But all of this was done away with through the shed blood and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.

12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. 13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: 14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Hebrews 9:12-14 KJV

However, today the false teachers and others, consider “legalism” any teaching that places any requirements on born again believers to live as the Bible plainly declares we are supposed to live. But their cry that this is legalism is not only inaccurate and unbiblical, it is also absurdity.

For example, it is not legalistic to teach believers today about faithful church attendance. Because from Acts chapter two forward, we are instructed to be faithful at being in church with those of our “own company.” And we are also to be established in the teaching of the Word by the Pastor that Jesus appoints over us and not forsake the assembling of ourselves together (see Acts 2:41-47; Acts 4:23; Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 10:25).

False teachers are declaring that the things listed below and more are to be considered legalistic, but that teaching just proves their biblical ignorance. Because the Bible (not the Mosaic Law) is filled with this teaching.

  • Faithful church attendance
  • A daily prayer life, including praying in tongues
  • Tithing and giving offerings
  • Holy living and repentance
  • Bible reading and Bible study
  • Soul winning
  • Walking closely with God
  • And much, much more

These subjects aren’t legalistic my friend, nor are these teachings coming against the grace of God. On the contrary, the grace of God enables us to do these things in our daily lives as true Christians. God’s grace isn’t helping you live any way you want to live. Instead, the grace of God equips you to live based upon the standards of God’s Holy Word.

Now allow me to take this one step further. If someone considers a pastor or minister “legalistic” because they are teaching the standards for Christian living as clearly found within the Scriptures, it is evidence that they are without understanding of the Word of God, or of what He expects from all true five-fold ministers, including the pastors of every local church. As a case in point, check out the verse below.

“And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” 1 Corinthians 12:28 KJV

Notice carefully that God set “governments” into the church. In fact, this is a reference to a portion of the ministry gift office of a pastor. So, how could God set governments into His church if there are to be no laws or rules or standards by which we are to live?

Now consider this:

6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; 7 Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; 8 Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.” Romans 12:6-8 KJV

Why would God grace a pastor to rule, if there were no rules or laws and standards for us to be instructed in, and for us to live by?

“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” 1 Timothy 5:17 KJV

The elders mentioned here in this verse is a clear reference to the pastor’s office. And notice again that the pastors are rulers! But not rulers over people’s lives, telling them what car they can buy or how much they can spend on groceries this week. That would be utter nonsense.

The ruling and governing they do is to teach and preach the Word of God, by instructing believers to live according to the standards of God’s Word. Then they watch over God’s people to confirm that they are living by these Bible standards. To do otherwise is a direct violation of the scripture, and an embarrassment to all true five-fold ministers. Not to mention, they are being derelict in their duties, as assigned to them by the Lord Jesus Christ.

7 Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation….17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” Hebrews 13:7, 17 KJV

Notice that if the pastor is going to give an account for your soul with joy, then you must submit to his rulership position. So again, if there are no rules or laws or Christian standards that we are to live by in the Kingdom of God, then there is nothing for the pastor to rule with.

True pastors who teach the scriptures are not being legalistic, they are being biblical. That means that if your pastor is teaching you how to pray, and then he expects you to show up to prayer meetings, he’s not legalistic, but he’s a true man of God. And if he teaches you to tithe, to live holy, to be faithful to the House of God, and fully expects you to do all of these things, he is a genuine pastor and not being legalistic.

In conclusion, unless your pastor is teaching you to bring a goat to church with you next Sunday to offer a burnt offering, or something similar as found in the Mosaic Law, then it’s highly doubtful your preacher is legalistic. But if he teaches you the standards of the Word of God without compromise, then be sure to take really good care of him, because you have a bona fide man of God on your hands, and a rare gem in these last days.