STUDY SIXTEEN: LEGALISM AND TRADITIONALISM
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015
Many of the isms we have studied are non-religious or anti-religious in their basic teaching. Legalism is specifically religious. Wherever there is belief in the existence of a god - whatever that god is: the god within of the New Age, tangible gods made by human hands or the God of the Bible - the human heart automatically relates to that god in terms of legalism.
Before we look at legalism we need to understand clearly that legalism is not the opposite of antinomianism. It is common for anyone encouraging believers to obey God’s commands to be accused of legalism. Such an accusation is unfounded: both Old and New Testaments command that we obey the laws and principles that God has revealed in this Word. To command obedience is simply Biblical Christianity, and a component part of Biblical faith. This is evident from the entire Scripture. Even those sections of the New Testament which magnify grace also stress that Christians should obey God’s commands. The acknowledgement and encouragement of this obedience is not legalism. Similarly, the exercise of church discipline is not legalism.
[Traditionalism is a form of legalism that has created laws and expectations out of human traditions – whether traditions developed from certain understandings of the Scriptures, denominational traditions, group or personal traditions. Acceptance is based on conformity of belief and practice to these traditions. What applies to legalism generally also applies to traditionalism.]
A. WHAT DOES LEGALISM TEACH?
 Human effort is necessary to gain acceptance and/or union with ‘god'.
 Human effort is necessary to maintain acceptance and/or union with ‘god'.
In legalism our destiny is in our own hands: we have to work to establish and maintain a relationship with our ‘god’, whoever or whatever that ‘god’ might be. It all depends on how well we perform the right rituals, keep the right laws, go through the right processes, or affirm the ‘right’ list of doctrines.
In this system, common to all religions and cults, the ultimate spiritual goal (whether it is the Biblical heaven, the Jehovah's Witness new earth, the Hindu escape from reincarnation into union with Brahman, the Buddhist Nirvana, or the New Age union with the god within) is attained by human effort. It is worked for, earned, merited, deserved and achieved by our own action. This is legalism: that we get this because we have done that. It is this system of a law-based relationship with God that Paul calls ‘the principles of this world’ [Colossians 2:8, 20]. It is the way the religious world thinks. Practically every cult and religion, including nominal Christianity, and much that presents itself as Christianity, is basically legalistic.
Note that legalism also exists in the form of a ‘doctrinal legalism’ in which affirmation of a prescribed list of doctrines is the basis of acceptance or rejection. While the Bible does present a minimum content of faith without which one cannot be saved it is not the human action of believing that merits the salvation, but the fact that the One in whom the faith is placed, Jesus Christ, is the only valid object of faith and worship and the sole source of spiritual life.
Legalism seems to be the automatic inclination of the sinful human heart in its religious endeavours, and for this reason every Christian is vulnerable to its deception and its enslavement.
A.1 There is a legitimate ‘legalism’
There is a legitimate or Biblical 'legalism’ in the fact that those who are not saved by the grace of Christ will indeed have to answer to God and his judgment on the basis of what they have done and how they have lived in this life. God’s law states that the soul that sins will die. That is straight tit-for-tat legalism. It is Biblical and it is the basis on which every human being must relate to God if he has not been redeemed from it by the Gospel. This factuality of the legal basis of God’s judgment and wrath - the existence of God’s legal structure – stands in direct contrast with the humanism, relativism and anti-supernaturalism we have studied in this subject, and which the majority of contemporary society has assumed to be true. This fact of God’s law and judgment is what makes the gospel necessary.
B. HOW IS LEGALISM EXPRESSED IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH?
Legalism was one of the first heresies to attack the church; in fact, it was in a legalistic religious environment that Christianity began. Jesus Christ was repeatedly in conflict with the legalistic righteousness of his contemporaries. The early church in Acts faced the conflict between the Gospel and legalistic religion. Many of the New Testament letters were written in whole or in part to defend and define the Gospel in the context of legalistic corruptions and add-ons. Right from its origins true Christianity has been under this threat of legalism, and this threat has continued right down to this present era.
B.1 In the New Testament church
Discuss the expression of legalism in these Scriptures. What was done to defend and define the Gospel in these contexts?
Mark 2:23 – 3:6
B.2 Legalism in the church today
Legalism is evident in varied expressions within the church today.
Discuss how each of the following expresses a legalistic understanding of man’s relationship with God. Where possible, discuss specific examples from your observation and/or experience.
 Participation in the sacraments (baptism and communion) is viewed as a meritorious action impacting my relationship with God and/or with other believers.
 Church membership or denominational affiliation is seen to ensure my acceptance with God and/or increase my acceptance by humans
 It is taught that if I'm good I'll go to heaven.
 The life I lead (whether in terms of my obedience to the Ten Commandments, or the length of time I spend praying or reading the Bible, or membership of a cell group, or the number of times I have witnessed, or my regularity at church, or how much of my income I give to the church, or my style of clothes, etc, etc) is seen to make me a ‘good' Christian, or, in some cases, a Christian.
 The impression is given that, to maintain my relationship with God, and/or my acceptance by other Christians, I have to maintain an acceptable level of performance. [Acceptable’ according to what my Christian group calls ‘acceptable’].
 External manifestations or evidence of spirituality are the basis of acceptance
 Human discipleship/accountability structures are imposed on every believer.
 A harsh/strict asceticism is expected of Christians
 Christians are accepted or rejected on the basis of their view of eschatology, especially of the millennium.
Because legalism lurks in each of us, it is difficult for the church to avoid it. Even when the truth of the gospel is heard, the human heart, left to itself, will usually interpret it legalistically. Let us now return to that gospel and review what it teaches.
C. WHAT DOES THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST TEACH IN CONTRAST TO LEGALISM?
In contrast to legalism the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches the inability of man to earn or deserve acceptance by God, and God’s way of salvation by grace.
Check out these statements and Scriptures. Discuss their contrast with legalism.
 It is impossible to be right with God by our own performance
Romans 3:19-20; Galatians 2:16b; 3:10-11a
 The only way to be accepted by God is through faith
Romans 3:21-22; Galatians 2:16a; 3:6-9,11b,14,23-25
[2a] Note that this faith is never faith in faith but faith in Jesus Christ
 This right standing with God is not based on our actions but on the grace of God; it is sheer gift
Romans 3:24; Ephesians 1:6-7; 2:7-8
 Because gospel salvation is sheer gift, all who have this salvation are equally accepted by God. We cannot boast of our performance because nothing done by us makes any difference to God
Galatians 3:26-29; 5:6;
 Because our relationship with God is his gift in his Son and not dependent on our goodness, it is complete and secure
John 6:35-44; 8:36; 10:28-29;
Romans 5:1,6-11; Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:4-10;
Colossians 2:10; 3:3
 For the full argument presenting and defending the gospel of Jesus Christ in its original legalistic environment, study these extended passages: Romans 1-8; Galatians 1:1-5:12; Ephesians 1-3; Philippians 3:1-11; Colossians 1:1-3:3, and Hebrews 1-11.
You will notice that the legalistic perversions threatening to destroy the early church are said by Paul to have their origins in ‘human traditions' and ‘the basic principles of this world' (Colossians 2:8,20,22; Galatians 4:3,9). Though this ‘Christian' legalism has a Biblical and godly sound, it is nevertheless anti-Christian, originating in the human heart and mind, not in the mind of God.
D. HOW DOES LEGALISM AFFECT THE CHRISTIAN BELIEVER?
So pervasive and subtle is legalism that we are all threatened by its seductive power. We need to be alert for its deceptions. Note well, we have been seduced by legalism when, for example, we:
Consider that we are more acceptable to God than other Christians are.
Fear that, because of today's failures, we are less acceptable to God than we were yesterday.
Believe that God will love us more and reward us if we go to church twice a week instead of once.
Feel guilty in the presence of other Christians because we have not the same passion for the lost as they have.
Believe we will have a bad day because we didn't have a ‘quiet time'.
This list could continue forever. Irrespective of the length of the list the results of legalism are the same:
 Legalistic Christians who are aware of their sinfulness are burdened with guilt and fear.
They have little or no assurance of their ultimate salvation;
they have little or no sense of their daily acceptance with God.
While knowing that Jesus died to take the punishment for their sins, they live as though their present relationship with God depends solely on their effort.
Condemning themselves for their failure to obey God's laws, the laws of their church or their own moral code, these Christians effectively short-circuit
Christ's work on the cross, living without peace, without joy, and without freedom from the curse of the law.
For all the good it does them in their own perception of their daily relationship with God, Christ's death need not have occurred (Galatians 5:1-12).
We must realise that the Christians feeling guilty and condemned in this way are not more sinful than others; rather they are people of sensitive consciences burdened and entrapped by a legalistic mindset.
 Legalistic Christians who are not aware of their sinfulness avoid this despair but tend to the opposite error of pride. Here we find
the boasting outlawed by the gospel,
a spiritual elitism,
a hardness of heart alien to the mind of Christ.
Inevitably we also find a reduction of the sinfulness of sin, a reduction of the holiness of God, and a parallel reduction of the significance of Christ's death. Again, the grace of Christ is denied as these people think they can stand in the presence of God on their own merit. Instead of rejoicing in the Lord, they boast in their own performance (Philippians 2:1-11; 3:1-11; Colossians 2:18-19).
 Although the right words are spoken and the name of Christ proclaimed, legalism effectively denies and opposes the Gospel. Legalistic Christianity is no more Biblical than any pagan religion or pseudo-Christian cult. Making our day-to-day relationship with God depend on our own work (not the work of Jesus Christ) is not true Christianity. Telling people they must stand in the presence of the holy God with their own righteousness in their hands (rather than standing in his presence clothed with the righteousness of Jesus) is not true Christianity. In such a perverted faith, I am no better off than if I were trembling at the altar of some pagan god, uncertain of the acceptability of my pitiful offering.
E. RECLAIM AND PROCLAIM THE GOSPEL
The Gospel of Jesus Christ promises us peace, joy and satisfaction (Luke 2:10,14; Jn 6:35). To gain these for us, the Son of God bore our sin in his body on the cross (1Peter 2:24). Let us each break off the shackles of legalism; let us refuse to be seduced by those who corrupt the Gospel in this way (Colossians 2:8,16,18,20). Let us reclaim and proclaim the Gospel and take our stand, and encourage other Christians to stand, solely and securely in the Lord Jesus Christ, rooted and grounded in him, complete in him, looking not at our own spirituality, but at Christ alone (Colossians 2:6,7,10).
Carefully read Galatians and Colossians. Make a list of the verses warning us against relating to God on the basis of our ability to obey laws, rules and regulations.
Traditionalism is one of the original enemies of God’s truth. We meet it in the book of Job, which is considered the oldest of the Biblical writings. Here the thoughts of Bildad express the traditionalist mentality: “Ask the former generations and find out what their fathers learned ...” (Job 8:8), and “... is the earth to be abandoned for your sake? Or must the rocks be moved from their place?” (Job 18:4). In his opinion what people had always believed, what had been handed down from generation to generation, was right. In his opinion, God would only do what everyone had always believed God would do.
The prophets repeatedly called God’s people to repent of their barren, heartless traditionalism. Jesus repeatedly hit his head against the brick wall of traditionalism, and the apostles, themselves once traditionalists, had confrontation after confrontation with people wedded to their traditional ideas about God and God’s relationships with people.
F.1 In traditionalism:
Traditionalism is an expression of legalism, in which human traditions are imposed on people as mandatory for salvation in the presence of God and/or acceptance in the presence of men. It is also a form of humanism and relativism.
Discuss these expressions of traditionalism in their legalistic, humanistic or relativistic implications. Give examples from your observation and/or experience.
 Human and/or church traditions are added to the written Word and imposed on Christians
 These traditions interpret and override the written Word and become normative for belief
 In time, these traditions become legalistic, adding human effort to the work of Jesus Christ and eroding the Gospel, teaching that I must affirm and/or conform to certain traditions to obtain or maintain my salvation
 Traditions become more important than Biblical truth
 Some traditions are in the form of beliefs, some are in the form of practice (ritual, ceremony, regulations, the way something is done).
It must be made clear that traditions are not wrong simply because they are traditions. The value of each tradition must be assessed by its faithfulness to the written Word. What is wrong is in the way we perceive the traditions and their relationship to the revealed Word of God. Traditionalism has had a negative and destructive effect on a church when:
Church traditions hide, suppress or supplant Biblical truth.
A church focuses on maintaining its traditions rather than promoting Biblical truth.
A church becomes self-centred, self-exalting, self-perpetuating, rather than Christ centred and Christ exalting, its goal being to maintain and preserve (or even reproduce) itself and its traditions instead of proclaiming and extending the kingdom of God irrespective of the survival of its particular traditions.
Traditional expressions and presentations of the Gospel assume people understand the terminology and concepts, with the result that there is a failure in communication, and the Biblical Gospel is lost in a labyrinth of “Christian” traditions and clichés.
A church is full of sincere but ignorant people, believing and doing the traditional thing, but with little or no understanding of basic Biblical truth.
While most of us are not in a position to undo the negative effects of traditionalism in our churches, we can and must recognise and undo its effects on us as individual Christians. Traditionalism is having an undesirable affect on us individually when:
We assume that all that our church says and does is right.
We assume that our membership of our church and/or our participation in its particular ritual or form of worship is what makes us acceptable to God, and we accept or reject others on the same basis.
Traditionalized presentations of the Gospel have left us ignorant of who Jesus really is and what he really did for us on the cross; for example “ask Jesus into your heart and you’ll be saved” does not really communicate the Biblical Gospel unless one already knows who Jesus is, what “into your heart” means, and what “be saved” means; yet it is a traditional way of presenting the Gospel.
True discipleship and sanctification have been replaced by conformity to church traditions (in the form of rules, regulations or raised eyebrows) about how “good Christians” should live.
Our submission to the authority of Jesus Christ has similarly been replaced by our submission to the expectations of our church.
We consequently find ourselves in a legalistic slavery to the moral codes and expectations of our church, in the same way as the New Testament Christians were being enslaved by the imposition of Jewish traditions. The results of this enslavement to traditional church expectations are many and varied, depending largely on our perception of our ability to satisfy those expectations: pride or despair, false security or insecurity, self-confidence or lack of assurance of salvation, self-satisfaction or depression. Because of a perceived necessity to constantly conform to the traditional expectations of our church the joy and peace which are ours in Jesus Christ are sadly diminished or non-existent.
It would be very easy for each of us to think that traditionalism is found only in churches that are openly traditional, where church traditions have knowingly and deliberately been placed on top of and along side of Scripture and officially given equal authority with Scripture as communicating the will and truth of God. These denominations make no pretence and no apology about their traditions; they glory in and promote their traditions for all to see.
But it is not in these alone that traditionalism exists. Every denomination, whether it be a large one, or an “independent church” of only one congregation, is a human organization, and wherever there is a human organisation, human traditions are added in some degree or another, to the Word of God. Just as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox faiths have their traditions, so too do the Protestant denominations, so too do “evangelical” churches, so too do “Pentecostal” and “charismatic” churches, so too do all of the small Christian groups which separate off in an effort to preserve purity of doctrine. Each develops its own bundle of traditions, human traditions added to and interpreting and overriding the written Word.
F.2 What can we do? How can we strengthen and protect ourselves and our families against so pernicious an enemy?
 Learn to distinguish between tradition and truth.
 Learn to distinguish between harmful and harmless traditions.
 Recognise that conformity to traditional perceptions, expectations or rituals has no in-built merit.
 Recognise that our relationship with God is not conditional on either keeping or not keeping of traditions.
 Study the Scripture to learn all we can about the Gospel of our salvation which is soundly and securely grounded in Jesus Christ alone and not in anything we do or are.
 Determine to be Christ-centred in our understanding, rather than church-centred.
 Be aware that every non-Christian religion and every pseudo-Christian cult errs in two central points: (a) the identity of Jesus Christ and (b) the grace nature of salvation. The degree to which a church’s traditions and teaching errs in these two points indicates the degree to which it is leaning towards a non-biblical position.
 Do not assume that our particular church is free from traditionalism.
Many traditions are not harmful in themselves. It is our attitude to them, the significance we and our churches give to them, that causes the harm and develops into traditionalism. This chapter is not meant to cause you to throw out and avoid traditions like the plague; rather it is written to enable you to discern valid traditions from invalid traditions, and, importantly, to recognize when human traditions have smothered the Word of God, obliterating its power, entrapping us in an enslaving net of human regulations and human expectations, short-circuiting the glorious, liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Read through one of the four Gospels. As you do so, note the recurring conflict between Jesus Christ and ‘traditional’ beliefs and regulations. Also, read through Galatians or Colossians. As you do notice how insistence on maintaining traditions was interfering with the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.