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Many of the isms we have considered 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.

What does legalism teach?

[1] Human effort is necessary to gain acceptance and/or union with ‘god'.

[2] 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. It all depends on how well we perform the right rituals, keep the right laws, go through the right processes. In this system, common to all religions and cults, the ultimate 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, deserved and achieved by our own action. This is legalism: that we get this because we have done that.

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. Right from its origins true Christianity has been under this threat.

Today we see legalism within the church when

[1] Participation in the sacraments (baptism and communion) is viewed as a meritorious action which has a decisive effect on my relationship with God.

[2] Church membership or denominational affiliation is seen to ensure my acceptance with God. 

[3] It is taught that if I'm good I'll go to heaven. 

[4] 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 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, or some other action of mine) is seen to make me a ‘good' Christian, or, in some cases, a Christian.

[5] The impression is given that, to maintain my relationship with God, I have to maintain an acceptable level of performance.

Because legalism lurks in each of us, it is difficult for the church to avoid it. Even when the truth of the gospel is understood, the human heart, left to itself, will usually interpret it legalistically. Let us now return to that gospel and review what it teaches.

What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ teach?

[1] It is impossible to be right with God by our own performance (Romans 3:19-20; Galatians 2:16b; 3:10-11a).

[2] 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). Note that this faith is never faith in faith but faith in Jesus Christ (John 8:24; Ac 4:12; Romans 10:9).

[3] 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). 

[4] 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 (Romans 3:27-31; 1Corinthians 1:29-31; Galatians 3:26-29; 5:6; Philippians 3:1-11).

[5] 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.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2012