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What Is Legalism?

by David A. DePra

     Legalism is a term which does not occur in the Bible. But the

concept is clearly there. In fact, the Bible uses a term which equal to

legalism. That term is "under the law."

     But what is legalism? What is being "under the law?" We hear

much about it, but do we really understand what it is?

What Legalism Is and Isn't

     First of all, legalism is NOT "law." Neither is legalism "works."

Legalism isn't even "works which follow the law." None of those

things are legalism, or being "under the law."

     Legalism is simply this: USING works -- USING law-keeping of

any kind -- to establish my own righteousness before God.

     Now we must get that distinction. It isn't that I keep laws. A

Christian is certainly going to keep God's moral law. And it isn't that

I do good works. A Christian will do many good works. I am living

"under the law" when I use my obedience, performance, actions,

or even attitudes, as a means of making myself righteous before


     Legalism is trying to do for myself what Christ has already done.

It is trying through works to reach up to God, when God has already

reached down to us. It is using MY works, MY performance, and

my spiritual accomplishments as a basis for my faith. It is a

substitute for walking by faith in Christ alone.

Making Ourselves Righteous

     It is easy to think that few of us actually try to make ourselves

righteous before God through our works. But the Truth is, there are

few of us who DON'T. We do it continually. It is a life-long process

to learn and experience our freedom from being "under the law."

Some of us have yet to start the process.

     Why? Well, first of all, we must understand that there is born in

us a condition which might be called, "Adam's nakedness." We

all know the story of how Adam was naked in the garden and not

ashamed. But then we know that after he sinned, he saw that he

was naked and WAS ashamed -- indeed, he said he was AFRAID.

His response was to hide among the trees from God, and then to

make for himself a covering of leaves. All of this was the result of

sin. It was a product of Adam having stepped out of God's will

over into his own will.

     This story in Genesis carries a tremendous Truth. God is there

showing us the condition of each one of us as we are born in Adam.

We are naked -- morally and spiritually. It is a condition which

keeps us in perpetual FEAR. We hide. We hide from God and

from ourselves. And we try to FIX the problem. We attempt to

construct whatever we can to cover our spiritual and moral

nakedness -- usually some religious system.

     This condition is not something we have chosen. Neither is it

something we can do anything about. It simply IS. It is heredity

in Adam.

     Now here we are, born into this world, fully immersed in Adam. We

all carry this condition. And one day we become a Christian. But

maybe we haven't been taught the Truth. Or maybe we have been

taught the Truth, but for some reason, we haven't yet seen it. Either

way, we find old habits hard to break. So we continually try to fix

what sin has done. We try to sew fig leaves. And for some of us,

our fig leaves are the good works we perform as Christians.

Righteousness By Works

     The folly of thinking we can make ourselves righteous by doing

good works should be obvious. And most of us would say that we

know that. Yet examine yourself on this issue and it is more than

likely that you do it all the time. When you do good, you feel like

you are righteous. When you fail, you don't feel like you are

righteous. So far, so good. None of that is necessarily wrong. But

it does become a problem when you begin to base what you

believe on these feelings. If you believe your righteousness is in

any way based on your works, you are in error. Your righteousness

has nothing to do with your works. Your righteousness is a foreign

righteousness. In fact, it really isn't even yours. It is the

righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed TO you.

     The bottom line is, your righteousness in Christ exists completely

independent of your works. Get that. The two are NOT related.

Your works did not make you righteous, and your works do not

maintain your righteousness. You are righteous only because of

what Jesus Christ has done.

Walk in Grace

     Now, one of the most common mistakes here is for us to think

that this matter of righteousness through Christ is an issue which we

need only settle with regard to salvation. Everyone knows that we

are "saved by grace through faith." (Eph. 2:8) But few of us seem

to realize that we must walk in that same "grace through faith" after

salvation. Paul said so. He said:

As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in

Him. (Col. 2:6)

     If I have received Christ "by grace through faith," then I must "so

walk in Him." How? By grace through faith. This is the gospel and

the continual teaching given in the New Testament.

     This is the point at which many of us stumble. We think legalists

are those who believe they are SAVED by works. But the Truth is,

you will never find a legalist who believes they are saved by works.

Not a one. They will never teach such an obvious error. A legalist

is someone who believes -- perhaps subtlely -- that their standing

before God AFTER salvation is based on works.

     It is vital to see this. I may realize the folly of saying that I am

saved by my works. But once saved, it is much easier to be

deceived into thinking that I maintain my salvation, standing with

God, indeed, that I maintain God's grace and favor towards me by

my works.

     The New Testament epistles which are written to show us the

Truth about law and grace were not written to Jews who were mired

in law. They were written primarily to Gentiles who had been saved.

But they had stepped out of grace and had come "under the law,"

just like the Jews had been "under the law." This alone tells us that

the epistles of Paul are not written to harp over and over again on

our need to see we are saved by grace. They are written to show

us that we now must LIVE by grace. For THAT is where we most

often try to use our works to maintain our standing before the Lord.

Reliance Upon Christ

     Instead of using our works to maintain our righteousness, and

thus, God's favor towards us, the Truth is that we are fully right with

God because of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ alone is how we got

saved, and faith in Christ alone is how we are to walk as His people.

     What this means is that we are to be fully reliant upon Jesus

Christ -- and not reliant upon our works. We are not to USE our

works as a credential before God. We are to put our faith and

reliance in HIS finished work.

     But what does that really mean -- to be fully reliant upon Jesus


     Primarily, it means that regardless of my works, I refuse to be

moved from the Truth that I am righteous completely apart from

my works -- indeed, solely because of what Christ has done.

     As Paul put it:

But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested,

being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the

righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and

upon all them that believe. (Rom. 3:21-22)

     Practically speaking, to rely upon Christ by faith means that when

I fail, I believe "there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus."

Therefore, if I feel condemned, I know that it is a lie. And if I do a

good work, I know that I have no grounds for "boasting" before God,

or for using it as proof that I am righteous. Again, my reliance is

upon the finished work of Christ. What I do, or don't do, cannot

change or alter what He has already done.

     Here we see FAITH. If I don't really believe my righteousness

is eternally in place because of Christ, I will be moved when I fail

or succeed -- moved to using MY works as a credential. But if I do

believe, I will not be moved regardless of my works. I will know

that my works have nothing to do with God's love and attitude

towards me.

Two Types of Legalism

     Do you grasp what this means for you and I? I mean, in our

everyday Christian walk? It means that there is nothing I can DO

which will put a wall between me and God. God has already said

He has reconciled us to Himself. And if we believe, there is nothing

we can do to cause Him to abandon us.

     Note the qualifier: IF we believe. Again, faith is necessary. For

if I DON'T believe that God's love for me is firm regardless of my

works, then I will take those works and put them between myself

and God. Note that I will do that. Not God. The only obsticles

between God and man are the ones which man -- and that includes

US -- put there through unbelief.

     Christians take their works and put them between themselves

and God all the time. Only we don't do it in quite the way we might


     This brings up the fact that there really are TWO types of people

who are walking in legalism -- using their works to do what Christ has

already done. The first type is the type who live continually under

condemnation and failure. They can never seen to accomplish by

their works what they feel they must accomplish. The second group,

however, think they ARE accomplishing it. Thus, the first group are

the "downtrodden." The second group are the "self-righteous."

     The "downtrodden" keep trying, but never succeed in doing what

God has already told them they can't accomplish. They keep trying

to sew those fig leaves and cover their nakedness, but can't. They

continually live in condemnation and fear. Some of them are quite

depressed. They just don't understand how they could be such

failures if they are really in Christ.

     The "self-righteous," however, have no such problem. They

live under the assumption that they have sewed together quite a

garment of fig leaves. They have, or so they think, proved they are

righteous by their works.

     So you have two groups. The "downtrodden" take their failures

and put them between themselves and God. The "self-righteous"

take their supposed obedience and put that between themselves

and God. Both are living in unbelief. Both are trying to USE their

works to make themselves righteous. The "downtrodden" know

they have failed. The "self-righteous" think they have succeeded.

     Note again what legalism is: It is NOT works or law-keeping.

WHAT laws I keep are not the direct issue. Legalism is USING my

works to try to make myself righteous. It is USING what I do -- or

indeed -- USING what I am -- to maintain myself in Christ. It is the

height of unbelief.

Senseless Works

     Those who teach and walk in legalism are guilty of it, not

because they DO works, but because they USE works to make

themselves righteous. But because they are in unbelief, relying

upon their works, the very works they do will also become

corrupted. Indeed, there will be no end to them. By the time they

are done, they will have constructed a law to follow regarding

almost everything.

     There are ways to picture this. Liken what Christ has done for us

to taking a "once for all" shower which forever makes us clean. But

if I walk in legalism, I walk into the shower stall and refuse to leave.

I scrub and scrub to try to get myself clean -- despite the fact that

I am already clean. There is no end to it. I begin to see dirt where

there is none. I reason that no matter how "clean" I am, I can always

make myself cleaner.

     The Pharisees, of course, did this. They added so much to the

original law of God that they even had laws for swatting bugs.

When you intend to make yourself righteous, and ignore the fact

that it is impossible, how can there be any end to the number of

laws you must create? There can be no end, for there is no end

to the corruption of humankind outside of Jesus Christ.

     When a person is living in the unbelief of legalism, and using

their law-keeping and obedience to make themselves righteous,

they can carry only bondage into even their law-keeping. They

have nothing else to work with. They may keep many laws, but

they are still in the prison cell. So the laws they keep are only

prison house laws. In time, the laws themselves will bear the

corruptive characteristics of unbelief.

Fallen From Grace

Paul wrote:

Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are

justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. (Gal. 5:4)

     Note that grace has not moved. No. The person has fallen

FROM grace. Neither has God pushed them so that they would

fall. No. THEY have fallen. Futhermore, Christ has become of

no effect for them.

     Some Christians are under the terrible impression that "legalism"

is merely "Christianity, but with a little too much law." Read the

above verse again. Is there a Christianity at all in which Christ is of

no effect? Is there such a thing as Christianity without grace?

     The fact is, legalism is the very ANTITHESIS of the gospel of

grace. It is the opposite. It directly contradicts the Truth that what

Jesus Christ did was fully independent of our works, and that God

offers it to us free of charge. God doesn't simply give us the

opportunity to come to Him "just as we are." "Just as we are" is the

only way we CAN come to Him.

     The grace of God through Jesus Christ is the gospel. It is the

GOOD NEWS that it doesn't depend on us -- not before we are

saved, or even after. It all depends upon Jesus Christ. Thus, our

faith is not to be in our works. We are not to use them as a reason

to boast before God. We stand only because of Christ. In Him

alone do we have our very being.

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