In this new series on the blog, we’re continuing to make good on our promise to provide sound doctrine for everyday people by providing you with clear and simple definitions that will strengthen your theological foundation. Each article covers 4 categories including:

  1. The Term – We lay out how it’s pronounced.
  2. The Definition – We provide the Merriam-Webster definition and an everyday version.
  3. The Biblical Connection – We show you where the term connects with Scripture.
  4. Used in an Everyday Conversation – We use it in a basic conversation.

The Term


The Definition

Merriam Webster: Excessive adherence to law or formula. Dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.

FTG’s Expanded Explanation: Legalism treats moral behaviors and obedience to God’s Law as to how you achieve salvation. This leads to a primary emphasis on behavior modification and rarely focuses on heart transformation. Legalism aims to fix someone’s behavior without ever focusing on their heart and is the opposite extreme of another term we’ve defined: Antinomianism. Since people who are antinomian believe that there is no need to obey the Law of God because we are under grace, people who practice legalism believe that keeping religious laws will make them good enough to earn grace. Legalism is practiced by religions like Mormonism, which teaches that you are saved by God’s grace but only after you do enough good works. Roman Catholicism is another legalistic religion that teaches that you must perform certain acts to keep your salvation. Legalism adds human rules to the Law of God. Legalism believes that your good works save you and keep you saved. Legalism knowingly or unknowingly makes your relationship with God a set of religious rules, rather than a desire for obedience out of genuine love for God. Legalism leads to a lifestyle of rule-keeping and outward moralism but does not save your soul.

The Biblical Connection

We find the idea of “legalism” in the Bible when Jesus calls out the Pharisees in Luke 11:39-54. In one section of this passage He says:

“Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish; but your inside is full of greed and wickedness…“But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithes of mint, rue, and every kind of garden herb, and yet you ignore justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the seat of honor in the synagogues and personal greetings in the marketplaces.”

Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees because they were experts at making all the rules and enforcing all the rules while never keeping all the rules! They were hypocrites, forgetting that God transforms the heart first, then the lifestyle changes in effect.

Further Study: Galatians 2; Ephesians 2; Colossians 2.

Used in Everyday Conversation

“I was trapped in legalism for years, believing that if I was a moral person who kept a set of laws that I would be good enough to get into heaven.”

“A legalistic approach to Christianity makes laws where God doesn’t and takes God’s laws further than God does. While each person will have unique convictions on matters of conscience (James 4:17), we must never take our unique convictions and turn them into God’s commands — unless they are in line with Scripture.”

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