Have you ever been called a legalist? Or perhaps you’ve slapped that label on someone else? It’s a word that gets tossed around with alarming frequency in religious circles—always as a pejorative. But how well do we really understand legalism? Such a stinging indictment shouldn’t be used recklessly, or ignorantly.
In the days ahead we’ll examine three major strains of legalism and what Scripture has to say about them. They range from dangerous to damnable, but not all of them are obvious. You may be more prone to fall into one of them than you think.
Likewise, you could be throwing around the term inaccurately, accusing and impugning people who have done nothing wrong. Either way, legalism—true legalism—is a subject that demands our attention.
Today, we’ll consider the most familiar and heretical strain of legalism: works righteousness.
Scripture is explicitly clear regarding the relationship between our good works and our salvation—there isn’t one. We have a right, legal standing with God by grace, through faith in Christ, apart from any meritorious human works (Ephesians 2:8–9). But works-righteous legalism directly assaults that core gospel doctrine.
The self-righteous, or works-righteous, legalist thinks that salvation hinges entirely on his ability to meet God’s legal requirements for right standing with Him. He insists that good works are either the sole cause of, or contribute to, justification before God.
That theology was central to the defective religious system devised by the Pharisees. They actually believed they could fulfill all the requirements of the Mosaic Law if they worked hard enough. Many of them took great pride in their dedicated efforts at self-righteousness.
Jesus accurately described their delusional beliefs in one of His parables, reciting a typical pharisaical prayer: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11–12). That kind of self-righteousness was implicit in many of Christ’s encounters with the Pharisees. It’s why they couldn’t fathom the fact that Jesus hung out with sinners (Matthew 9:11).
Their fixation with earning salvation was exposed when one of their lawyers questioned Jesus: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25, emphasis added). And Christ responded by telling him exactly what he needed to do if he wanted to earn eternal life through his own efforts: “Do this [keep all of God’s Law] and you will live” (Luke 10:28). John MacArthur explains the point Christ was actually making:
Jesus, of course, was not saying that there were some people somewhere who could be saved by keeping the law. On the contrary, He was pointing out the absolute impossibility of doing so, since the law demands the impossible—perfect and complete obedience (James 2:10), and promises physical, spiritual, and eternal death to those who disobey it (Ezekiel 18:4, 20; Romans 6:23). Those realities put sinners in a hopeless situation. They are required to keep the law perfectly, but are not able to do so, and as a consequence face death. The only way out of that frightening dilemma is to acknowledge one’s sin (Psalm 32:5; Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9), cry for mercy (Luke 18:13), and through faith alone (John 3:16, 36; 5:24; Acts 15:9; Romans 3:20–30; 4:5; 5:1; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8–9; Philippians 3:9; 1 Peter 1:9) embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as the Savior and only sacrifice for sin (Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 9:24–28; 10:12).  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Luke 6–10 (Chicago: Moody Press, 2011) 354.
Tragically, the pharisaical lawyer failed to realize that he was actually talking with the One whose mission was to fulfill God’s law on behalf of sinners (Matthew 5:17; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
Grace Plus Works
Christ’s resurrection and ascension didn’t put an end to Jewish legalism. Rather, it was re-packaged to infiltrate the early church. Instead of offering another gospel based solely on works righteousness, a new wave of legalists argued that the Christian gospel needed to be supplemented with added works.
That was the heresy Paul fought in his epistle to the Galatians. People who were zealous for the Mosaic law had infiltrated the church there. Rather than denying the gospel of grace apart from the works of the law, these Judaizers wanted to blend certain Mosaic legal requirements—especially circumcision—with the call to saving faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:3; 4:9).
It’s worth noting that Paul’s war was not against circumcision per se, but rather its use as a supplemental means of justification.
In fact, Paul was emphatic that adding anything to Christ’s finished work ultimately negates His finished work:
If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. . . . every man who receives circumcision . . . is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law. (Galatians 5:2–4)
In short, human works do not blend together with Christ’s finished work to achieve salvation. It is not a collaborative effort. Short of perfectly fulfilling the entire Mosaic law, you and I cannot make a contribution to our right standing with God.
Roman Catholicism and the Galatian Heresy
Modern parallels abound to the situation in Galatia. Roman Catholicism bears a strong resemblance to the heresy of the Judaizers. The works they insist on may be different (as is their definition of grace) but the damnable equation is exactly the same—grace plus works equals salvation:
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema. Council of Trent, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon IX.
They object to justification by faith alone, anathematizing anyone who says “nothing else is required” except faith. Their religious system demands additional works of righteousness, performed by the believer, that contribute to his justification:
If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema. Council of Trent, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon XXIV.
Roman Catholicism is hostile to any soteriology (doctrine of salvation) where good works aren’t required. And their legalism continues unabated into the present day. The Council of Trent may be almost 500 years old but it is still binding on all Catholics. Its doctrine highlights the sheer absurdity of any and every ecumenical overture towards them. The battle lines that the Reformers drew with Rome over the gospel haven’t moved in half a millennium.
In fact, Rome’s error was dealt with two thousand years ago when Paul returned to the church in Jerusalem after his first missionary journey. He brought news of many Gentile converts to Christ. That announcement triggered heated debate among the first disciples—who were Jewish—concerning which, if any, Mosaic laws should be enforced upon the new Gentile believers. Acts 15:1–29 is exclusively devoted to this matter. Peter’s counsel at that meeting should be heeded by anyone who believes in adding any works to the gospel:
Why do you put God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way that they also are. (Acts 15:10–11)
The yoke Peter referred to was the righteous demands of God’s law and Israel’s continual failure to keep it throughout its history.
What Is the Purpose of God’s Law?
All of the legalists discussed above share two critical pieces of common ground: They missed the point of God’s law and they were oblivious to the seriousness of sin.
Choosing any path of works righteousness is to subject oneself to the full scope and demands of God’s legal requirements (Galatians 5:2–4). Everyone who fails to fulfill the law in every point is under its curse (Galatians 3:10–12). Christ’s judgment on the Pharisees holds true for everyone who subscribes to any form of works-righteous legalism: “You will . . . die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come” (John 8:21).
What then should we make of God’s commands? Was the law given in the hope that it might be a viable option through which men could possibly meet its requirements and attain eternal life? Was the law a bad thing because no one could keep it? Paul answered both of these questions with an emphatic “no.”
What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7)
God’s law plays the vital role of exposing our guilt. That, in turn, points us to our desperate need for a Savior (Galatians 3:19). Paul calls it “our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).
Works-righteous legalism is antithetical to that. Rather than exposing their guilt, legalists believe that the law affirms their self-righteousness. That is a path to eternal destruction that we must avoid at all cost.