Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Wikipedia (in Christian Theology) defines legalism as, “the act of putting law above gospel by establishing requirements for salvation beyond repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and reducing the broad, inclusive and general precepts of the Bible to narrow and rigid moral codes.” Merriam-Webster defines it as, “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code-usage, synonyms, more.”
To understand legalism in its correct Biblical interpretation the word “Judaizer” must also be understood because the two terms are closely related and are used interchangeably by most Christians today. Judaizer is defined by Miriam Webster, “to adopt the customs, beliefs are character of a Jew.” Wikipedia defines it: “Judaizers is a term for Christians who insist that their co-religionists should follow the Law of Moses. This term includes groups who claim the necessity of continued obedience to the Law of Moses found in the first five books of the Christian Old Testament.” The Free Dictionary definition is: “To bring into conformity with Judaism.”
OK, let me begin by saying that this subject is a hot button for most Christians. Today, the general opinion OF MANY Christians is that “grace covers all” so don't judge me or expect me to live by any set moral codes or you are subjecting me to legalism. These SAME Christians are living on a “greasy grace” slope that is spiraling them towards disaster and the second death which is promised for those who do not repent.
Then there is a second set of Christians who believe that “legalism” is having to obey Yahweh's Torah, or the first 5 books of the Old Testament, with all of its rules and regulations. The majority of Christians believe that these were all done away with, largely because of the writings of the Apostle Paul.
While I am an advocate of “salvation by faith”, I also believe, as is stated in James 2:18-26, “But someone may say, "You have faith, and I have actions." Show me your faith without any actions, and I will show you my faith by my actions. You believe that there is one God. That's fine! Even the demons believe that and tremble with fear. Do you want proof, you foolish person, that faith without actions is worthless? Our ancestor Abraham was justified by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar, wasn't he? You see that his faith worked together with what he did, and by his actions his faith was made complete. And so the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. And so he was called God's friend.” You observe that a person is justified through actions and not through faith alone. Likewise, Rahab the prostitute was justified through actions when she welcomed the messengers and sent them away on a different road, wasn't she? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without actions is also dead.” (ISV)
Now, the Greek word used here for “actions” means: “works, deeds, toil, labour, doing.”
The Bible is full from cover to cover with scriptures that prove that “works” are required by those who believe and that a person's “works” go “hand in glove” with salvation by faith. So, what works are we suppose to perform or try to put into action within our lives that goes along with our salvation? Well, good works, of course! Where do we find these good works located within the Word of God? Hopefully you will know by the time this lesson is finished.
There are many scriptures that could be chosen to bring out revelation about the true origin of “legalism” in the New Testament. For me there was only one chapter and a little history lesson that made the point plain. It is this history lesson and chapter that I will discuss in detail and then throw in some additional passages by Y'shua and the Apostle Paul; for added clarity. In fact, it is usually the words of the Apostle Paul that are used most often about this topic and he is generally the New Testament writer that is most mis-understood.
Anyone that has any knowledge of the Bible should remember that the Apostle Paul (Sha'ul in Hebrew) was called by Y'shua to go to the nations and preach the gospel. When all of these Non-Jewish people began to accept his message it caused quite a stir amongst the “traditional” establishment. The Jews of the first century basically had a “locked” system of religion. If you were to be part of that system then there were “strict” and “formal” doctrines that had to be practiced. Any Non-Jew that believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and adhered to what the Jews called “the Noahic Covenant” and/or kept Torah as they did, was granted favor by the establishment and they were called “God-Fearers”; such was the case with Cornelius (Acts 10:22). In fact, to prove my point, The Complete Jewish Bible actually states Acts 10:22 in this manner: “They answered, Cornelius. He's a Roman army officer, an upright man and a God-fearer, a man highly regarded by the whole Jewish nation; ….” This term is well known amongst Jews even to this day.
These God-fearers were Non-Jews that had not yet FULLY CONVERTED to Judaism but had attached themselves to the nation of Israel and their God. This group of people (God-fearing Gentiles) would attend synagogue daily or especially on the Sabbath. We find many scriptures throughout the book of Acts verifying this to be true. Please read Acts 13:14-16, Acts 14:1, Acts 17:10-12, Acts 17:16-17, and Acts 18:4 as some examples.
What happened is that the number of Gentile converts began to grow exponentially and the traditional establishment was overwhelmed. These Gentile converts wanted full fellowship with the Jewish people. They wanted “full” attachment and full “rights” as children of the Most High God and as “legal heirs” to the promises of Abraham through His Son Y'shua.
Well, the traditional establishment of Pharisaic Judaism said, HALT, STOP, WAIT A MINUTE!
The Jewish establishment was quite willing to accept them as God-fearers, but legal heirs like them – THE BLOOD (DNA) CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM! No way! There was only ONE WAY that they could qualify to be on the same level as the Jews. This would require FULL CONVERSION to PHARASAIC JUDAISM. Today it would be called Rabbinic Judaism.
Now, before we discuss what was required, and why, for FULL CONVERSION we must first examine some (not all by any means) scriptures:
We will begin with the words of Y'shua Himself in Matthew 23:15- “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is become so, ye make him twofold more a son of hell than yourselves.” (ASV)
WOW, those are some strong words from the Master! The word “proselyte” means that you converted him to Pharisaic Judaism. What was included within this conversion that caused Y'shua to say this? Whatever it was, it caused Him great displeasure.
Now, lets take a few from the Apostle Paul. Galatians 5:1-4, “For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that, if ye receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. Yea, I testify again to every man that receiveth circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Ye are severed from Christ, ye who would be justified by the law; ye are fallen away from grace.” (ASV)
Again, these are strong words – entangled in a yoke of bondage, severed from Christ and fallen from grace -OUCH! The key in this verse is understanding what the “whole law” was understood to be in Pharisaic Judaism, or Rabbinic Judaism today.
Let's try this one from Paul in Galatians 2:11-14, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned. For before that certain came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Cephas before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest as do the Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, how compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews (Ioudaizo)?” (ASV-bold text and Greek word added by me)
In this scripture we find that the Apostle Paul had a disagreement with the Apostle Peter (Cephas) and basically called him out for being a hypocrite. He argues that Peter believed one thing (believed like Paul) but when Pharisaic Jews were around he acted like one of them, even separating Himself from Gentiles. Then Paul states that he asked Peter, “if you believe as I do, then why are you compelling Gentiles to JUDAIZE, or be JUDAIZERS?” This is the only time this word is used in the New Testament. So again, what was being required that they all didn't like?
Another one from Paul: Galatians 3:1-9, “O foolish Galatians, who did bewitch you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was openly set forth crucified? This only would I learn from you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now perfected in the flesh? Did ye suffer so many things in vain? if it be indeed in vain. He therefore that supplieth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Even as Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. Know therefore that they that are of faith, the same are sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations be blessed. So then they that are of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham”. (ASV)
Here, any Christian Commentator will tell you that Paul was preaching against becoming “legalistic” and “coming back under the “bondage” of the law (Torah of Yahweh); which the majority of Christian Commentators and Christians today will say has been done away with because of scriptures like these. The key to understanding this verse is the words, “works of the law” and I will indeed include a separate, “bullet proof”, lesson on these words in the lessons on Legalism.
I could go on and on and on, but let's look at just one more scripture, this one from Y'shua,
Matthew 15:9, “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men”. (KJV)
Herein lies the understanding - To convert to Pharisaic Judaism a person was required to follow a list of rules and regulations that were commandments of men and not doctrines (Torah) of God. This conversion to a “legalistic”, man-made religious system is what Y'shua and Paul had a problem with. Paul taught against it and so did Y'shua. These “legalistic, man made regulations” were required for SALVATION. That's right – in Pharisaic Judaism, they believed that a person could not have salvation IF THEY did not abide by these regulations.
Legalism is truly defined as this: “The act of bringing oneself under the bondage of obedience to man made religious rules and regulations for salvation, apart from that required by Yahweh in His Torah and through His Son Y'shua HaMashiach (Jesus Christ).”
Please join me for “Legalism, Part 2" where I will continue an in-depth exploration of its meaning by laying a firm foundation in scripture.