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Legalism, in Christian theology, is a sometimes-pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigour, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God's grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption. Its opposite is antinomianism, which is the alleged view that believing in Jesus Christ is the only requirement for receiving eternal life.

In the New Testament

Legalism's root word, "law" (Greek nomos), is very frequent in the New Testament, and may sometimes connote legalism. In 1921, Ernest De Witt Burton stated that in Gal. 2:16, "nomou is here evidently used ... in its legalistic sense, denoting divine law viewed as a purely legalistic system made up of statutes, on the basis of obedience or disobedience to which men are approved or condemned as a matter of debt without grace. This is divine law as the legalist defined it."[1] The Greek of Paul's day lacked any term corresponding to the distinct position of "legalism", "legalist", or "legalistic", leading C.E.B. Cranfield to commend "the possibility that Pauline statements which at first sight seem to disparage the law, were really directed not against the law itself but against that misunderstanding and misuse of it for which we now have a convenient terminology" (legalism).[2] Messianic Jewish Bible translator David H. Stern cited these two scholars to support the translation framework that often "'nomos' means 'legalism' and not God's Torah", especially in Paul's constructs erga nomou (literally "works of law", rendered by Stern "legalistic observance of Torah commands") and upo nomon (literally "under law", rendered by Stern by 13 words, "in subjection to the system which results from perverting the Torah into legalism").[3]

One concept of legalism, the belief that salvation can be earned by obedience to laws, is referred to in various New Testament books, including Galatians. In this case, some Jews who had become Christians believed that in order to obtain salvation, both faith in Christ (as Messiah), and obedience to certain laws were required (such as the cases of the Noahide Laws or the circumcision controversy).

Legalism in the New Testament refers to any doctrine which states salvation comes from works. It can be thought of as a works-based religion. There were many groups in the New Testament which fall into this category. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Judaizers, and Nicolaitans are the most common. They are legalists because they emphasized obeying the Law of Moses, in the case of the Pharisees and Scribes, to the letter without understanding the concept of grace. Jesus condemned their legalism in Matthew 23. The Pharisees love of the praises of men for their strict adherence is a prime example of legalism.

Other New Testament books, such as Romans, speak of grace and obedience together. An example is found in Romans 1:5 (New American Standard Version) speaking of Christ 'through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name's sake...' The goal of receiving the grace was to bring about obedience of faith. Here grace, faith and obedience are tied together.

The most common misunderstanding of legalism is the word law. Most people do not understand that law in many cases of the Bible refer to the Law of Moses, see also Biblical law in Christianity. In Galatians the Judaizers, another group of legalists, were trying to insist that salvation required that a person be circumcised prior to obeying the Law of Christ. Galatians 2:16 says, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (King James Version). The faith here is the Law of Christ and the law here is the Law of Moses. The legalism of the Judaizers was that obedience to the letter of the law was required more than obedience that comes from faith.

Legalism in the New Testament is most probably revealed by the life of Saul prior to his conversion. He sought to redeem himself by his works of persecution of the church and its ultimate destruction. Acts 26:9-11 reveals, "I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities" (King James Version). Galatians 1:13-14 states, "For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers" (King James Version). These two texts emphasize the nature of Saul's religion, works.

However, in this passage the obedience is not tied to the obeying of specific Old Testament laws, such as keeping Sabbath or circumcision.

Icon of James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15:19-29, c. AD 50.

At the Council of Jerusalem, c. 50, James the Just decreed the Apostolic Decree:

"Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and [from] fornication, and [from] things strangled, and [from] blood.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_4] For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day" (Acts 15:19–21).

In Inter-Christian relations

Roman Catholic Church

In Roman Catholicism, good works are done in service to God and one's neighbour, by faith working through love. In contrast, an excess of severity in the imposition of, or overly-scrupulous conformity to any rule of piety, may be charged with legalism.

In an attempt to resolve the dispute over legalism, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was a document issued in 1999 by Lutheran-Catholic clerical representatives, declaring a common belief in Sola gratia, that grace alone can save the faithful, and that there is a progressive infusion of grace in the spirit of the believer.

Eastern Orthodox Churches

The Eastern Orthodox, for another example, rejects the satisfaction theory of the atonement as legalistic. The satisfaction theory states that mankind's Original Sin violated God's law, resulting in all men being born guilty: an idea prevalent in the writings of Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo. Anselm formally developed the theory that the legal problem of guilt before the Law, required the legal solution of retribution, in order to achieve a just salvation. The solution was for God's son Jesus to willingly die on the Cross in place of humanity, thus allowing the legal penalty to be fully carried out, satisfying the justice of God, and thus clearing the way for mercy to be shown to sinners. The Eastern Orthodox charge that this theory is too dependent upon Roman legal concepts of retribution and justice.

Protestant churches

In Protestant, Evangelical, Christian theology, especially in popular versions of the same, the charge of legalism is an accusation of ignorance of the Christian Gospel, or of unbelief. In that context, to apply the criticism of legalism to a theological position or religious attitude implies that the accused has overturned the Gospel of salvation through faith and new life in Jesus Christ and has instead substituted some principle of personal merit for the unearned grace of God. This is a common Protestant criticism of the Roman Catholic Church.

In history

Throughout the history of Christianity, certain beliefs and practices have tended to draw charges of legalism. These include:

  • Asceticism, such as fasting and other forms of self-denial.
  • The keeping of Christian Sabbath, especially regarding prohibitions of various otherwise innocent activities on the day of worship.
  • Various extra-biblical ordinances and customs that become associated not just with wisdom but with holiness, in the contemporary situation, such as prohibitions against theater, movies, dancing, playing cards or mixed bathing.
  • Total abstinence from alcohol (See also Christianity and alcohol.)
  • Ritualism, a superficial or superstitious use of customary prayers and liturgy.
  • Similarly, certain exclusive ritual practices, such as rigorous insistence on the tetragrammaton as the only name by which God is honored, dietary laws, Saturday Sabbath, or Passover (Christian holiday), especially when practicing these rituals is held necessary for salvation.
  • Sacraments, especially when the underlying theology allegedly views them as communicating God's grace automatically (compare ex opere operato).
  • Various rigorous and restrictive beliefs, such as that, only the King James Version of the Bible constitutes God's word.
  • The belief that contemporary Christian music is evil.
  • The belief that women should never wear pants or shorts.
  • Iconoclasm
  • Circumcision
  • Puritanism
  • Judaizing
  • Restorationism (Christian primitivism)

Several underlying dynamics appear in these controversies. The permitted scope of veneration of material objects versus claims that such veneration is idolatry, affects the perceived sanctity of ritual spaces and objects, and therefore of the rituals and customs themselves. Teachings about the authority of the church, the sources of legitimacy of that authority, and the role of clergy versus the priesthood of all believers, also affect these debates. Related to these disagreements are debates concerning the authority of the Bible, and whether it is to be interpreted literally or more loosely.


  1. Burton, Ernest De Witt, The International Critical Commentary, Galatians, 1921, p. 120.
  2. Cranfield, C.E.B., The International Critical Commentary, Romans, 1979, p. 853.
  3. Stern, David H., Jewish New Testament Commentary, 1992, pp. 535-8, 552-3, on Gal. 2:16b, 3:23b.
  • Churches That Abuse, Ronald Enroth, Zondervan (1989)
  • Recovering from legalism on
  • The Silent Killers of Faith: Overcoming Legalism and Performance-Based Religion, Stephen Crosby, Destiny Image Pubs (2004)

See also