What does the Bible say about legalism? How can a Christian avoid falling into the trap of legalism?

Question: "What does the Bible say about legalism? How can a Christian avoid falling into the trap of legalism?"

The word legalism does not occur in the Bible. It is a term Evangelical Christians use to describe a doctrinal position emphasizing a system of rules and regulations, in achieving both salvation and spiritual growth. Legalists believe that strict literal adherence to those rules and regulations is demanded. Doctrinally, it is a position essentially opposed to grace. Those who hold a legalistic position may even fail to see the real purpose for law, especially the purpose of the Old Testament Law of Moses, which is to be our "schoolmaster" or "tutor" to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).

Concerning one's disposition, legalism is opposed to being gracious, and so even believers can be legalistic. We are instructed, rather, to be gracious to one another: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (Romans 14:1). Sadly, there are those who feel so strongly about their eschatological position that they will run you out of their fellowship before allowing you to express another position. That, too, is legalism. Many legalistic believers today make the error of demanding unqualified adherence to their own biblical interpretations and even to their own traditions. For example, there are those who feel that to be spiritual one must simply avoid tobacco, alcoholic beverages, dancing and movies, etc. The truth is that avoiding these things is no guarantee of spirituality.

To avoid falling into the trap of legalism, we can start by holding fast to the words of the Apostle John, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17) and remembering to be gracious, especially to our brothers and sisters in Christ. "Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:4). "You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat" (Romans 14:10).

A word of caution is necessary here. While we need to be gracious to one another and tolerant of disagreement over disputable matters, we cannot accept heresy. We are exhorted to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 1:3). If we remember these guidelines and apply them in love and mercy, we will be safe from both legalism and heresy. "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world" (1 John 4:1-3).

Recommended Resource: Balancing the Christian Life by Charles Ryrie.

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What does the Bible say about legalism? How can a Christian avoid falling into the trap of legalism?