A great deal of confusion exists in the church over the definition of legalism. There are those who conclude that a legalist is someone who “keeps the commandments.” This cannot be legalism since the Bible commends those who keep God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Others imagine that a legalist is a person who works at keeping God’s law. Such a person is not a legalist since the psalmist extols the beauty and necessity of a love for God’s law (Psalm 119).

Some assert that a legalist is anyone who follows God’s law after he or she has embraced Christ as Lord and Savior. This cannot be legalism since Paul tells us that the law is good if one uses it lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8). What, then, is a legalism?

Legalism is the adding of basic presuppositions to a faith to make that faith more exclusive or less available to “outsiders” who do not think, act, or believe as do the “true” believers. Legalism is one of many power maneuvers by faith leaders who seek to consolidate religious authority in the hands of a very few.[1]

The Pharisees fit this definition as do many modern-day Christians who erect an ethical system that does not comport with the Bible, either by setting aside its ethical demands or by replacing biblical norms with extra-biblical decrees. The Pharisees, contrary to popular opinion, did not keep God’s law. They were not “the best people of their day.”[2] The best people were men like Simeon (Luke 2:25), Zacharias (Luke 1:6), and Joseph (Matt. 1:19), and women like Anna (Luke 2:36), Mary (Luke 1:46–56), and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6). Elizabeth and Zacharias “were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). The commandments of God were neglected by the Pharisees (Mark 7:8). They “nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep [their] tradition” (Mark 7:9). Jesus told the Pharisees that they had the devil as their father (John 8:44). James B. Jordan sets the record straight:

We are used to thinking of the scribes and Pharisees as meticulous men who carefully observed the jots and tittles [of God’s law]. This is not the portrait found in the Gospels. The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus encountered were grossly, obviously, and flagrantly breaking the Mosaic law, while keeping all kinds of man-made traditions. Jesus’ condemnation of them in Matthew 23 certainly makes this clear, as does a famous story in John 8. There we read that the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman taken “in the very act” of adultery (John 8:1–11). How did they know where to find her? Where was the man who was caught with her? Apparently he was one of their cronies. Also, when Jesus asked for anyone " without sin" (that is, not guilty of the same crime) to cast the first stone, they all went away, because they were all adulterers.[3]

A persistent belief beleaguers the church because the Pharisees have been portrayed as strict adherents to the law. Since Jesus had His greatest theological disputes with the Pharisees; therefore, Jesus was opposed to the law. This is not what the Bible teaches. When the “scribes and the Pharisees . . . seated themselves in the chair of Moses,” that is, when the law was properly taught and applied, the people were to do all that they told them (Matt. 23:2–3). At the same time, Jesus admonished the people “not to do according to their deeds” (23:3).


[1] David R. Miller, Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 7. [2] George W. Lasher, “Regeneration—Conversion—Reformation,” The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, R. A. Torrey, A. C. Dixon, et al., eds., 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, [1917] 1988), 3:140. [3] James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988), 267.