What is Legalism?

LEGALISM – “The principles of those who hold a theological position of adhering to the Law as opposed to the Gospel; the doctrine of Justification by Works, or teaching which savours of that doctrine.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

Dr. M. R. DeHann’s remarkable book, Law or Grace, defines three errors that arose in early on in Christendom which he identified as Legalism, Antinomianism, and Galatianism. His definition of each term is:
Legalism – teaches that men must be saved by keeping the law,
Antinomianism – teaches that it makes no difference how we live, for salvation is all of grace,
Galatianism – teaches that we are saved by faith alone, but our ultimate salvation depends on our works.

Dr. DeHann’s definition of Legalism and Antinomianism fall short of the total meaning of the words. I would define, as do the Scriptures, the meaning of both words in the following way:

Legalism – teaches that one is saved by keeping the Mosaic Law or by living by any law based principle- human or divine
Antinomianism – is composed of two Greek words – anti -“against or in place of” and “nomos” – law”; therefore it teaches that it makes no difference how we live since salvation is all of grace; grace is against any and all law for the believer.

The Dispensation of Grace Believer has two laws to live by- the “law of the Spirit of life” and the “law of love” so we are not lawless but we are free from all principles of performance laws for acceptance before God either in Justification (Salvation) or Sanctification (Service).

There are five aspects of Legalism covered in the Scriptures. They are:


1. Promotes self-centeredness and introversion. It says, “Look what I have done.” (Luke. 18:9-14); not Christ-centered which says, “Not I but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians. 2:20)

2. Emphasizes the externals and majors in the minors. (Mt. 23:5-6, 24-25)

3. Makes things other than God Absolute. (Mark. 7:5-9)

4. Blurs a clear view of God. (Matthew. 23:13, 15)

5. Is inhumane and insensitive to human need. (Mark. 3:1-2; Luke. 10:25-37)

6. Ignores the personal make up of each person or individuality. (Matthew. 23:4; l1:29-30)

7. Acts like lawyers and religious experts – elite scholars. (Matthew. 15:3-6; 18:1-4; 23:3)

8. Judgmental and divisive. (Mark. 11:15-18; Lu. 20:19-20)

9. Needs more interpretation. (Matthew. 23:16-23)

10. Denies freedom to make decisions based on one’s personal relationship with God. (Mark. 2:23-28; 3:1-7)


1. Self- inflicted punishment – Legalists vow not to sin; however, when the vow is broken guilt and shame overwhelms them. This guilt leads to a form of “penance” meaning to “pay for their sin and shortcoming.” A vicious cycle begins with either rationalizing their sins away or concluding they are hopeless. (Luke. 18:13; 23:34)

2. Service oriented- Service to God and others becomes a sense of duty or obligation as “this thing is expected” to maintain fellowship. (Matthew. 18:16-23; 23:2-12, 23; Mark. 7:1-13)

3. Sensitivity Judgmental-ism – Legalists due to their sensitivity can see the speck in another’s eye; however, failing to see log in their own eye! Judging others gives one a sense of superiority, though false, by putting others down. (Matthew. 7:1-6; 9:2-7)

4. Satisfaction (Performance) oriented – Legalists want to appease God by conforming in outward appearance. (Matthew. 7:21-23)

“Salvation by works or a mixture of faith and works, .i.e., one enters into partnership with God for salvation.”

1. Believe + keep the Law of Moses (Acts. 15:1; 21:20-21, 24-30)
2. Believe + be circumcised (Acts. 15:1, 5; Galatians. 2:3-4; 5:1-12)
3. Believe + water baptism (Matthew. 3:6; Mark. 16:16; Acts. 2:38)
4. Believe + confess your sins (Matthew. 3:6, 10: 32-33; John. 9:22; 1John. 1:9)
5. Believe + repent experimentally (clean up your act or give up your bad habits and fully surrender (Matthew. 7:16-23; 19:16-26; Luke. 3:7-18)
6. Believe + repent emotionally (make a public display or have great sorrow by a show of tears) (Matthew. 6:1-7, 16-18; Luke. 7:40-50; 10:10-14)
7. Believe + church membership (Acts. 2:47)

Note: The Gospel of Grace is Believe + Nothing! In Christ Alone, By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone!


1. Taboos- spirituality is dependent on “do’s” and “don’ts” (Colossians. 2:20-23)
2. Imitations- spirituality is dependent on living in conformity to external in areas of dress, mannerisms, activities, speech, etc. (Romans. 12:1-2)
3. Comparisons- spirituality determined by comparing one’s sins against others (Romans. 12:3,10; Galatians. 6:3)
4. Emotions- spirituality happens by speaking in tongues, groans, slain by (in) the Spirit, fainting, ecstasy, etc. (1Corinthians. 13:1-4)
5. Sacrifices- spirituality is accomplished by self-sacrifice, self-denial by giving up normal human activities to impress God or others (1Corinthians. 13:1-4)
6. Rituals- spirituality is channeled through various religious ceremonies such as water baptism, confirmation, penance, church membership, etc.
7. Results- spirituality is brought about when one is faithful in religious duties such as praying, giving, evangelizing, attending church. These activities would indicate one’s growth or maturity in Christ. (Galatians. 3:1-5)


1. Seeks self-glory (Galatians. 5:26) KJV “vain”= empty + “glory” “an empty shell of a person”
2. Straightens others out by making them look bad so one can look better (Gal. 6:1)
3. Shows weariness in doctrinal spiritual production (Galatians. 2:9)
4. Shows off to impress others (Galatians. 6:11-13)
5. Sovereignty of God rejected and human “free will” is exalted which is the opposite of Grace (Galatians. 6:14-15)

Source: Grace Notes, Legalism, by Warren Doud. Grace Notes website is: http://www.gracenotes.infor/topics/legalism.html

I have taken liberty to modify Bro. Doud’s work. DRC


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