Legalism and the Life of a Believer

Legalism – the Buzzword of the Christian Blogosphere

legalismWe’ve all been accused of, or cautioned against, being legalistic, especially if you write posts or comments in blogs or participate in social media. You can count on it, sometime during an online discussion, we step over an unseen “line” and someone “lovingly” says “Hey, now you don’t want to be legalistic!” or “Now, we don’t want to take this into an area of legalism!”

Believe me I’ve been there. Even recently, when I re-posted my article “Should a New Testament Christian Celebrate Christmas and Easter??,” the terms “legalistic” and “legalism” were used quite liberally, both in the comments section and in emails that I received from people.

When you think about it, in our modern language, being “legalistic” is quite a relative term. In our understanding, what may be OK to one christian may not be OK to another christian. Each person has this imaginary “line” in their thinking, where one side is “legalistic” and the other side is “obedience.”

Concluding his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:

2 Corinthians 13:11

“Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.”

Be of one mind …. Wow! Can we say that about the church today? Or can we say the following?

Judges 21:25

“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

legalism-ball-chainThe misuse and abuse of the words “legalism” and “legalistic” have caused a great deal of turbulence and misunderstanding in the Body, clandestinely working against True Unity, rather than creating the “one mind” that Paul (and Jesus) desired.

I pray that, as you read through the following steps, you will conquer both “legalism” and the confusion associated with it.

Please approach this with an open mind and toss aside your preconceived ideas. While understanding and overcoming legalism is really quite simple, our western thinking and religious conditioning will always tend to complicate matters.

Step 1 – Know Your Enemy – Have a Correct Understanding of Legalism

“Legalism” (and by extension “being legalistic”) can be defined a couple of different ways. One definition applies to the believer … and one does not. Where we run into trouble is when BOTH definitions are lumped together and applied to BOTH believer and nonbeliever (which happens more than most christians care to admit).

Legalism – the Correct Definition

legalism-works-salvationThe most accurate and down-to-earth definition of legalism that I have found is “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works” or basically, trying to earn your salvation.

Notice this is a “PRE-salvation dynamic”. Most of the time, mainstream christians have NO problem with this definition … and neither do I.

If you are trying to make an unsaved person DO something to earn their salvation, whether it be baptism, circumcision or “saying the sinner’s prayer,” you’re being “legalistic.”

Ephesians 2:8-9

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

We ARE saved by grace … don’t try to tell me any different … I won’t be convinced.

I love the Truth that we are saved by grace, and I don’t ever take this Truth for granted, because I really, really, really, really, REALLY don’t deserve it.

At 5 years old, I said “the sinner’s prayer” and was baptized in the Holy Spirit at the age of 12. But, from the ages of 15 to 20, I turned my back on God and went the “opposite way” …. with a vengeance! The Truth is, I basically spit in His face and lived the life of a heathen.

If it wasn’t for God’s wonderful grace (and a praying mother), I would be dead.

So, please, don’t question my appreciation for His Grace. I say that because of what follows.

Legalism – the Wrong Definition

obedience-to-godWhere people go wrong is when the term “legalism” is applied to believers/christians who desire to OBEY all the commandments of God. At this point, salvation has already been obtained by the accused, so “legalism” is a moot issue.

From the point of salvation onward, a disciple is expected to follow the Master. Jesus told His disciples:

Luke 6:40

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.”

And even Paul says:

1 Corinthians 11:1

“Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”

After salvation, we are to continuously work toward being “perfectly trained,” acting like (and obeying) our Messiah at every opportunity. Does this mean that we will be perfect? Of course not, but our path should be brighter and brighter with each passing day.

Proverbs 4:18

“But the path of the just is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day.”

2 Corinthians 3:18

“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”

It’s when we start to make excuses for our sin, carelessly tossing around words like “legalism” or “grace” in an attempt soothe our guilty conscience, that things go awry.

Legalism and the Value of Exhortation

The writer of Hebrews said:

Hebrews 3:13

“…but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”

deceitful-sinPeople, we never want to be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin! We have to exhort each other all the time! If we don’t exhort one another daily, we WILL continue to make excuses for, and gradually accept, sin as just a “normal” part of life.

Look around you, church, this has happened on a GRAND SCALE! Don’t let it happen to you and the ones you love!

How do we “exhort” people? Well … how did Peter “exhort” people?

Act 2:40

“And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation.’

I’m ashamed to say it, but this kind of exhortation is NOT accepted in the church today. If Peter spoke this message today, he would be dismissed as being a “legalist.”

Listen to me people. Sin is sin.

1 John 3:4

“Everyone who sins is breaking God’s law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God.”

Is it “legalism” to want to obey God? Is it “legalism” to want to see others obey God? Our answer should be a resounding “NO!”

Is it “legalistic” to exhort each other to stay away from sin? No it is not.

If it is, then Jesus, Peter and Paul were all “legalistic.”

Step 2- Legalism – Put it in it’s Proper Place

The way to overcome legalism in your life, once you are saved, is to come to the realization that “legalism” … as it pertains to your walk with God …. DOES NOT EXIST!

If you feel like you have to do “stuff” to earn your salvation, once you are already saved, your relationship with the Father is not where it should be. Receive the grace that you have been freely given, and learn from it!

What can you learn from grace? Let’s take a look!

Titus 2:11-15

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, (1) denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, (2) we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, (3) looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, (4) who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.

Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.”

So we see here that this “grace,” that is so freely given, will teach us something!

What does it teach us?

  1. Deny ungodliness and worldly lusts
  2. Live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age
  3. Look for the blessed hope and glorious appearing
  4. Live out your purpose as one who is redeemed from every lawless (Torah-less – look it up) deed, purified for Him, zealous for good works

Don’t let anyone despise you for this! (v15) Speak it out! Rebuke! Exhort! All who want to pin a “legalism” accusation on you are in gross error.


Step 3 – Understand Your Freedom – Imitate Jesus!

If we are to mature as believers, we must learn to imitate Jesus, the “pure and spotless lamb.”

1 John 3:5-6

“And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.”

Hebrews 7:26

“For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens”

Jesus walked in complete freedom from sin, which (as we can see from 1 John 3:4) is “the transgression of the law.”

The majority of the western church defines “freedom” as being able to do what they want to …. to choose what commandments to obey, or not to obey …. to define their relationship with the Most High according to their own terms and understanding.

That is not how the Messiah defines “Freedom.”

John 8:34-36

“Jesus answered them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.'”

We see that you are a slave of sin when you commit sin. What is sin? Look at 1 John 3:4 again. According to Jesus, when He sets you “free” from sin and it’s consequences, you are now “free” to obey the Father’s commands!

David (the “man after God’s own heart”Acts 13:22) knew this freedom.

Psalm 119:44-48

“So shall I keep thy law (Torah) continually for ever and ever.

And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts.

I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed.

And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved.

My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments, which I have loved; and I will meditate in thy statutes.”

Wow! I’ll bet David and Paul could get into a good debate, huh?

No …. not really, they actually agreed in their doctrine … we just misunderstand Paul. (2 Peter 3:14-17)

Paul actually knew of this freedom too!

Romans 6:16-17

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.”

If sin is the “transgression of the law,” what do you think righteousness is? It’s the result of your obedience! Not just “obedience,” but “obedience from the heart!” That IS the New Covenant.

Jeremiah 31:33

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

God writes His law in our minds and on our hearts …. not so we can continue to disobey it, but so that we can obey it!

Honestly, I don’t understand people who claim to follow the “New Covenant,” and then turn around and teach that His Law is done away with. We really need to get a clearer understanding of what Paul meant when he said:

Romans 3:31

“Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.”

Legalism – the Conclusion of the Matter

legalism-balanceIf you are a Believer in the Messiah, if you are confident that you are a Blood-bought son (or daughter) of the Most High, you should never be concerned with “legalism” in your personal walk with Him.

Understand this: Your Love for Him (and others) is DEFINED by your obedience to His Commandments. If you REALLY love Him (and others), it won’t even be an inconvenience!

The reverse is true as well.

Your “lack of” Love for Him (and others) is DEFINED by your DISobedience to His Commandments. If you do NOT REALLY love Him (and others), His commandments will be perceived as an “inconvenience” and a “burden.”

1 John 5:2-3

“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”

It doesn’t get any simpler than that!

For the Truth,

Kevin Kleint

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  1. curry says

    How sad for that african pastor that wrote you-you replied very truthfully-it saddens me to see how far gone mainstream Christianity is- and/or how satan is such a deceiver and preys on the innocent-i liked your hebrew roots blog-i have been led ti follow torah by the holy spirit; not by my church and all churches have people who are anti-scriptural but we need to have fellowship & communion if we can find a church that is not legalustic & luckiky i have found one that is messianic christianity but not a cult-and does not embrace the crazy you mentioned some do-i know there are raving maniacs in that group too but the same can be found in mainstream Christianity-you have a very nice blog

  2. Linda says

    Hi Kevin,
    Great article …..however, we can no longer look up “lawlessness” (online).
    I used to use Blue Letter Bible (online) and go to NT verses and click on ‘law’ or ‘lawlessness’ or ‘iniquity’ and go to the Strong’s/Lexicon and it would clearly state “The Law” “Torah” and or “The Law of Moses”, etc. It was very clear and a great witness.

    Now Blue Letter has CHANGED their words in the lexicon. If you click on any word that is ‘nomos’ or ‘anomia’ in the Greek you will find no mention of torah. And rather than saying “The Law” it simply says “law” implying the laws of man.

    Wow – just wow.

    I’m trying to figure out how to show my friends using a Septuagint dictionary. Haven’t found one online yet. :-(


    • says

      Hi Linda, thanks for the comment! The Greek word “nomos,” “anomos” and “anomia” (all the derivatives) can be used for BOTH “the Law/Torah of God” and “the Law of man”. So the question is, what definition should you pick? To arrive at the correct definition, you need to look contextually. Within context, it can only be the Law of God … I’ll try to give a few reasons why I believe that way.

      1- God never changes, Jesus never changes and Jesus is the exact representation of God.
      2- According to Deuteronomy 13:1-4, if Jesus taught against God’s Law, He would have been a false prophet
      3- The Law of man, by nature, is corrupt. At the time, Jerusalem was taken over by the Romans, but was allowed to operate within their own (Mosaic) Law. Roman law was pagan to it’s core … if Jesus was referring to their law, he would have been giving license to sin.
      4- God (who never changes) gave His Law at Sinai (and there’s even “some” evidence that it came before), Israel (at least in theory) adopted the Law as their own, Jesus came to “fully preach” the Law (another post I need to write) and, when He returns to set up His Kingdom, entire nations will come to Mt. Zion to learn of His Law (Torah – Isaiah 2:3)

      So, there’s a few thoughts. God bless!

      • Linda says

        Hi Kevin,

        Exactly- regarding both usages (law of man and “the Law of God” or torah).

        But, just a few months ago, BLB showed both definitions, now they just show “law, law of man, etc”.

        This makes it difficult to show a main-streamer – that “nomos” or “anomia” or “anomos” can mean torah – since it is no longer used in their definition. :-(

        Maybe they are worried :-)


  3. Trey says

    Hey Kevin,
    I am glad God has given you the gift to put into words what I have on my heart. I am always glad to hear the word taught in such a easy to understand format with scriptures backing it up. Thanks for this one I will pass it around as well.

  4. says

    Someone posted on fb Graham Cooke’s status: “The new covenant prophetic points to newness of life all the time. It tells you who you are. It doesn’t tell you who you are not. It calls you up to your real identity. It doesn’t call you out on your behavior because accountability in the new covenant is calling you up to your rightful place. It is reminding you of who you are. It doesn’t call you out on your stuff, it calls you up!”


    I’ve struggled for years with my gifting because of this kind of teaching in the church. Recently, GOD reminded me that Revelation is a revealing of JESUS as HE is. I would think JESUS is a new covenant prophet. When we read HIS message to the churches all but one had a message that Jesus had something against them. To Ephesus He told them they must repent and what would happen if they didn’t. His compliment to them was that they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hates. (Nicolaitians taught compromise with the world system, materialism and tolerance of immorality.) “The one who has ears must now listen to what the Spirit is saying to the congregations.”

    If 1 John 4:17 “…as He IS, even so are we in THIS world.” means we are to be like JESUS IS, not ‘was’, then aren’t new covenant prophets also meant not only to point out what the churches are getting right but to point out where there is need of repentance?

    I almost didn’t watch this because he is at IHOP. But this was interesting.

    • says

      Hi Rhonda …. If you keep listening to Graham Cooke and IHOP stuff you WILL be confused, haha.

      Seriously though, dispensationalism says that there is a difference between old and new testament prophets. God never said there would be difference, ever. Remember, God doesn’t change and Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. So, His prophets don’t change either. He dedicated about 1/3 of His Word to teachings from prophets, so we should learn from them. Sure, they prophesied “positive words,” but only as a result of Israel’s repentance. All the rest was rebuke for their hard-heartedness and sin. If we claim to be “Israel” … the same words apply to us.

      Here are a couple links that may help clarify:

      God bless!

      • says

        HAHA! I try to see if my faith boat ‘floats’ or if it’s full of holes by reading differing views. But thanks for showing me why I seem to be in a state of confusion.

        The clip was of Francis Chan. He seemed to want to give a ‘rebuke’ but just when you think he’s all in, he seems to back off. Didn’t know if I was misjudging it.

        Thanks for reminding me of your articles. I will reread them now.

        Acts 4:29 prayer for you: “And now, Lord, take note of their intimidations intended to silence us. Grant us, Your servants, the courageous confidence we need to go ahead and proclaim Your message…” The Whole TRUTH and nothing but the TRUTH!

      • Jane says

        Because God doesn’t change, his views regarding morality don’t change either. The behaviors he forbade and counted as immoral for his chosen people (Israel) are the same as for his Church. In fact, no one is exempted from God’s moral law, which never changes. Sin is sin no matter who commits it.

      • Jane says

        There are very significant differences between the Old and New Covenant besides being called ‘Old’ and ‘New’. The Old Covenant (Mosaic Law) had curses imposed for breaking it (Lev. 26; Deut. 28) and God’s people suffered terribly as a result. The New Covenant was needed because the people couldn’t keep God’s standards (because of their sinful hearts).

        The difference in God’s New Covenant involved many other blessings for Israel, but for both the Jews (Israel) and the Gentiles, it involved the forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Those are big differences from the Old Covenant (sacrifices…not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins, ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary, etc). Also mentioned by others here, the New Covenant also involves an internalization of God’s Law in one’s heart, not just on stones (Ex. 34:1) It would give them the inner ability to obey His righteous standards to enjoy His blessings. One huge difference in the New Covenant is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in “all believers” (cf. Joel 2:28- 32). (In OT times the Holy Spirit did not universally indwell all believers.) The New Covenant was made possible by the blood of Christ and as you know, is applicable to the Gentiles too. And of course, one key element of the New Covenant is the preservation of God’s chosen people Israel as a nation (Jer 31:35-37). Not all of the New Covenant for Israel has yet been fulfilled but that’s another discussion.

  5. John the Baptist the 2nd says

    Even a simple minded one such as myself understands well your point Kev. May all beware the leaven of hirelings.

  6. Wayne says


    When I ask people what is the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant? I usually get an answer that: “We are in Jesus, so we don’t need to under the legalism of the Laws of the Old Testament”. I usually turn them to Jeremiah 31 and ask them to read it and tell me what is the difference between the Old and New Covenants mentioned here. The only difference is WHERE the commandments are written(on our hearts and minds versus on stone).It is the same Law, just now written in a different place. People tend to be dumbfounded and don’t know how to reply to what I stated.

    So many bad teaching and saying that get repeated in the Church. Jesus stated to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Herodians. Today He might say: “Beware of the leaven of the Pastors, Teachers, Evangelists, Apostles and Prophets”.

  7. Woody Bailey says

    The last sentence in the paragraph just before the 1 John 5: 2-3 passage certainly is spot on. I have to share something with you Kevin. I came to Christ in a charismatic congregation that had much of it’s root in the Latter Days Rain movement. We had a network of churches almost nationwide and would have visiting speakers come and preach for a weekend or just a Sunday. One of them was pastoring a church in nearby Valparaiso IN and we would also see him at conferences from time to time. Just recently a friend of mine posted a rather unflattering portrait of a superhero slapping someone who had the head of Joel Osteen pasted on hisbody. This pastor took offense to it and made the statement that Osteen was balancing out the legalists in the church. He didn’t mention any names but I was quite disturbed by his defense of Osteen. I should ask him if he had someone in mind when he wrote that but haven’t done it as yet.

  8. Jane says

    I see God’s law as the law Christians should want to keep. But I see legalism as of the Devil, a tool he uses via men to turn people off to the righteous ways of God and his Church.

    To me, legalism represents an attitude that forbids or commands behavior that is not sinful. It’s man-made rules/law one might say, and as such, of the devil, because it’s sure not of God.

    As an example, I once had a wonderful Bible teacher who believed and taught that all drinking of alcoholic beverages was a sin (against God’s own law). I took issue with that in suggesting that then she would have to confess that Jesus and his disciples sinned when they partook of wine? She had an easy remedy for my objection. She just changed the definition of ‘wine’ and told us that wherever wine is mentioned in the Bible the ‘meaning’ (interpretation) was that wine was merely grape juice. It was laughable. After all, God tells us not to be drunk with wine in Eph. 5:18. I don’t think there’s ever been a case of a person known to be drunk on grape juice. In fact, it’s impossible. But really….where there is a will to deceive the people by Bible teaching, there is a way (misinterpret the Bible/pervert the words of the living God…Jer 23:36).

    I see the best examples of legalism in Pentecostal type churches, where women are forbidden to cut their hair or wear make-up and to wear nothing but long dresses with long sleeves every day. And the men must wear long sleeved shirts always (never short sleeves). And the women of course can never wear blue jeans, whereas the men are allowed to do so. And they are forbidden to have TV’s and computers in the home (unless the computer is part of their work to earn a living). Etc, etc, etc man-made laws/rules ad nauseam. Because I don’t see any of those prohibitions in God’s laws or principles, I see them as man-made laws, which because they are not of God, must be of the Devil instead. (Just read the stories of ex-members of these churches on the Net in “Church abuse” Forums, and the damage to so many these churches/pastors have done, not to mention the true righteousness of God they have since learned.)

    I had a pastor once for a few years before I left, who had quite a list of his personal laws/rules which he believed all of us should abide by. These were laughable too. But what was not so funny is that he seemed not to know anything expertly but sin, so sin he preached from the pulpit every Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday night. When I had my fill of his sins and being beaten to death in every service, I left. I was then at long last joyfully free from his abuse, but still starving from being fed on the devil’s food alone. I have since found a very good Bible teaching church that loves its people and bothers to teach the ‘whole counsel’ of God in a truthful way.

    I believe that teaching against sin should be done in the Church, but that it shouldn’t be its major focus nor assume that all the congregation is a bunch of drunken pornographers bent on adultery, fornication, and illicit drugs. And most of all, it should not focus on nor even mention all the man-made laws/rules/principles that don’t come from the Bible itself.

    I realize there are some that feel if we’re not hard-nosed about wrong-doing, then folks will just be buying into ‘cheap’ grace that represents a permissiveness that cannot lead to real salvation. But God knows the heart of each one of us, and the difference between those who commit real sins and those who commit the phony pastor-decreed laws that are indeed no sins at all.

    Lastly, I believe that pastors whose teachings are driven by Satan will always be able to find ‘some place’ in the Bible to use falsely to confusedly justify his abuse of God’s sheeple. So probably the best thing to do is to simply admonish the pastor, then run as far away as we can get and let God handle these sinful men in his own good time and in his own way.

    Oh…one more thing….we should know our Bibles well enough to know false teaching from true teaching, otherwise we set ourselves up to be easy prey for these control-freak legalists.

    • Wayne says


      What an accurate and well spoken argument you have made. I too have witnessed Pastors who have taught against legalism, yet make up their own rules at the same time. Their teachings end up as condemnation upon the people who don’t follow the “Pastor’s Rules”. Just like the Pharisees who add to and take away from God’s commandments.

      Thank you for your comments. I find them refreshing and much need for the Body of Messiah.

      Blessings to you!

      • Jane says

        Thank you Wayne. The thing that I find every pastor falling down on is not clarifying the difference between salvation and sanctification in their preaching. That’s why we keep seeing saved people go to the altar again and again …just to make sure. And these messages just keep them doubting….

        The problem is, when pastors preach to ‘stop your sinning’, they need to explain that if you don’t, your testimony and witness to others can be ruined, and then you’ll be nothing more than a stumbling block to heaven. And do we want to make our friends and the world stumble, not to mention our own loved ones? But pastors “never” distinguish between salvation and sanctification, so therefore the only message we come away with it that we’re probably not ‘really’ saved after all. And we’re certainly not good enough…for heaven. And that message does no one any good. As long as our focus is on ourselves and our sins, we’re not much good for anything spiritual.

        Salvation – our pastors need to teach us that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins…and therefore we cannot look to anyone but Jesus and his shed blood for the forgiveness of our sins, hence salvation. And we must just believe it to have it.

        Sanctification – then when he preaches sanctification he needs to emphasize that he’s talking to Christians…and their witness to the world. What could touch their heart more than that, and inspire them to live for Christ, which can lead others to him also.

        Said in another way…too many times I’ve left services feeling down and guilty after these legalistic sermons, instead of strengthened by a man of God to live for Christ, for the love of Christ and the sake of others.

  9. Ray says

    Thanks Kevin. I’m sharing this with others. Our desire this year is to love Yahweh and hate sin. Follow His commandments and teach others to do so. We all should be rooted and grounded in His Word.

    Bless you and your family as you continue the search…for His truth!