View Additional "Plain Talk"  TOPICS:

Home Page


Plain Talk About

Legalism and Grace

What is legalism? According to the dictionary, legalism is, "Strictness, or the doctrine of strictness, in conformity to law, or, in theology, to a code of deeds and observances as a means of justification." In the general sense, all who try to closely adhere to the law are legalists but in the theological sense, a legalist is one who attempts to be justified before God by keeping His commandments, by law.

What are the two types of systems brought by Moses and Jesus? Moses introduced a law-works system and Jesus brought a grace-faith system. The law-works system was to serve until Jesus came, in the fullness of time. It was crafted for a rebellious people and was never intended to be an instrument of salvation. Nevertheless for those that used it lawfully, it was a great blessing, revealing that which was both good and evil in God’s sight. We are not implying that there was not faith prior to Jesus, for the righteous have always lived through faith, but when Jesus came faith sprang forth for all to see and know. Leviticus 18: 5; John 1: 17; Galatians 3: 11-12; 21-26; Ephesians 2: 8; 1 Timothy 1: 8-10; Habakkuk 2:4

How is justification found under the two systems? Justification is found under the law-works system by keeping the law completely and perfectly. Failure in even one point makes you guilty of all. Those who attempt to be justified by law are often quite zealous and while they certainly acknowledge God and His law, their trust is really in themselves and their ability to keep the law. These are often motivated by fear of punishment, envy, strife and other selfish ambitions. Those who are in Christ receive justification under the grace-faith system as a gift. These have entered into Christ through faith in God and Christ and the obedience to Christ’s commands which is elicited by that faith. The motivation is love and gratitude for Jesus giving his life for us..

Can works of the law save one? The Apostle Paul is very clear that no one can be justified before God by the works of the law? Romans 3: 20; 7: 10; Galatians 3: 11; 2: 16, 21; Hebrews 7: 18

Why? The only way to be saved by law is to keep it perfectly and completely, and man can not. James 2: 19-11; Galatians 3: 10

Is salvation by faith alone? Most of the Protestant denominations answer this question affirmatively, but please consider the following. First: there are many passages that indicate that salvation is by faith or to be more accurate by grace through faith, but none I know say salvation is by faith alone. We do not want to diminish the importance of faith, for God has said that without faith, salvation is not possible. Faith is that basic principle which when acted upon connects us with Jesus and the Father. Faith also authenticates and validates our response to God’s gracious work and invitation. Second: many other factors are said to save. These include confession, repentance, baptism, obedience, hope, sanctification and others. We freely admit these factors are meaningless unless they proceed from faith in God. Third: James states, "You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone." Faith is completed or perfected by these God-given responses. Without them, faith is useless and dead. Ephesians 2: 8; Romans 10: 10; 8: 24; 2 Corinthians 7: 10; 1 Peter 3: 21; Hebrews 5: 9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 13; James 2: 14-26

Is personal obedience a factor in salvation? Some maintain that personal obedience can not be a factor in salvation because our obedience can not contribute to the finished work of Christ. First: it is true, that we can not add to the finished work of Christ. Second: but our personal obedience can and does contribute to the individual appropriation of Christ’s work, death for our sins. Third: Jesus is the author of eternal salvation to all that obey Him. Fourth: the Scriptures differentiate between works. There are works of the law, deeds done in righteousness and works of which we might boast, but on the other hand there are works of God, the obedience of faith, work of faith and the labor of love. The latter works factor into salvation. Hebrews 5: 9; Romans 3: 20; Titus 3: 5; Ephesians 2: 9; John 6:29; Romans 1: 5: 2 Thessalonians 1: 11; 1 Thessalonians 1: 3

What is the difference between these works? The works, which avail, proceed from faith in God, motivated by love. The other works proceed from trust in ourselves or our heritage, motivated by personal ambition or fear. Galatians 5: 6; Luke 18: 9-17; Philippians 1: 15-17; 3: 4-11

Why does James say that works justify? James gives Abraham and Rahab the harlot as examples of those who were justified by works. In both cases their faith in God was demonstrated and perfected by their actions. Only in this sense did their works justify them. Since Rahab lied about the spies, she was not justified because of her works themselves. Joshua 2: 4-15; James 2: 14-26


Are we under the law or grace? We are under the grace of God, which was realized through Jesus Christ. John 1: 17; Romans 6: 14

Are we under the law of Christ? Paradoxically we are under the law of Christ. 1 Corinthians 9: 20-21; Galatians 6: 2

What is the law of Christ? Many, as I once did, believe that the law of Christ is the whole of the New Testament and that the law of Christ is similar to the Law of Moses with some changes regarding the priesthood, baptism and the Sabbath, etc. I now believe that the law of Christ is fundamentally different from the Law of Moses, one being a law of faith and the other a law of works. Christ’s law is the new and living way, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone like the ten commandments but on tablets of the human heart, not of letter but of the Spirit. The law of Christ is the law, which gives liberty, the perfect law, and the royal law. Its basic tenets are, to believe in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another. "And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. And the one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And we know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit who He has given us." Romans 3: 27, Hebrews 10: 20; 2 Corinthians 3; James 1: 25; 2: 8, 12; 1 John 3: 23; Galatians 3: 12; John 8: 24; 15: 12, 17

What is the impetus under grace? The love of God is the impetus under grace. We are constrained by the love of God as it is demonstrated in the giving of Jesus to die in our stead. The gospel is God’s power unto salvation, there is none other. When we understand and believe that Jesus died for us, as God tells us in His word, the love that God demonstrated will draw us to Him and incline us to obey His commandments.

What is the greatest misconception about grace and legalism? The greatest misconception is that grace does not comprehend obedience or the keeping of commandments while legalism does. Both include obedience. In the case of grace the obedience proceeds from faith in God and Jesus His Son and is motivated by love. In the case of legalism, obedience proceeds from faith or trust in oneself or his religious heritage, but not trust in God. Oh, the legalist acknowledges God but his trust is in something else. Likewise the motivation is likely to be pride, confidence in his ability to keep the commandments. Or the motivation may be fear of punishment, or even envy of others. The legalist thinks he is justified by his works while the one under grace sees his obedience as a loving response to God’s will made possible by the grace of God. Saying this, we recognize that no one individual, is likely to be completely characterized by either grace or legalism but most likely we will find a mixture of the two. God help us to move away from legalism and toward His glorious grace each day we have.

What is sacramentalism? Sacramentalism is the belief that God’s grace is imparted to those who participate in certain ceremonies or rituals, instituted by Christ, when performed by duly authorized ministers. Sacramentalism is a form of legalism. As our focus in this study is not sacramentalism per se, but the relationship between sacramentalism and grace/ legalism, we must leave the discussion of the institution and administration of the sacraments to another time.

Does God impart grace in this way? I would contend that God does impart grace to all that faithfully obey His commandments whether a so-called sacrament or a command to give of our means or to assemble to worship with other Christians or some other legitimate command. My concern is for those who are relying upon the sacraments to be pleasing to God but seemingly have never entered into a personal relationship with the Father or the Son through faith. Some seem to live their lives without regard to God except for the sacraments. But of even greater concern is the sacrament of baptism. In this case an infant is "baptized" who is incapable of faith. This practice is more akin to the old covenant rather than to the new covenant. As this seems to be a classic example of works without faith, is it not classic legalism?

Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. 2 Peter 1: 3

Therefore, gird your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1: 13

For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all men. Titus 2: 11


Please contact us if we can be of assistance:


Plain Talk 

PO Box 1182

Oakdale, CA 95361


Last Update   09/26/12