Legalism: a Smokescreen

(The following is from a booklet written by DR. MIKE ALLISON)

Is the term
"LEGALISM" used as an excuse to circumvent the Bible doctrines of separation?

Is the term
"LEGALISM" used to intimidate those who preach and practice a valid scriptural principle?

Many sincere Christians feel the matter of holy living is strictly between the individual believer and God, and no one should set standards of dress and conduct.

Other equally sincere Christians believe it is right and necessary to maintain definite standards.

One group calls the other "compromising", while the other group answers with the tag of "legalist".

In this booklet, Dr. Mike Allison discusses the problems. He clarifies the issue of Biblical definitions and gives guidelines for proper Christian attitudes.

Legalism: a Smokescreen
We have an interesting but sad thing that has happened among evangelical churches these days. An exodus from standards for living has taken place. Preachers now preach that standards are a matter of "personal conviction." "If you think something is wrong for you, it is wrong. If you think it is all right, then it is all right."

It has become a common occurrence to hear preachers denounce those who preach standards by calling them 'legalists." A preacher from California recently cried out, while preaching on Galatians 5:1-5; "I hate legalism" (referring to those who preach about standards for living). Another chided preachers for making such a big deal over "regional convictions."

If I am against something they are not against, I am branded a legalist. If I am against something they are also against, we are "separatists."

Legalism has become the compromiser's excuse to circumvent the Word of God. This is a phrase often used by those who think right and wrong is simply a matter of personal choice. "I'm not convicted about it yet." Statements like this sound spiritual; they please the ears of those who have been wanting to indulge in things Christians have stood against for years, but demonstrate a lack of Bible knowledge concerning the law and its importance to the child of God.

Webster's New World Dictionary defines legalism as a "strict adherence to the law." However, theological legalism would have a different definition. Theological legalism is a strict adherence to the law as a means to be saved or keep salvation. Simply, any addition of works by man to the finished work of Christ to bring or keep salvation is legalism.


The book of Galatians was written to combat theological legalism. Following Paul from place to place were groups of men who taught that simple faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ was not enough to be saved. They taught that circumcision and strict adherence to the law were essential to salvation. Many in the Galatian churches had…

accepted this teaching. This is why Paul stated, "I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel. O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you ..." (Gal. 1:6, 3:1).

Paul stated to Timothy, "But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully" (I Tim. 1:8). Galatians is really an exposition of the lawful use of the law. We must understand the law's relationship to us in the New Testament.

1. The Law Condemns

Those who think keeping the Ten Commandments, or any other part of the law, bring salvation, only find themselves condemned by the law they hope will save them. "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written. Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.”

To keep 99.9% of the law is not good enough to earn Heaven. One slip, one time, leaves man condemned by the law. Man is not a sinner because he sins. He sins because he is a sinner (Ps. 51:5; Jer. 17:9). Breaking the law is natural for man. No wonder the Scriptures proclaim, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

2. The Law Cannot Save Us

Not only does the law condemn us, but it has no power to save us.

"Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law^ but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might he justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified..if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” -Gal. 2:16, 21.

"Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.... Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law."-Rom. 3:19, 20, 28.

The law proclaims man guilty before God. It has no power to save.

3. The Law Cannot Keep a Person Saved

The Galatians had trusted Christ for salvation, but they were beginning to believe they had to keep the law in order to stay saved. For this Paul scolds them in chapter 3:1-5:

“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foo/f'sh? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain. He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”

Paul's rebuke was clear. Their works did not get them saved, and their works could not keep them saved. Salvation is by grace through faith.


Since the law condemns us and cannot save us, nor can it keep us saved, some would ask, "What good is it for us?”

The Law Shows Us We Are Sinners

Before a person can be saved, he must know he is lost. In Romans 7:7-14 Paul explained what the law did for him:

“I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said. Thou shall not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it stew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? Cod forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good;'that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. For we know that law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin."

It is by the law that I know my love for Him is not great enough to satisfy the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37,38). The law shows me I do not have enough righteousness to make Heaven on my own merit.

This brings us to the next thing the law does for us:

The Law Points Us to Christ

The law not only tells me I have missed God's standard of holiness, but it points me to the only one who is righteous - Jesus Christ.

"But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up into the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster." -Gal. 3:22-25.

Is anybody under the law? Yes, all those who have not come to faith in Christ. I was under the law until faith came. I stood condemned by the law as a guilty sinner. When I put my faith in Jesus Christ, who died for my sins according to the Scripture, I found the One the law had been pointing me to.

"Even the righteousness of Cod which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of Cod; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom Cod hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” -Rom. 3:22-26.

Notice verse 31:

“Do we then make void the law through faith? Cod forbid: yea, we establish the law."

We need to understand that Jesus did not do away with the law, but fulfilled it. Praise the Lord! Now the law condemns me no longer. "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13). I am free because I have put my faith in Jesus Christ. When Paul wrote, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free/' he was not saying the law no longer is a standard for right and wrong but was admonishing them to continue to look to the finished work of Christ for salvation, not to the keeping of the law. The law didn't save them, and it could not keep them saved. Those who believe a saved person can become lost by sinning have totally missed the point of Galatians and the power of the shed blood of Jesus Christ. First John 3:4 says sin is the transgression of the law. Yes, Christians still sin, but they are no longer under the condemnation of the law.


On the other side is the group that says we no longer look to the law as the standard for holiness. Standards are now only a matter of personal conviction. This group also has misunderstood what happened to the law.

Jesus set me free from sin. He did not set me free to sin. And sin did not change when I got saved. Nor did sin change when Jesus died on the cross. Sin is still the transgression of the law (I John 3:4).

Romans 6:13-19 clearly sets forth our responsibility to holiness in living. We are not to yield our members to unrighteousness, but to righteousness. Righteousness did not become personal conviction when I got saved. It is still decided by the Word of God, regardless of my convictions. After stating, “We are not under the law, but under grace.” Paul then asked the question, "Shall we sin, because we are not under the law but under grace?" He answered his own question with a resounding, "God forbid." Even after an individual is saved, sin is still decided by the Word; and he is not to sin!

When a person gets saved, God does not throw His Book out the window and say, "Now that you're saved you can do anything you want to do. It does not matter if I said it was wrong before; now you are free to live by your conscience. You must quit only if you feel it is wrong.” Some quickly add, "We do not serve in the oldness of the letter of the law but in the newness of the Spirit.”

Jesus gave us the answer to that objection in Matthew 5:13-48. Several times He referred to the law, saying, //Ye have heard that it was said . . . but l say unto you." A simple look at the passage shows Jesus was not giving His okay to throw out the standards of the law; rather, He taught that obedience goes farther than just the outward appearance. Obedience should come from a right heart attitude.

Jesus compared our testimony to salt and light in verses 13 to 16. Then He reminds us that He would not destroy the law but fulfil it. He also taught the immutability and endurance of the Word of God. Then Jesus showed that following the letter of the law was not enough. One can have outward obedience with inward sin. However, inward obedience will also be manifested by outward obedience.

He began by using one of the Ten Commandments—'Thou shalt not kill.” Jesus did not say we no longer were to obey it. He taught that man can break the law in his heart, in the sight of God, while obeying it outwardly, in the sight of man. Man was not given a license to disobey the law unless he felt "convicted about it/' He was to obey it outwardly, and he was to be careful that his heart attitude was right inwardly.

Next, Jesus brought up another of the Ten Commandments -“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Again, Jesus did not do away with man's responsibility to obey; rather, He explained that outward obedience does not prove true obedience. Man was not even to look on a woman and lust after her. Our responsibility goes much farther than obedience to the letter.

Jesus then used the same arguments concerning marriage and divorce, swearing an oath, personal vengeance, and loving others. In each case, the law was not put aside for "personal conviction"; rather, a greater obedience was expected. Actually, the Spirit of the law goes farther in holiness than the letter.

Therefore, even though outward obedience to the law does not prove a right inward relationship with God, a right inward relationship should be accompanied with nothing less than outward obedience.


Other New Testament verses proclaim the Old Testaments authority as a standard of holiness for believers. Paul wrote to Timothy several years after Christ's death on the cross:

"All scripture is given by inspiration of Cod, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, through/y furnished unto all good works.” - Tim. 3:16,17.

The first part of the verse proclaims the origination and authority of Scripture. Scripture comes from God. Literally, it is God breathed. Lest we be careless in studying this verse, notice Paul was talking about "all scripture."

Even though it seems elementary, remember that "all scripture" includes every letter of every word of every chapter of every book of both the Old and New Testaments.

Just as "all scripture" is the subject of the first verb, "is given," it is also the subject of the second verb, "is profitable." The verse tells us all Scripture is profitable for four things—doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.

If "all scripture" is profitable for doctrine, then every chapter of every book of both the Old and New Testaments is profitable for doctrine. Is there a conservative anywhere who doesn't use Old Testament verses to prove doctrine? But now the inconsistencies begin to fly.

Second Timothy 3:16 did not limit Old Testament verses to being profitable only for doctrine. Notice, they are also profitable for reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. Truly, we are no longer under the law, in that it can no longer condemn those who have trusted Jesus Christ for salvation; but we are still to receive its reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness for daily living. Plus, according to the Sermon on the Mount, we should not only be willing to obey it outwardly—we should be willing to go even farther in righteousness with obedience from the heart.

Truly, we receive much instruction in righteousness from the gospels and the epistles, but that is not the limit of our instruction. Since "all scripture" is profitable for instruction in righteousness, all of Genesis through Malachi is also profitable for instruction in righteousness.

Peter demonstrated his agreement with this premise for New Testament Christians. In I Peter 1:14-16 the apostle wrote:

"As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy."

Peter, writing some thirty years after Christ's death, when admonishing believers to live holy as Christians, supported his statement by quoting Leviticus 11:44. Why are Christians to be holy? Because "it is written . . . “

I can hear someone complain, "But Peter—that's in the Old Testament. We're not under the Old Testament anymore. We have liberty in Christ."

Compromising preachers and Christians throw Scripture, "profitable for instruction in righteousness.” out the window, using the excuse of "liberty." Obviously, they are misusing liberty and denying the authority of Scripture, given to guide our lives in holiness, because of its location in the Old Testament.

Some object, "But Christ is the end of the law, according to Romans 10:4." Such objection is a careless reading of the passage and verse. Verses 1 to 3 explain how the Jews had gone about to establish their own righteousness by works. They thought they could be righteous with God by being good enough.

As far as being righteous in our standing before God is concerned, "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (10:4). A righteous standing before God is only possible through the One who fulfilled the law—Jesus Christ. "All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;' declares Isaiah 64:6. Romans 10:4 explains how a man may be considered righteous before God for salvation. It is not denying the use of the Old Testament as "instruction in righteousness."

When Paul preached separation to the Corinthians in his second letter (6:11-18), the whole foundation of his argument was a principle laid down in the Old Testament. When he stated, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers. This argument was based on Deuteronomy 7:2-7 and 22:6-12. When he urged, "Come out from among them, and be ye separate," he was speaking from Isaiah 52:11. Did this make Paul a legalist? No. He was a Biblicist. He was using the law "lawfully.” as instruction in righteousness.

Solomon proclaimed that lying lips were an abomination unto the Lord (Prov. 12:22). When Jesus completed His work of redemption through His death, burial and resurrection, did He make lying an acceptable practice for Christians? Absolutely not. Malachi 3:6 states of God, "For I am the Lord, I change not.” What was an abomination to Him in 950 B.C. is still an abomination to Him in the 20th century. Proverbs 12:22 is still good "instruction in righteousness" for the child of God. It is not "legalism" to say a Christian shouldn't lie.

Moses wrote, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Did such perversion cease to be an abomination to God when Jesus died on the cross? Is it legalism to preach against homosexuality? Is it legalism to say it is sin for a Christian to commit homosexual acts? Absolutely not! Is it all right to commit homosexual acts if a person is not convicted about it yet? Absolutely not! Sin is sin whether a person is convicted about it or not. God's Word, Old or New Testament, is the final determinant of right and wrong regardless of a person's conviction.

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told women to "adorn themselves in modest apparel" (I Tim. 2:9)?

Was Paul a "legalist" when he said it was a shame for a man to have long hair (I Cor. 11:14)?

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told bishops to be the husband of one wife (I Tim 3:2)?

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told Timothy to flee the love of money and "follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness' (I Tim. 6:11)?

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told the Colossians to "put of…anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication…“ (3:8)?

Was Paul a "legalist" when he told the Ephesians that 'neither fornication, nor uncleanness, nor covetousness, nor filthiness, nor foolish talking' were to be named among them (Eph. 5:2,3)? Was Paul a "legalist" when he told the Corinthian church to turn the adulterer in their church over to "Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (I Cor. 5:5)?

Was the Holy Spirit a "legalist" when He told the New Testament church to "abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication" (Acts 15:28,29)?

Was James a "legalist" when he wrote, "Speak not evil one of another" flames 4:11)?

The list of questions like this could go on and on. Obviously, they were not "legalists” when they preached standards. We don't have to apologise for the verses on holiness found in a part of the Bible people don't want to accept today. It's time we get back to using "all scripture" for what it is profitable for— doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.

I am not a legalist. Salvation is by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ, not of works. It is totally of grace. When a person gets saved, he is no longer condemned by the law. He is free. Nothing he does can result in the loss of salvation. As the songwriter P. P. bliss wrote:

Free from the Law, O happy condition,
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission;
Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,
Grace hath redeemed us once for all.

However, God still expects holy living by His people. They are not to follow their own consciences but the Word of God. "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” -Prov. 14:12.

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” -Jer. 17:9.

"Therefore, I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.” -Ps. 119:128.

Discover how you can receive Christ's forgiveness today!
See this video.

Want to learn more?
Join us
Sundays for our Sunday Meetings 10:30am & 11:30am in the city centre.
7 Lower Mallow, Limerick City, County Limerick, or

(At An Carraig Baptist Church, we take a literal, fundamental approach to the Bible (AV 1611). We are also a local, independent body of believers, which means we are not subject to any religious hierarchy. Being "Baptist" means, we hold to the Bible-based, Baptist Distinctives, that has been the hallmark of true Baptist churches through the centuries. You are welcome to join us at any of our weekly meetings, or schedule to meet for tea/coffee.)