What Is the Biblical Definition of Legalism?

A Wild and Crazy Place to Be

The spiritual Babylon of the church system is a warm and comfortable place in which to live. Within its comfort zones, it has fixed boundaries and clear delineations.

I want you

When one steps out of the mainstream church system, however, and into a more Hebraic and Torah-pursuant spiritual orientation, it can becomes the shooting gallery of the wild, wild west of doctrines and ideas. It’s a free-for-all wilderness of every man doing what’s right in his own eyes. In this wilderness outside of organized religion, one has to determine what beliefs to hold on to and which ones are lies and unbiblical traditions our spiritual fathers have passed on down to us. Here one must learn to separate the spiritual wheat from the chaff.

As one’s eyes are opened to the pro-Torah Hebrew roots of the Christian faith, there are many new ideas and doctrines to consider. When coming to a fuller knowledge of the truth, one must determine priorities without falling prey to more false doctrines and legalism. What biblical truths are the trunk of the tree issues, and which areas the twigs and the branches?

In the midst of this confusion, there are many winds of doctrines blowing around capturing people’s attention. People often get sidetracked from the trunk of the tree issues and get hung up on nonessential issues. Paul warned about this.

That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind [violent agitation, very strong tempestuous wind] of doctrine [teaching, instruction], by the sleight [deception] of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive [to delude, lead astray from the right way]. (Eph 4:14)

If one is not grounded firmly on the foundation of essential biblical truths, one can get hung up on side-issues and nonessential pet doctrines. Those who fall prey to this tendency will often gravitate toward biblical teachers who agree with them. A pet doctrine can become so important to a person that it can become a spiritual idol in one’s heart. One can become so convinced of the importance of a nonessential doctrine or belief that one will begin to demand that others around us conform to it, and that those who don’t are inferior spiritually than we are. This is legalism. These pet doctrines often lead to pride and exclusivism toward those who do not agree with us. If not careful, we can develop an us versus them mentality, and become prideful because we posses a truth that the next guy doesn’t.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. (1 Tim 4:3)

What Is Legalism?

This can all lead into legalism. What is legalism? This is an extra-biblical term that is often thrown out as a sort of insult against others who don’t believe as we do. According to the dictionary, legalism means “an excessive adherence to law or formula.” Those in the church often use the term legalism as an invective against those who have discovered the validity of YHVH’s Torah and are now pursuing a more Hebraic or Torah-compliant lifestyle. This, however, isn’t how Yeshua or the apostles understand the concept. Yeshua told his disciples that if they loved him they would keep his Torah commandments (John 14:15). He said that the saint’s eternal spiritual rewards — not their salvation —are based on Torah-obedience (Matt 5:19). He then goes on to tell his disciples that their righteousness had to exceed that of the Pharisees who were punctiliously obedient the Torah (Matt 5:20). The apostles for their part in numerous places uphold the validity of the Torah in a believer’s life as well (Acts 21:20, 24; 24:14; 25:8; Rom 3:31; 7:12, 22; 13:8–10; 1 Cor 7:19; 9:21; 1 John 2:3–4; 3:4, 24; 5:2–3; Rev 12:17; 14:12; 22:14).

People who are zealous for righteousness and righteous standards of conduct can easily and unwittingly fall prey to legalism. Legalism must be differentiated from righteous living out of a heart of love, faith and humility. YHVH demands that the saints live a righteous life (Matt 5:20; Rev 19:8; 1 John 2:29; Rom 8:4; 1 Cor 15:34; Eph 4:24; 6:14).The Bible defines righteousness as Torah-obedience (Ps 119:172). All unrighteousness is sin (1 John 5:17; 3:10). The Bible prescribes righteousness, but proscribes self-righteousness and legalism.

The apostolic writings reveal that there are two kinds of legalism that had become an issue in the first century Messianic community. These types of legalism are still with us today. These are…

Salvational legalism. This is the idea that salvation is based on one’s good works. Paul addresses this issue and warns against this false teaching in several places (Eph 2:8–9; Gal 3:1–3, 5; Rom 3:20, 27; 4:2; 11:6; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 3:5).

Halachic legalism. Halachah is a Hebrew word that means “to walk” and refers “how one walks out their faith.” Halachic legalism is demanding that others conform to our pet doctrines, our extra-biblical man-made doctrines or traditions, or our specific interpretation on how to walk out a Torah command. It boils down to the idea that “your spiritual walk or halachah needs to conform to mine.” Halachic legalism involves doctrines or beliefs that are nonessential to salvation.

In his Jewish New Testament Commentary, David Stern defines these two types of legalism. Salvational legalism is based on…

[A]ctions stemming from boastful, self-righteous belief that by doing them, by following a set of rules in one’s strength, without any trust [faith] in God or faithfulness towards him, one can earn God’s praises and applause and obligate him to grant one a berth in [the kingdom of] heaven. (p. 345–346)

[T]he false principle that God grants acceptance to people, considers them righteous and worthy of being in his presence, on the ground of their obedience to a set of rules, apart from putting their trust in God, relying on him, loving him and accepting his love for them. (p. 521)

Stern then goes on to define halachic legalism.

[B]ad self-strength works produced when sinful people misuse and pervert the Torah [YHVH’s instructions in righteousness], so that instead of regarding it as God’s gracious gift intended both to orient people toward righteous, God-motivated behavior and at the same time to show them how far short they fall of achieving it, they regard the Torah as a rulebook containing requirements they can meet mechanically, without trusting God or even caring about him, and can therefore take great pride in their own achievements and have great self-satisfaction over how much they have pleased God. (Ibid., p. 346)

[L]egalism selects one verse, takes it out of context, and elevates it above the rest of the Torah, so that it replaces the Torah as the ultimate authority, it becomes “a canon within a canon…By being removed from the modifying effects of the rest of the Torah, it becomes the basis for a heresy, the heresy called legalism. (Ibid., p. 346)

Halachic legalism can also involve taking men’s doctrines or traditions and elevating them to the status of scripture, and then demanding that others follow our cherished belief or tradition. We will see examples of this below.

What are some examples of halachic legalism? This is an important issue, since when one attempts to impose their set of standards upon someone else it can, at the very least, cause offense, or, worse yet, cause division within the body of Yeshua. It often happens that if people don’t measure up to our definition of right and wrong, we reject them as being spiritually inferior to us or as being unrighteous based on how we define righteousness.

Here are some examples of legalism in the mainstream church:

The following are forbidden: consumption of alcohol, smoking, card playing, dancing, movies, television in the home, raising hands in worship, the gifts of the Set-Apart Spirit.

  • Must be baptized in the name of Jesus only.
  • Must dress a certain way.
  • Salvation is available only in “our church.”
  • Must receive the baptism of the Spirit in order to be saved.
  • Must speak in tongues to be saved.
  • Must be baptized a certain way to be saved.
  • Must say your Rosary and attend mass.

Here are some examples of legalism in rabbinic Judaism:

  • Circumcision, good deeds, liturgical prayers and Torah-obedience are required for redemption.
  • Must follow a myriad rabbinical dos and don’ts to accepted into the spiritual community.

Finally, here are some examples of legalism in the Hebrew Roots or Messianic Movement:

  • Head coverings for women (or men) are required.
  • Dress standards are strictly imposed and enforced.
  • Use of sacred or Hebrew names for Elohim is required.
  • Following rabbinical Jewish standards in the congregation and in one’s life is essential.
  • Strict enforcement of food and diet issue beyond the basics of biblical kashrut.
  • How to keep the Sabbath beyond the basic requirements laid out in the Scriptures.

If one isn’t careful, legalistic tendencies can unwittingly creep up on a person.

Often those coming from a hyper grace-oriented (easy-believism) mainstream church background once they discover the ancient and good paths of Torah-righteousness can become a prime candidate for legalistic tendencies. In their zeal to obey YHVH, they can become overbalanced towards a letter-of-the-law approach to obedience, and then begin judging others who don’t believe as they do.

The Destructive Nature of Legalism

Legalism is destructive in many ways. It misses the heart and spirit of YHVH’s true intent of his Torah commandments. For example consider the following:

  • Legalism does not produce a loving spiritual life or relationship with the Father. Relationship is based on love and faith, not a letter-of-the-law obedience. Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 13 that even though one posses all the truth, if one doesn’t have love, then one’s head knowledge (and presumably, one’s obedience to that head knowledge) is nothing in YHVH’s sight. Paul confirms the pre-eminence of love when he states that love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:10), as does Yeshua when he summarizes the entire Torah as love for YHVH and man (Mark 12:29–31).
  • Legalism often pits the letter of the law against the spirit of the law. In the “Sermon on the Mount” Yeshua unites both the letter and the spirit and teaches his disciples that this is the higher spiritual path on which they were to walk if their righteousness was to exceed that of the Pharisees who held to a letter-of-the-law approach, but missed the weightier matters of the Torah, which were judgment, mercy and faith. The mature believer recognizes that to have a balanced and enduring relationship with our Creator and fellow man, we need to adhere to both the letter and the spirit of the Torah, and to do so out of a heart of love, grace and mercy toward others realizing that we need the same shown toward us.
  • Legalism focuses on strict outward or external conformity to Torah’s requirements and often judges a book according to its cover. Often the legalist is judging simply by appearance, and not by righteous judgment, which is contrary to Yeshua’s instructions (John 7:24). The legalist sees the outward appearance of things in others and is offended, but fails to see what is really going on in a person’s heart. He fails to give them grace and is oblivious to the other person’s spiritual background, the past issues they are dealing with, and YHVH’s work of grace in their life.
  • The legalists often treats those who don’t meet their standards in a dismissive and judgmental manner.
  • Legalism does not edify, comfort or exhort those in the body of Yeshua. It focuses on adherence to the letter of the law (which without the spirit of the law kills), and not on the spirit of the law which brings life (2 Cor 3:6).
  • Legalism doesn’t allow for honest differences of opinions within the body of Yeshua. It’s a “my way or the highway” approach. There are some biblical issues about which believers have honest differences and that won’t be resolved until Yeshua returns. Allowances have to be made for these. Let us not forget the wise saying, “In essentials unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in everything else, charity.”
  • Those with a legalistic spirit tend to be critical of others who do not see their pet issues as they do.
  • Legalism engenders pride.
  • Legalism can be misplaced, unbalanced passion and zeal for YHVH that needs to be rechanneled into life giving areas.
  • Legalists often major in the minors. They take doctrinal twigs and branches and turn them into doctrinal tree trunks.
  • Legalists are often hypocrites. They pride themselves in being super righteous in one area, but are blind to all the areas in their life where they fall short spiritually. They see the splinter in the eyes of others and are blind to the beam in their own eye.
  • Legalist will often use such words as must, should and have to when they attempt to impose their beliefs on others.
  • Legalism causes those who are young or weak in the faith to stumble. Yeshua strongly condemned anyone who make a little one to stumble (Matt 18:6). In reality, according to Paul, the legalist is often the weaker brother spiritually because he hasn’t yet learned how to walk in love, patience, meekness, mercy and grace toward others (see Rom 14 and 15). The legalist hasn’t learned one important and over-arching and spiritual principle yet. That is, love covers a multitude of sin (1 Pet 4:8).


In the Book of Acts, Yeshua’s apostles showed an amazing lack of concern for the superficial issues that legalists often get hung up on such as diet, clothing, sacred names and other Torah requirements. Their main mission was to bring people to faith in Yeshua, and then gradually teach them the finer points of Torah-obedience and righteous living. They knew that you had to first catch the fish, and then you must clean the fish.

In Acts 15, for example, we see that there are very few sins that should keep a person out of the congregation of believers. Only people who were living in open sexual sin or idolatry that was visible to all, or those who were bringing unkosher food into the congregation were to be kept out. This is because these issue could adversely affect the congregation causing confusion, division and strife.

If one really feel that one’s brother is sinning in an area of Torah-obedience, then one must pray first and wait on YHVH for the answer as to what to do if anything. If one believes that they should talk to their brother about the sin, then Yeshua commands us to follow to the protocols he laid out in Matthew 18 in resolving differences between brothers.


5 thoughts on “What Is the Biblical Definition of Legalism?

  1. Thanks Natan for this great article. I don’t know how this issue could be presented with any more clarity.

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