Are You a Legalist?

“Does the Bible really say I can’t wear that?”

 “Why doesn’t your church allow you to go there?”

If you attend a conservative holiness church, then you have probably had someone call you a legalist.

Sometimes these questions can be difficult to answer.

Are you a Legalist? True Holiness is the middle road between liberalism and legalism. Our outward lifestyle must be the overflow of a heart in love with God! Let us never “live up to” the charges of legalism so often leveled at us.

What is worse are the charges of “legalism” that sometimes follow. This is a rhetorically powerful accusation.

Scriptural warnings against legalism abound. But are the charges of legalism founded? Does traditional Holiness teaching equate to legalism?

At this point, it will be helpful to determine what the common understanding of the concept of legalism is. I submit to the reader that both of these concepts are grossly misunderstood and misrepresented in much of the modern church scene and that these distortions lead to dangerous spiritual consequences.

Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary indicates that the term legalism was introduced by Edward Fisher in the seventeenth century who used it to describe those who would make The Law a necessary part of justification.

This source also recognizes a more common concept of legalism as being “preoccupation with the form at the expense of substance”.1 Another way of expressing this might be the phrase “rules without relationship”.

We should look to the Scripture for a proper understanding of God’s view of legalism. This very issue is addressed very directly in the New Testament.

We will look at a group of religious individuals commonly associated with the concept of legalism to understand some of the realities and misconceptions of legalism. Let’s see God’s view of this issue, and how we should respond.

A Look at the Pharisees

The Pharisees were a religious sect, who were influential at the time of Christ. While there is much we do not know about this group, we do know that they were a powerful group during the time of Christ.

We know that they believed in holding strictly to traditional particular interpretations of the Law. The Pharisees apparently elevated men’s interpretation of the Mosaic Law to a position of equality with Scripture itself.

This would be the “tradition of the elders” referred to in the following passage:

Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, 2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.” (Matthew 15:1,2)

This is the introduction to one of Jesus’ many interactions with the Pharisees. This passage highlights one of the major spiritual dangers of Pharisaism, and one of the dangers of true legalism today.

Notice Christ’s response to this group:

“But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? 4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. 5 But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; 6 And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” (Matthew 15:3-6).

Here Christ addressed the tendency of the Pharisees to avoid their duty to parents in the name of service to God.2

He effectively condemns this group of hypocritical legalists for manipulating and breaking God’s commandment for their own personal gain.  

The emphasis of the Pharisees on the outward observance of commandments plus the traditions of the elders was contrasted with their lack of emphasis on the inward spiritual condition of man.

Christ issued a scathing rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:

 “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27).

So we see another point of contention between Christ and the Pharisees was the fact that they underemphasized the inward man.

The legalistic attitude of the Pharisees was to go to great lengths to maintain an image of outward separation from the world, with little focus on what should be the right inward motivation: a love for God and an honest desire to please Him at all costs!

Christ condemned the Pharisees because of their lack of concern for inward Holiness!

A final point to make about Christ’s critiques of the actions and attitudes of the Pharisees comes from a close look at Matthew 23:23:

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

The reference to the tithes paid of herbs fits with the modern understanding of what legalism consists of: the keeping of meticulous and overbearing rules. But this is not the focus of Jesus’ condemnation here.

Jesus pronounces judgment, not on a sin of commission, but on the sin of omission!

To state the matter another way, Christ condemns the Pharisees not because they have gone too far in trying to keep the Law but rather for failing to keep the Law because of what they have neglected.

In truth, these “weighty matters” that they neglected should have been the foundation for the outward actions such as the tithes they paid.

Notice Christ does not command them to forsake their tithing practices, but rather says they should have placed priority on the matters of judgment, mercy, and faith; while continuing the giving of their tithes!

Surprisingly, Christ condemns the Pharisees for what they have failed to do, more than the actions they have committed!

Let us pause and summarize here.

  • Christ condemned the Pharisees for twisting the Law and breaking commandments to please their own selfish desires.
  • He condemns them for ignoring the necessity of inward purity.
  • He condemns them again for their sins of omission.

What This Means for Us

We will return to the original premise of the article here, that being the question of whether conservative Holiness churches and individuals are guilty of legalism.

Here I will address two audiences:

  • the first will be those who make the charge that said churches are inherently legalistic.
  • The second audience is those of us who adhere to and insist upon the importance of a lifestyle of Holiness that is largely consistent with the standards by which many Holiness churches are identified.

First to the critics (for lack of a better term):

Do the specific grievances that Christ directs toward the Pharisees disallow the possibility of church leadership offering specific guidelines to deal with practical lifestyle issues? The council of Apostles at Jerusalem in Acts 15 certainly did not think so.

“For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.” (Acts 15:28,29).

Here we have the earliest leaders of the Church applying spiritual principles revealed in the Old Testament, and offering practical guidelines to Gentile believers.

These guidelines included the prohibition of certain activities. Please note this is not to suggest that any individual today has a level of authority that equals or rivals that of Scripture.

Yet this does introduce the idea that certain situations arise, which call for diligently seeking the Scriptures for guiding principles; principles which may be applied.

While Scripture is much more than an exhaustive list of “Thou shalt” and “Thou Shalt Not”, it contains many principles which call into question or downright prohibit many modern cultural phenomena.

These principles reinforce many of the standard teachings of Holiness churches on matters of apparel, entertainment, etc.

When ministers address issue of practical Holiness in a responsible and Biblical way, they should not be written off as a legalist.

When they responsibly seek to apply principles that are outlined in the Bible, they should not be challenged to provide a “Thou shalt not (insert questionable activity)” kind of answer for every imaginable situation.

Consider common wedding vows.

When I married my wife, I made generic promises to her for which I will be accountable until parted by death. Those vows were actually quite generic. I did not say “I promise never to strike you in anger”, or “I promise to never view pornography”.

Yet, I, and every reasonable person knows that my vow to love and cherish my wife excludes these wicked activities.

Likewise, many Biblical principles disallow many commonly accepted practices, even if the bible does not specifically prohibit them!

I ask those who would criticize or question Holiness churches to be cautious in liberally throwing out accusations of legalism.

In closing I would like to ask the reader who maintains a conservative lifestyle and appearance to realize that we must not fall into the trap of the Pharisaical tendencies:

  • overlooking the inward man,
  • manipulating Scripture,
  • or of feeling that our “outward holiness” is enough to excuse sins in other areas of our lives.

Our outward lifestyle must be the overflow of a heart in love with God! Let us never “live up to” the charges of legalism so often leveled at us.

True Holiness is the middle road between liberalism and legalism.

It is beautiful and it is the only way to please God. It is to be sought after, promoted, and maintained.

As the writer of Hebrews exhorts us, let us:

“Follow peace with all men, and Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord”, (Hebrews 12:14).


  2. Henry, Matthew. “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on The Whole Bible”. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997.

Cody Sellers

Cody lives in Georgia with his wife, Rebecca, and their three daughters. He is an ordained minister and serves as President of Abundant Grace Youth Ministries, an organization dedicated to preaching the Gospel to troubled youth. Cody passionately believes that this generation needs to hear the message of Holiness communicated more than ever.

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