What do you think of when you hear the words “legalism”
or “legalist”? Many people think a legalist is someone who
has too many rules or rules that are too strict. Today, it is
a term of derision often used by people to marginalize
others who argue for higher standards.
To be sure, there are many people who have high personal
standards and are legalistic about those standards, but
legalism and having standards are not the same thing.
Legalism in its most basic meaning is the attempt to add
man’s works to God’s grace. The term itself derives from
the efforts of some early Jewish believers to impose the
requirements of the Old Testament Law (i.e. “legal”
requirements) as a condition for salvation. It is the
attempt to make salvation and sanctification by both
works and grace.
Legalism has been around since shortly after The Lord
Jesus Christ went back to heaven. It is a dangerous
heresy, but it is one that has been greatly misunderstood
and often misidentified. In an effort to avoid legalism,
some have promoted a form of spiritual lawlessness
under the guise of grace. How do we avoid these two
heresies so that we can enjoy the liberty that is ours in
Acts 15 records for us the discussion that the early
church had on this topic. In this chapter, we learn that
we must avoid any teaching that would add works to
God’s grace. At the same time, we must also avoid the
things that God’s word shows us are sinful. By God’s
grace we must live holy lives, and when we do, we enjoy
the blessings of true spiritual liberty.