Grace vs. Legalism


Although legalism is not a word found in the Bible, the concept of legalism certainly is. Legalism is the heresy that motivated Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The dictionary defines legalism as:

a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.

As we’ll see, this dictionary definition fits very well with Paul’s definition. What was going on in the churches in Galatia?

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. Gal. 1:6-7 NIV

What perverts the gospel?

They were being taught a different gospel. What about it was different? They had been taught that something in addition to the gospel was required to be saved. We find out in chapter five that this additional requirement was circumcision.

2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. Gal. 5:2-4 NIV

This passage from Acts helps to clarify the situation.

1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” Acts 15:1, 5 NIV

Like these people in the passage from Acts, somebody was going around upsetting the faith of the gentile Christians falsely telling them that in addition to believing the gospel, they must also be circumcised and keep the law of Moses to be saved. Paul quite clearly tells them that to comply with this false teaching would cause them to be severed from Christ and cut off from grace. It was a spiritual death sentence!

Why is this the result? Paul says that you can’t just keep one part of the law in an attempt to be saved. It’s a package deal; keeping one part of the law means you have to keep it all. Since no one is able to perfectly obey the law, then anyone who abandons grace in favor of law will be lost.

…a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. Gal. 2:16 NIV

The addition of even one condition to the gospel is enough to change it into something else that was powerless to save. In teaching that circumcision was required, the Galatians were being sold the lie that they must work to obtain and maintain their salvation. Paul says that grace and works are complete opposites. Salvation is not sustained by a mixture of grace and works. It is one or the other.

What are works?

What does “works” mean in the bible?

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Eph. 2:8-10 ESV

There are three kinds of works called out in this passage.

  1. Our own works that we do to earn salvation: …not your own doing…not a result of works
  2. God’s works: …we are his workmanship
  3. Good works that we do as a result of being a new creature: …created in Christ Jesus for good works

Clearly there isn’t a problem with the second kind of work – God’s works, nor is there a problem with us doing the third kind of works – good works which God has prepared for us to do. It’s the first kind of work that created the Galatian Heresy.

“Work” or “law” includes anything we attempt to do to maintain our salvation that is over and above acceptance of the gospel through faith, repentance and baptism.

Paul says anything that is added to the gospel as a requirement for salvation results in us trying to obtain our salvation through human effort. Salvation based on works is alive and well in many denominations. In the Church of Christ it typically manifests itself when we teach that God’s approval of us depends upon correct doctrine, church attendance, strict conduct, and good deeds.

Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? Gal. 3:3 NET

And in so attempting, we will fail because no one was able to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:10, Jas 2:10, Gal 3:10), nor can we even live up to our own standards of right and wrong (Rom 2:12-15).

But Paul was talking about the law of Moses!

Someone may object by saying that, in context, Paul’s beef with the Galatians was that they were trying to keep the law of Moses to be saved. Indeed, this is correct; that is exactly what they were doing. Since this is true, how can it apply to anyone today since we aren’t being pressured to keep the old law? To explain this, we must take a look at some events in the book of Acts.

Contrary to current Church of Christ thought, it wasn’t inherently wrong to keep the law of Moses – not even for a Christian. This should be plain by virtue of the fact that Paul apparently made a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18), thousands of Jews believed who were zealous for the law (Acts 21:20) and Paul’s participation in a temple purification ceremony (Acts 21:26).

Many in the Church of Christ struggle mightily with these passages because they have been taught that it was (is) a sin to participate in any part of the law of Moses after the beginning of the New Covenant. They simply can’t reconcile what they have been taught with what Paul and other Jewish believers did in Acts. They proceed from the false premise that it was a sin to participate in any part of the law of Moses.

It was perfectly acceptable for the Jews to continue the practices of the law with one stipulation: that they were not keeping the law in order to be saved. To do so out of custom, expedience or conscience was perfectly acceptable so long as it was understood that it wasn’t a work that earned salvation. Paul (nor any other New Testament writer) never says that continuing to practice customs and commands from the law of Moses is wrong. However. he does say that it is wrong to require obedience to the law in order to be saved. 

Consider that even though Paul strongly condemned those who taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation, he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). Did Paul contradict himself? No, there was no inconsistency. He didn’t circumcise Timothy because he believed it was essential to Timothy’s salvation. He did it so that Timothy would not be dismissed by the unbelieving Jews that he and Paul would be meeting on their missionary journey. Unbelieving Jews would have rejected Timothy if he had been uncircumcised. By contrast, consider that Paul refused to allow Titus to be circumcised in Gal 2:3-5. He refused because it would have been a work of merit which would have invalidated the gospel!

So, while we aren’t being pressured today to keep the law of Moses, we are pressured to conform to all other kinds of works. The circumstance that causes a practice to be a “work” or “law keeping” is the motivation behind why we do it. In the first century legalism resulted when works of the law of Moses were practiced in order to be saved. In our day, there are any number of other practices that reveal the heresy.

For example, Joe thinks that weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is God’s will. Joe believes that if he does not take communion weekly then he will be in violation of God’s law and will stand condemned. What this really means is that he believes weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is a work by which he earns or retains his salvation. He fears what will happen to those who fail to obey as he does. Joe may take exception with describing his practice as a work which earns salvation, but it is true nevertheless. He has succumbed to the Galatian Heresy.

Another person, Debbie, also agrees that weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is God’s will. However she has concluded that those who partake of communion quarterly are not condemned, but that they are in error as she understands the scriptures. Debbie believes that God’s grace is bigger than our mistakes and that He is a gracious God who will not punish those who serve Him in faith. Debbie partakes of communion weekly because she loves God and wants to do what pleases Him to the best of her ability. She trusts that God keeps His promise to save all who have faith, even if they don’t have perfect understanding. The critical difference between Joe and Debbie is the reason why they observe communion weekly. 

In the examples above, substitute communion with a cappella music, how the church treasury is spent, eating in the church building, etc. Our motivations become potentially damning when we believe that we must perform these duties in order to keep our salvation.


There is nothing wrong with wanting to obey all the commandments that God has given us. Complying with “the rules” (so to speak) does not in and of itself make a person guilty of legalism. The difference is whether we believe that observing the rules is essential to our salvation.

This series of articles is not meant to be a rigorous or complete study of the subject, but merely a starting point. For a much more comprehensive study on grace I highly recommend Jay Guin’s free book, “The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace.”