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This is the second in a series on LEGALISM that I am posting on this blog. To see the complete document please go to www.rv85.net


DEFINITION. The word legalism is defined as a strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious moral code (Merriam-Webster Deluxe Dictionary, Tenth Collegiate Edition, p. 1047). The word legalist is defined an advocate or adherent of moral legalism; one that views things from a legal standpoint, especially one that place primary emphasis on legal principles or on the formal structure of governmental institutions (Webster, p. 1047). The word pharisee is defined (identified) as one who is a member of the Jewish religious sect noted for strict observance of rites and ceremonies of the written law and….on the validity of their own oral tradition concerning the law (Webster, p. 1368). A strict, literal adherence to a standard by which something is measured. Exactly what is meant by “excessive” is vague to me. The word pharisee is included in this section because of its use in some religious conversations; it does not have a direct impact on properly understanding legalism.

REFERENCE WORKS. The words legalism or legalist is not found in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia-Revised, and neither is the word legal. Neither words are in Hastings Dictionary of the Bible. They are not in Faussett’s Bible Cyclopedia. Neither words are in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Neither word is found in my one-volume edition of Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.

In McClintock’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature the word legalist is found, and it reads in part, “Properly speaking, a legalist is one who ‘acts according to the law;’ but in general the term is made use of to denote one who seeks salvation by works of law (not of the law, but of ‘law’ generally, whether moral or ceremonial, ek ergōn nomou, Romans v. 20) instead of by the merits of Christ” (5.325).

In Geisler’s Systematic Theology (4.223-224) there is a discussion of legalism, an error of Theonomists and Biblionomists. Theonomists are those who subscribe to the view that governments should be subject to the Old Testament law of God, similar to what one understands as a theocracy. Biblionomists is a moderate form of the same, the church over state paradigm. Geisler defines legalism as the belief that we are sanctified by law-keeping – that adhering to the Old Testament law is a means of our sanctification. Geisler denies there is any biblical sanction to such an approach, but in fact, the New Testament is clear that keeping the Law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments was peculiar to the Israelites, not those living under the authority of the New Covenant.

Very little in the way of reference works entry (that I have), but that which does include it speaks of salvation by “law keeping,” that is, in keeping the Law of Moses.

BIBLE.  Legalism and legalist are not Bible words and, with regard to the theological works that I have, they are not words that demand entry into the recognized works (except the two I referenced above). As best I can tell, the words are of relatively late origin in religious circles and defined by some in a mostly religiously prejudicial way. The word law is obviously related to legalism.  Of course, this is a Bible word, and it is used quite a large number of times. The Hebrew word torah gives us our English word law in the Old Testament. Hasting’s says the word means a pointing out, direction, an authoritative direction (vol. 3. 64). “It was in no way the case that salvation was initially achieved through keeping the commandments of the Torah. From the very beginning the Torah was not understood ‘legally’” (Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 2.473). In the New Testament the English word law is the Greek word nomos (195x), and this can refer to any law whatsoever (Hastings 3.73). In the New Testament the word nomos is “usually the Mosaic law as a whole” (EDNT 2.473). The word law, as in the Law of Moses, was never designed by God to save a person.

Acts 13:38-39 reads, “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses” (NKJV).

Galatians 3:10-11, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’ But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith’” (NKJV).

In fact, the law (Law of Moses) was designed by God to do the following: a) Romans 3:20, to give knowledge of sin, b) Romans 4:15, to manifest the wrath (judgment) of God because of sin, c) Galatians 3:21-25, to teach those under its authority that a greater covenant is forthcoming (cf. John 6:44-45, 2 Corinthians 3:9).